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Fundamental change needed to attract more women entrepreneurs

30th March 2021 about a 7 minute read

Future Care Capital trustee Lise Pape founded her own company Walk With Path which manufactures assistive technology for people with mobility problems. But she says there needs to be a major shift in policy and attitudes if more women are to follow in her footsteps.

Lise Page
Being an entrepreneur can be lonely, and so it’s not be for everyone. It can be hard, which is why it’s so important to surround yourself with a strong network.  Lise Pape

On March the 8th many of us celebrated International Women’s Day. I had extra cause for celebration as I was one of the fortunate winners of InnovateUK’s Women in Innovation programme announced the same day. 

The programme provides support for women and creates a network of female entrepreneurs for us to support each other and bounce around ideas. 

One aim of the programme is to encourage more women to become entrepreneurs – and to be successful at it. This is a big task, and it needs to be tackled from multiple angles. 

We are all different, and while focusing on gender differences can be seen as stereotyping, there are some differences that we should acknowledge and respect. 

Firstly, being an entrepreneur can be lonely, and so it’s not for everyone. It can be hard, which is why it’s so important to surround yourself with a strong network. 

The UK Government Office for Science, supported by organisations such as Innovate UK, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Royal Academy of Engineering, have been trying to inspire women and girls to study and develop careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

However, only 23% of the STEM workforce were women in 2017, and women only make up 11% of engineering professionals. This may explain why less than 10% of patent applications applied for in the UK come from women.

Fields such as engineering seem to appeal more to men, although that is changing. But it has a long way to go to catch up with areas such as nursing, where 90% of the workforce is female. However, maybe we should not aim for 50:50 as we also need to respect that people are different and are drawn to different things. What’s important is that everyone feels that they have the opportunity to choose the career they want.

Role models can lead to change

As part of the Women in Innovation programme, it is my job to encourage women and girls to enter STEM and entrepreneurship, through being an example and role model. I think this is a great way to address the problem, and one that can lead to change in the short term. 

The NHS is also putting a lot of effort into creating a more level playing field for men and women. Catherine Pollard of NHSX said at a Future Care Capital webinar that the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) should extend its current focus on diversity to support more women. 

These initiatives are great, especially at giving current female entrepreneurs an extra push. They may also encourage women who are not currently entrepreneurs to take the leap. Again, I think such schemes can create change in the short term. However, to achieve a lasting impact, I wonder if we need more fundamental change. 

When it comes to launching an enterprise, many sacrifices have to be made. I know that first hand. You may have less - or no - income for a long time. If you're a health innovator, the length of time is probably longer than if you are an innovator in consumer tech.

You will also have to dedicate significant time to create your business, with no guarantee of success. If you are single, with few responsibilities,  this may be fine, assuming that you have savings or some other way to fund yourself.  But when you are in a relationship, possibly with kids, the sacrifices can impact on others.

To encourage more female entrepreneurs, I think one has to look at the wider roles of males and females in society and in the home. Culture and tradition plays a big part in this, as does society’s expectations.

On a political level, one thing that we have the option to change in the short term is parental leave. Currently only 1% of British families have any shared leave according to an article in the Guardian.

In comparison we can look to Finland, where recently introduced rules allow mothers and fathers nearly seven months paid leave each, half of which cannot be transferred to the partner. This may force the issue, and some may argue that a family should be able to choose what is right for them, but perhaps some level of compulsion is necessary to drive a cultural change.

Interestingly, research from Sweden, which was the first country to introduce paternal leave in 1974, found that if the father takes leave, he is more likely to share chores in the following years. Such changes may allow women to have more choice, but it does not necessarily lead to more entrepreneurship.

Alison Rose, the CEO of Natwest, has launched the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship. It identifies that for female entrepreneurs with children, family care responsibilities are the number one barrier to further business success. A total of 46% of female parent entrepreneurs identify it as a “very important” or “important” barrier.

Meanwhile COVID-19 has further compounded the difficulties and obstacles faced by women-run businesses. Some 77% of female business owners report that managing their business in the pandemic has been stressful (compared to 55% of their male counterparts).

Women are also 17% more likely than men to struggle balancing business demands with family life. The latter may be connected to the lack of shared parental leave. Having the woman as the primary carer from the child’s birth may set a tone that makes the family more of her responsibility.

New global data from UN Women suggests that the pandemic could erase 25 years of increasing gender equality. This is because school closures have led to a significant increase in the burden of domestic and home-schooling activities which fall mainly on women rather than men. Before the pandemic, women would do three hours of unpaid care compared to a man’s one hour, but this figure has at least doubled over the last year.

With women often working as much as men, or sometimes being the primary breadwinner, why should they be doing more in the home?

Securing Funding

When it comes to securing funding, Extend VC has conducted research into finance in the UK, over a ten year period. Their report found that 68.3% of funding across the funding stages went to all male teams, 28.8% to mixed teams and only 2.9% to all female teams.

The situation looks similar in the US. Harvard Business Review calls it an ‘enormous gender gap in venture capital funding’ with female entrepreneurs receiving only 2% of all VC funding despite running 38% of all businesses in the US.

Research carried out by Harvard Business School found that investors tend to ask ‘prevention questions’ to female entrepreneurs, whilst male entrepreneurs are granted ‘promotion’ questions. In the analysis, the research team observed Q&A interactions between 140 venture capitalists (40% female) and 189 entrepreneurs (12% female), during a TechCrunch event in New York. The startups were judged to be similar in terms of quality and capital needs. However male-led startups raised five times as much as their female-led counterparts.

Interestingly, even female investors followed the trend of asking prevention questions to the women. So to achieve change it is not enough to just have more female investors. Attitudes towards the entrepreneurs must also change.

Untapped potential

According to the Rose Review, our economic recovery desperately needs to access the untapped potential that women-led businesses represent. This is estimated to be equivalent to more than 1million missing SME businesses and £250bn of additional value for the UK economy.

These figures speak for themselves. We need to promote a more inclusive and equitable work culture for both men and women if our economy – and our society – is going to thrive. And greater work-life balance may attract both men and women to become entrepreneurs, many of whom may not otherwise have chosen that route.

I hope one day we will have stopped talking about ‘female entrepreneurs.’ No one talks about ‘male entrepreneurs’… it’s just taken for granted. Roll on the day when we are all just people in business, no longer defined by our gender, our age or our ethnicity.

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