Despite many barriers, female entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia are making strides towards greater economic equality and empowerment. These challenges include traditional gender biases, difficulties accessing funding and support, and finding visible female role models to emulate. 

Yet, despite these obstacles, determination, creativity, resilience, hard work, innovation, and a commitment to their goals lead to women carving out entrepreneurial paths and inspiring others to do the same.

Female entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia raised over 17% of all private funding in 2021

Overcoming gender biases

Women in many parts of the region are still not seen as equals in business and often face hurdles that their male counterparts do not. It’s common for female entrepreneurs to face criticism and belittlement from both men and women who don’t believe they can lead a successful business. This denigration can range from comments about the woman’s appearance or ability to make decisions to outright criticism of her business plan and strategy. 

Cultural attitudes often play a role. Many traditional societies expect women to take on a subservient role and stay at home, allowing the men to take care of the finances and provide for the family. This results in many women not receiving the necessary education and skills to start and run businesses, leaving them at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts and perpetuating gender inequality. 

It is possible to break down these barriers by advocating for equal rights and access to resources, providing mentorships and training opportunities, and promoting a culture of respect for female entrepreneurs. Governments and enterprises have a role in ensuring that females get the education and support they require to flourish and help break down gender bias in the region. 

Funding and capital gender gap

One of the most significant challenges lies in the lack of access to capital. Despite accounting for about 33 to 66% of the  SMEs in the region, women-owned enterprises receive only a fraction of the financing provided to their male counterparts. This disparity has been further exacerbated by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with female-owned SMEs often being hit harder than those owned by men.

With access to financial resources, female entrepreneurs can expand their businesses and compete more equitably in a challenging market. The lack of capital can be especially damaging for female-led startups and early-stage companies. Additionally, women entrepreneurs often face unique challenges such as lower pay, fewer working hours, and limited access to resources such as technology, networks, and training which further restricts their ability to access capital.

This issue is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, where women entrepreneurs often struggle to access traditional sources of financing from banks and venture capitalists (VCs). While funding for startups was down universally in the region in 2022, female-led companies took a bigger hit. The grants to women-run businesses dropped by 32%, bringing in just $2 Billion or 12.6% of the overall private funding capital raised that year. 

Rural areas are often woefully underserved by financial institutions, and many banks typically favour male-dominated established businesses, and venture capitalists tend to invest in companies with technological innovations, which male founders usually dominate. As a result, many female entrepreneurs rely on personal savings or informal sources of finance, such as family or friends, to start and grow their businesses.

This lack of access to capital compounds the problems, creating a vicious cycle preventing female entrepreneurs from reaching their full potential and having a meaningful impact on their local economies. Government-backed initiatives and policies are necessary to ensure equitable access to capital for all entrepreneurs, regardless of gender.

Lack of mentors and visible role models

Women are often not represented in leadership positions or the upper ranks of business, meaning there is a shortage of inspirational figures for aspiring female entrepreneurs. These role models are necessary for women to envision themselves succeeding in business and give them the confidence to take risks required to become entrepreneurs.

This lack of mentors and role models are linked to cultural gender roles, further perpetuating the idea that women are not suited to take on leadership roles in business, creating an additional barrier for female entrepreneurs.

Most aspiring female entrepreneurs do not get the support and guidance needed to succeed in business. Women need to seek out mentors and role models to overcome this challenge. This could mean contacting other female entrepreneurs online or attending conferences and networking events, which take some time from the work day. 

The media must portray successful female entrepreneurs as inspiring and relatable figures who can serve as examples of success to help others see what is achievable. Without the visibility of female entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia, many women in business will feel isolated and socially excluded. 

The region’s economies can grow more rapidly and sustainably by tapping into the talents of almost half of the population and supporting women in enterprise, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors. This growth potential is only possible with a change in attitudes and increased support for females in business.