In 1977, says the US Bureau of the Census, only 702,000 businesses were owned by women - 7.1 percent of all the nation's business firms, excluding large corporations. Most of these businesses were small, according to the bureau's report; only slightly more than half of them operated from locations other than a residence.
But a new report published this month by the Internal Revenue Service unveils an astonishing 2.8 million female-owned businesses, a leap that makes women the fastest-growing group of new entrepreneurs in this country.
Asked to explain the giant leap, Small Business Administration (SBA) spokesman Hattie Dorman says, ''We think there may be something wrong with the Census Bureau statistics.''
Even so, her agency sees women as their fastest-growing group, a fact she says is related to the return of women to the work force. ''Of course, there are many reasons why a woman may start her own business. She may not be able to find a job in the marketplace, or she may need to be able to work out of her home.''
Some women may also find themselves stagnating near the top of a male-owned firm, and move out in order to move up. As Jane Trahey, president of the New York-based Trahey Advertising Agency, puts it,
According to the IRS, women own highway and street construction firms, textile mills, trucking firms, fish markets, and dozens of other types of businesses. More of them are in services than any other single category; a good quarter of these are in personal services such as dry cleaners, beauty shops, and photographic studios.
To meet the needs of this expanding market, the SBA established an Office of Women's Business Enterprise in 1980, an office that has received strong support from President Reagan.
Through the national, district, and local offices of the SBA, the agency, they say, ''makes special efforts to assist women to get into business, and stay in business, because they have long faced unusual difficulties in the private marketplace.''
Many of those difficulties are financial. The SBA found that women entrepreneurs rely most often on personal savings and loans from family, friends , and the local bank for their start-up funds. The SBA also offers loans, both for start-up monies and to pull business people through hard times.
But the agency emphasizes that ''nearly 93 percent of business failures are due - not to lack of financing - but to managerial inexperience, incompetence, and ineptitude.''
To overcome this local agency branches offer courses, counseling, and publications on everything from accounting to marketing, with specifics on computing, selling inventions, dry cleaning, fish farming, and a host of other topics.
A locally developed Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) or Active Corps of Executives (ACE) will, if asked, help individuals develop a business plan or jump over unexpected hurdles. The SBA recommends that those thinking about starting a new business ask for a counseling session with one of these volunteers before they go to the bank.
To avail yourself of all these services, call or write the nearest SBA field office and ask for the ''starting kit.'' Look in the phone book under ''US Government'' for the address, or write to the SBA central office at 1441 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20416.