06/03/2014 12:07 GMT | Updated 06/05/2014 06:59 BST

Cutting the Gender Gap: The Social Economy Story

The workplace gender gap generates plenty of news headlines but what rarely get noticed are the success stories in emerging markets.

The growth of the social enterprise market is one such success story. Social enterprises are sustainable businesses that exist for more than simply profit and what's particularly interesting are the huge inroads of women in leadership in this sector.

There are 180,000 social enterprises in the UK; the sector contributes at least £55bn to the economy. They create jobs and growth, many are set up in disadvantaged areas or support disadvantaged people and now we know that they are also genuinely helping women break through the glass ceiling.

This is one area where the UK is leading the world and government is committed to seeing the social enterprise sector grow; as an important part of our economy and of our society. I was really pleased that the current GREAT Britain Campaign, which celebrates business in the UK, includes and profiles social enterprises.

The number of women in this sector is really impressive. Social Enterprise UK's The People's Business report estimated that 38% of social enterprises are run by women, compared with 19% of SMEs and 3% of FTSE 100 companies. They also estimate that some 91% of social enterprises have at least one woman on their senior team compared with 49% of SMEs which have male-only teams.

As a sector employing two million people in the UK, clearly the government wants to support growth in this market, particularly on the investment front. We want to ensure that the right conditions exist for social enterprises to thrive in the UK and we are particularly working on removing the barriers that stop it from realising its full potential.

In a recent online debate various experts gave their view on why the statistics on women and the social economy were so impressive and also discussed the barriers to more female entrepreneurs coming on board.

One of these barriers was access to finance. We know that this issue is not specific to women- in fact 39% of social enterprises cite access to finance as the single largest barrier to their growth compared to only 7% of SMEs. That's why our work on social investment is so crucial to helping social enterprises thrive and grow.

But we don't know why the social economy is fast becoming a natural home for female entrepreneurship. I, like others, speculate about the reasons but there is little in-depth research into the phenomenon. Personally I think women are definitely entrepreneurial and the idea of combining business acumen and social impact is very attractive. Social Enterprise UK are looking into women's attitudes to social enterprise and I will be very interested to see their findings and debate them with others.

As we celebrate International Women's Day I am thrilled that there are some inspirational women in the sector: to name a few, Sophie Tranchell (founder of Divine Chocolate), Karen Lynch (founder of Belu) and Cecilia Crossley (founder of from babies with love) are just three women making serious strides in this space. Their leadership can only inspire more women to form and lead businesses that exist for social good and that in turn grow the economy. And of course they will, in turn, inspire other women to follow in their footsteps.

We know a gender-gap exists in some industries but this does not seem to be the case in the social economy and in time I suspect there will be much we can learn from this to ensure healthier statistics around women in leadership across a much wider range of sectors.

I believe strongly in the importance of women in leadership roles across business and we need to celebrate, and learn from women who have forged new paths in the social enterprise sector. It is good for the economy and for society to have a diverse mix of leaders and it's important, for the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs to see women who are not shy about articulating their success.

International Women's Day is a chance to shine the spotlight on an important new market and to celebrate its emerging success in seeing more women in leadership - that's something to shout about.