They have seen their businesses and income severely impacted in lockdown – and been badly affected in sectors which have faced tougher and longer restrictions than others.

Women-led businesses in Scotland, just one in five in the country, have faced crippling challenges in a battle to survive and reopen with new measures in place.

And with a large number of female-run firms in the retail, beauty and fitness sectors, they have endured increased lockdown restrictions longer than some other industries which were able to reopen weeks earlier.

And while Women’s Enterprise Scotland, an industry advice and network organisation, has been there to support women in business, members feel lockdown has brought some of the barriers and issues faced by entrepreneurial women into sharp focus.

Carolyn Currie, chief executive of Women’s Enterprise Scotland, will be speaking at a Holyrood cross-party group on women in business later this month to highlight the role female-led business has played in lockdown and its value to the Scottish economy.

While it is an opportunity to applaud and recognise female entrepreneurship, Currie hopes that now is the time to build a better structure to support and encourage women into business.

According to research undertaken by the Federation of Small Businesses in 2018, women-owned businesses contribute £8.8 billion into the Scottish economy every year, an increase of 76% from £5bn in 2012. As a sector, women-owned businesses contribute more than sustainable tourism (£4.1bn), food and drink (£5.6bn) and creative industries (£4.6bn). Yet less than 16% of small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland are women-owned employer businesses. 

Currie believes that now more than ever there is a need for gender equality in business and hopes that as we come out of lockdown there is a chance to make a difference.

“Women tend to start up in business in sectors they may already have worked in such as retail and fitness, and these are some of the sectors that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic,” said Currie.

“We have also seen some positive stories. There are women-led businesses in e-commerce which have seen sales increase as they have been able to operate online. However, what we are really calling for now is targeted action to ensure that women-led businesses do not fall through the cracks. It is critically important that policies are developed and enacted so that there is equal opportunities in enterprise.”

From the outset start-up business plans tend to differ between men and women. Currie says research shows that men start up a business with more capital than women and that running their own firm tends to be a career path whereas women often find themselves starting a business unexpectedly.

Currie added: “There are a number of reasons why women start their own business. They might not have been able to return to work after having a baby so they start up a business out of necessity.

"And given one in five of every business is women-owned in Scotland, which is a huge gap in entrepreneurial participation, it shows the majority of businesses are run and operated by men who are more likely to have someone in their network with insight and women don’t tend to have that kind of network of people when they start up.

“We have found over the years that women struggle to access help to grow their business and how to grow it. During the pandemic, where grants and support have been made available, I think it has shown up the gaps in how that support was available. It it going to take a lot of restructuring to get the economy moving again and women-led business must be part of that through addressing gender diversity.”

After launching her own business six years ago, Jo Chidley was looking forward to what 2020 could hold. Her business is based on the sustainable idea of reusing packaging – an ethos which she describes as like returning an Irn-Bru bottle. All packaging is reused to avoid landfill and the ingredients are 100% natural. And while it took four years from business model to start up, Beauty Kitchen was self-funded with no external investment.

She was returning from maternity leave following the birth of her second child and was relishing new opportunities when lockdown struck.

Her Lanarkshire-based Beauty Kitchen skincare and beauty range, which employs 14, had been supplying high-street chains such as Holland & Barrett, Boots and Sainsbury’s. Almost immediately part of that supply chain ended. However, Chidley had been working on a handwash product and took an opportunity to launch in lockdown. She ended up supplying 50,000 recyclable bottles of handwash to the NHS. 

“We had orders cancelled as we went into lockdown, but we had an anti-bacterial range which had not been brought to market before,” said Chidley. “There had not been much of a demand for that type of product from our customers and then Covid struck. This gave us an opportunity to launch it and with supplying the NHS it bolstered sales we would have lost. We didn’t use the furlough scheme and actually took on two people during the pandemic.”

While lockdown brought an opportunity, Chidley said it has been a challenge running a business.

She added: “I think for women in business it is difficult to find like-minded people and role models as most are men and let’s face it, men and women just don’t think the same way and tend to have a different approach to things.

“It wasn’t until I had Petra Wetzel, who founded Glasgow Green brewery West, as a mentor that a lightbulb went on. She understood me and I think that kind of role model infrastructure is something we need.

“I think women-led business during the pandemic should be celebrated and I think there is a lot we can learn from this. Unless we have come together as a community with role models from minority groups and women in business are one of them, then nothing is ever going to change.”

For yoga studio owner Allison Harrison, her sector which was one of the last to see restrictions lifted.

She was finally able to reopen the doors of Edinburgh Hot Yoga on August 31 after five months of lockdown.

Harrison, who took over the business after being a yoga student at the studio, will be speaking at the Holyrood committee.

She said: “Before March, I had a thriving business then overnight saw us lose 70% of our income. We did receive funding, but we were still paying 20% VAT and other costs despite being closed.

"Then as a business owner I had to watch as other sectors were able to open weeks before us and with support in place such as Eat Out to Help Out for restaurants while we seemed to be forgotten about. From June onwards income plummeted even further and it has been heartbreaking.

“I do feel our industry, which is heavily female-led, has been left behind. We have contracted instructors who fall into the young age group which is said to be at risk of unemployment, but we are providing jobs for them.

"How are we supposed to encourage them to have entrepreneurial spirit when there are so many obstacles.”

Harrison has found the support of Women’s Enterprise Scotland and its Women’s Business Centre during lockdown invaluable. She added: “They have been so supportive and took calls from me on a Saturday morning when I was looking for advice.

"We might have survived this far and been able to reopen but there is a long way to go and I think women-led business and its value should be recognised and applauded.”