A new global survey of small-business owners shows they've grown more optimistic about the future but still need government help. It also shows that women-owned businesses have suffered disproportionately during shutdowns.

In May, Facebook began conducting monthly surveys of small and midsize businesses that have Facebook pages. The surveys, done in collaboration with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank, asked about business closures, workforce reductions, and government aid, as well as leaders' domestic responsibilities, their overall optimism, and other topics. More than 25,000 business leaders responded each month, totaling more than 150,000 respondents in more than 50 countries. 

Here are some of the key findings from the sixth survey, conducted in October and released this week, along with a report analyzing all the data the researchers collected in 2020.

The smallest businesses have struggled to survive.

About 29 percent of respondents were micro-businesses, or those run by just one person. The report states that these businesses were more likely than their larger peers to have suffered a 50 percent or greater drop in sales compared with 2019, and were more likely to have closed in a given month. Businesses with fewer than 10 employees were also less likely than larger firms to have received bank or government loans.

Women-owned businesses have suffered more from lockdowns.

Women entrepreneurs were most affected by the stay-at-home orders issued early in the pandemic, because they were more likely to run "non-essential" businesses. As a result, women-led businesses were disproportionately hurt by the stifling effects of shutdowns, and more likely to close than those run by men. 

Women also bore the brunt of increased domestic responsibilities: 31 percent of women respondents said they had spent more time on domestic tasks since the pandemic started, compared with 26 percent of men. The gender disparity was largest in the U.S., where the share of business owners who said their domestic responsibilities have increased because of the pandemic was 21 percentage points higher among women than among men. And more female than male entrepreneurs reported that homeschooling, child care, and household chores affected their ability to focus on work. 

Overall, entrepreneurs were slightly better off--and more optimistic--in October than in May.

In the most recent survey, 55 percent of businesses were still reporting lower monthly sales year-over-year, compared with 62 percent in the first survey. The share of businesses seeing dramatic declines has shrunk, too. In the first survey, 57 percent of businesses said their sales had decreased by more than half year-on-year; in the latest survey, 47 percent said so.

The majority of entrepreneurs--56 percent--said that they were optimistic or very optimistic about the future of their businesses, up from 54 percent in the first survey. Indeed, in every global region except Europe, the segment of optimistic business leaders was higher in October than in May. (The report states that Europe's pessimism might be due to a spike in Covid-19 cases at the time of the most recent survey.)

Business owners still want help from their governments.

According to the report, the government support that respondents said would be most helpful to their businesses stayed consistent: loan and credit guarantees, tax deferrals, and salary subsidies. And entrepreneurs don't just need financial help. In the latest survey, 22 percent said they would like assistance with caring for children or other family members, while others said that as they adjust to the post-pandemic environment, they could use support in accessing new markets (46 percent) and adopting digital tools (35 percent). 

While business owners say they still need financial assistance, fewer of them are receiving government support than at the start of the pandemic, the report says. The share of firms that said they were receiving aid has decreased each month, dropping from 23 percent in May to 12 percent in October.