JUST 29 percent of entrepreneurs in Slovakia are women, a mere 100,000 in absolute numbers. There is only one woman in the current government and 28 women among 150 deputies in parliament. Hence the need for the launch of a so-called white paper on these issues at the second annual Women’s Entrepreneurship Forum (WEF) held on December 3 in Bratislava.

The programme, launched by the US Embassy in Bratislava in cooperation with the Rural Organisation for Communal Activities, could have tremendous positive effects on the Slovak economy if able to tap women from across Slovakia, US Ambassador to Slovakia Theodore Sedgwick said.

As a former entrepreneur, Sedgwick said he is very proud of women “who had the courage to go out and try to serve the market and improve the economy”.

The beginnings

When the embassy started to monitor women’s entrepreneurship, it “learned that many organisations in Slovakia were working on how to support women in business and build women’s leadership skills, but they were not cooperating with each other”, Erika Olsen, head of the political and economic section at the US Embassy, told The Slovak Spectator.

In order to bring these organisations together, the embassy arranged the inaugural WEF conference in October 2012. It focused on providing specific skills to entrepreneurs, including how to find financing, how to market their businesses, and how to prepare business plans, Olsen said.

The WEF conference was followed by a one-year mentoring programme held in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica and Košice and attended by 120 women entrepreneurs. The embassy invited US experts in financing, social media, business plans, and presentation and negotiations skills, Olsen added.

The result of the programme is a report that identifies three main areas where women face the most problems: female entrepreneurship, work-life balance and women in leadership or managerial positions.

The white paper

According to the document, women face several challenges related to the business environment, institutional support and self-confidence. A lack of information, limited access to capital, corruption and the existence of excessive red tape are the main obstacles for women trying to set up a business.

Moreover, in Slovakia women make 20 percent less than men in the same jobs, according to the statistics of the Labour Ministry.

The survey carried out by WEF among 500 women and 50 men across Slovakia showed that respondents believe companies often do not try to help women in finding a work-life balance. Problems also arise when women return from maternity leave, as they often lack knowledge about any the progress the company made in their absence.

It also showed that women do not sufficiently advocate for respect for their rights. Respondents said that NGOs are the institutions that advocate women’s interests the most, adding that EU institutions and the private sector also play an important role. On the other hand, they feel little support from the government, the document reads.

Supporting female entrepreneurship

Based on the experiences from abroad and ideas posed by active women entrepreneurs, the WEF prepared a list of recommendations that includes, for example, the establishment of “an entrepreneurship community” that involves local government, entrepreneurs and NGOs working collaboratively toward improving the business environment in Slovakia. Another way to achieve this goal is to follow the strategic EU and national recommendations, which including establishment of entrepreneurial one-stop shops, a reduction in red tape and creation of institutional and advisory framework for women entrepreneurs, according to the white paper.

Moreover, Slovaks should learn about creative means to meet work-life challenge in ways that boost productivity, like flexible work schedules, working from home, part-time jobs, position-sharing, temporary jobs during parental leave or the inclusion in corporate life during parental leave. The state should also support the quality and affordability of early childhood education and childcare services, the document reads.

The activities will continue within the Slovak Women’s Platform established in October 2013, which represents 17 organisations supporting the women entrepreneurship and the Representation of the European Commission in Slovakia. Its ambition is to be an equal partner of executive as well as legislative power when fighting for the interests of women, Simona Kováčiková, co-owner of private language school and chair of the Slovak Women’s Platform, told the press.

The US Embassy will continue working closely with the platform, providing behind the scenes expertise and advice when needed, Olsen said.

Jana Liptáková contributed to this story