SBO gender stats
Chart by Michelle Ciotta

We recently reported on a leap in the number of women-owned businesses in the United States — a development that suggests an especially good outlook for female entrepreneurs. Well, we decided to go back a little further in time to see just how far women have come. And we found a bright picture, indeed.

The most recent Survey of Business Owners (SBO) released by the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month shows a more than 2 million increase in the number women-owned businesses between 2007 and 2012, marking a 26.8-percent increase. Compare that to male-owned firms, which only rose by 6.8 percent during the same period. The SBO is a comprehensive report that comes out every 5 years and examines entrepreneurship in America, analyzing growth rates, receipts, gender, race and other factors.

Using past editions of the SBO, we mapped the trajectory of majority female-, majority male- and equally-owned businesses over 15 years. The data show that the number of women-owned firms has steadily increased from 1997, when there were 5,417,034, to 2012, when there were 9,878,397. Male- and equally-owned firms did not experience at all the same pace of growth.

Behind the steady climb in the number of women-owned firms are a host changes that provided more opportunity to women, says Amanda Brown, the executive director of the National Women’s Business Council. “The way we talk about [entrepreneurship] is so different — the experience of it is so different — than in 1997, in terms of the ecosystem of support and access to capital and resources.”

Crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending have helped entrepreneurs, especially women, start up, she says. “There also weren’t such things as women-focused accelerators and incubators before, either,” she adds. Black and Latina female entrepreneurs have been starting businesses at particularly high rates, contributing to the overall trend of growth.

However, starting up is only half the battle, Brown says. “There were 2 million more businesses in 2012 than in 2007, but 90 percent of them are still one-woman shows. We may be starting more, but we’re not bringing that much home. We need to make sure that businesses aren’t only starting, but are also positioned to grow and scale.”

The Council plans to release its annual report on Jan. 5, which will offer comprehensive examinations of the most recently released SBO data, as well as policy prescriptions and other suggestions for how to keep women starting businesses and thriving in tomorrow’s economy.