The number of women-owned businesses is growing more than twice as quickly as the national start-up average, according to a new report by the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy.

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While the number of all U.S. businesses increased 7 percent between 1997 and 2002, the number of women-owned firms grew by 19.8 percent.

In 2002, women owned 6.5 million businesses, accounting for 28.2 percent of all U.S. non-farm firms and 4.2 percent of the nation's total receipts.

According to the report, women-owned companies hail from a range of sectors, including wholesale and retail trade (17 percent), health care and social assistance (16 percent), and professional, scientific, and technical service (14 percent).

In 2002, women-owned firms employed 7.1 million workers, accounting for 6.5 percent of total U.S. employment, with an annual payroll of $173.7 billion. Over the period studied, women-owned firms increased employment by 70,000.

However, the majority of women-owned firms were small businesses — 86 percent were sole proprietorships, and almost 80 percent had annual receipts totaling less than $50,000.

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