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Addressing Gender Inequality in International Trade

By Elena Malykhina

Countries around the world are increasing their efforts to address the pronounced gender inequality in international trade. In many countries, only a small percentage of exporting companies are led by women entrepreneurs, according to estimates.1,2 Advancing women's economic equality could significantly boost global economic growth, adding $12 trillion to $28 trillion to the world's gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025, according to research by McKinsey & Company.3 Accordingly, governments, international bodies and trade groups are developing tools and policies aimed at increasing women's participation in import-export trade.

Issues Women Face in International Trade


In the U.S., approximately 36 percent of businesses are owned by women, but women-owned businesses in the top exporting industries are less likely to export than businesses owned by men, according to survey results from the Small Business Administration (SBA).4 That applies to industries such as manufacturing, wholesale trade, and information; the exception is the transportation and warehousing sector, where women-owned firms are slightly more likely to export.5 As a result, only about 12 percent of exporting businesses in the U.S. are women-owned, according to one U.S. government estimate.6


The SBA and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) are among the U.S. government agencies that encourage women-owned businesses to engage in international trade. Both organizations have said that female business owners tend to have less access to capital to finance business expansion and international trade.7,8


Since 2011, the U.S. and the EU have held annual Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Workshops to encourage SMEs – including women-owned businesses – to participate in transatlantic trade and to find new opportunities in export markets. Statistics gathered by the SBA show that while women-owned companies have increased in number over the years, they remain smaller in size than national averages.9 Small business exporters face various challenges that include intellectual property protection, financing, and shipping logistics.10


The same trends are seen in other developed countries as well as in developing economies. In an analysis of exporters in 20 developing countries, the International Trade Centre (ITC) found that only one in five exporting companies was led by women entrepreneurs. The rate was highest in Latin America and the Caribbean and lowest in West Africa.11


In Canada, female-owned SMEs are less likely to participate in exporting compared to other firms. In 2014, female SMEs represented 15.7 percent of all SMEs, but only 11.1 percent of exporting enterprises in Canada, according to the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service.12 The same organization found that women-owned businesses that participate in international trade are larger, and have owners with higher levels of education and management experience, than women-owned firms that only trade domestically.13


Resources for Women-Owned Businesses


The USTR, the SBA, and the U.S. Department of Commerce have several tools for firms looking to start selling products and services overseas. These include online information resources at and The SBA also lists resources specifically for women entrepreneurs at


On a global level, ITC created a web tool and mobile app for women-owned businesses, as part of a wider initiative to connect 1 million women entrepreneurs to international markets by 2020. Called SheTrades, the app lets women-owned businesses share information about their companies, and helps buyers find companies that meet sourcing requirements.14 ITC claims that SheTrades has facilitated market access for 15,000 women entrepreneurs, including U.S.-based businesses, and helped generate $75 million in exports.15


To gain a better understanding of how trade reforms impact women worldwide, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) developed a tool that uses data forecasts to predict the likely gender impact of a trade measure, prior to its implementation. This type of gender analysis aims to answer the question, "What would happen to women if a given trade policy were implemented?," according to UNCTAD.16 Called the Trade and Gender Toolbox, the tool was initially used to assess the likely effect of a free trade agreement on the women in Kenya. However, UNCTAD says that the methodology can be used to measure the gender impacts of other trade agreements or reforms in any country.17


World Trade Organization Promotes Women's Participation in Trade


In December 2017, the World Trade Organization (WTO) reached a milestone at its Eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when members for the first time endorsed a collective initiative to increase the participation of women in trade.18 In order to help women reach their full potential in the world economy, more than 70 percent of WTO members and observers agreed to support the Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade, which provides a framework for WTO members to adopt "gender-responsive" trade policies that promote women's participation in economic activity. As part of the Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade, participating WTO members will collect gender-related economic data and will share their progress in 2019.19


The declaration also references the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes gender equality among its goals.20 As part of U.S. efforts to support those goals, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is currently providing gender programs in more than 80 countries.21



Governments, international bodies and other organizations around the world are working to increase gender equality in international trade, through initiatives and tools designed to overcome barriers and help women-owned firms reach international markets.

Elena Malykhina - The Author

The Author

Elena Malykhina

Elena Malykhina is professional writer who has covered science, technology and business for more than 10 years. Her work has appeared in InformationWeek, Scientific American, Newsday, The Wall Street Journal and Adweek, as well as through the Associated Press.


1. Unlocking Markets for Women to Trade, International Trade Centre;
2. “Unlocking Export Opportunities for Women-Owned Businesses,” White House blog;
3. How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth, McKinsey & Company;
4. “Women’s Business Ownership: Data from the 2012 Survey of Business Owners,” U.S. Small Business Administration;
5. Ibid.
6. “Unlocking Export Opportunities for Women-Owned Businesses,” White House blog;
7. “Fair Trade for Women,” The White House;
8. “Access to Capital among Young Firms, Minority-owned Firms, Women-owned Firms, and High-tech Firms,” U.S. Small Business Administration;
9. “Frequently Asked Questions,” U.S. Small Business Administration;
10. “Small Business Exporters Tell of Triumphs and Challenges,”;
11. Unlocking Markets for Women to Trade, International Trade Centre;
12. “Majority-Female Owned Exporting SMEs in Canada,” the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service;
13. Ibid.
14. “ITC launches SheTrades app to connect women entrepreneurs to markets,” International Trade Centre;
15. “About SheTrades,” SheTrades;
16. “How do trade policies impact women? Unctad launches the trade and gender toolbox,” United Nations;
17. Trade and Gender Toolbox; UNCTAD;
18. “Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade outlines actions to empower women,” World Trade Organization;
19. Ibid.
20. Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations;
21. “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment,” USAID;

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