Opinion

Female entrepreneurship needs more role models to thrive

7 min read

24 June 2015

Last week O2’s enterprise accelerator Wayra released its StartupDNA report on the UK’s burgeoning startup community and found that Britain is leading the way in the world for female entrepreneurship.

Needless to say, it is an outstanding achievement that places the UK at the global helm of gender equality in entrepreneurship, ahead of both New York and Silicon Valley. But below the surface there remain enduring inequalities, many of which are highlighted in the report.

Most strikingly, it reveals explicit gender stereotypes in the UK’s startup community. For instance, of the 241 individuals surveyed nationwide, no men were starting businesses in the lifestyle sector, while no women ran startups in banking or finance. This reflects hindering cultural preconceptions that women are more ‘suited’ to certain industries.

The research showed that women make up 30 per cent of founders and executives in our startup ecosystem, and yet men were 86 per cent more likely than women to receive venture capital funding. This statistic begs the question: where are we going wrong? Left unexamined, such findings feed the notion that women are less suited to entrepreneurship – a prejudice we must dispel once and for all.

We can measure certain factors that alter women’s position in entrepreneurship. 

According to Gary Stewart, director of Wayra UK, many female entrepreneurs he spoke to lacked the ambition and confidence to build world-beating businesses. This reduced aspiration can also be linked to explanations for the disparity in pay between men and women. 

A study by the OECD this year found that the gender pay gap is less about women being paid less for the same jobs as men, and more about the differing aspirations that see fewer women aiming for senior leadership roles.

These findings highlight the need for a fundamental cultural change, instilling in young girls the hungry ambition for success through enterprise.
 
Last week’s London Technology Week threw into focus the flourishing digital sector and its immense potential – both economic and cultural. Few cities in the world can compete with London in terms of innovation, talent and access to finance. However, in order to compete in the global economy, Britain needs to start producing a sustainable skills pipeline.

Technology will continue to play an integral role in almost every job of the future, and we need to prepare the next generation with the necessary skills and self belief to succeed in the modern workplace.
 
The growing skills shortage across the digital sector is greatly aggravated by a lack of women in tech careers. There exists an untapped talent pool within the female population that urgently needs to be identified and utilised. This progressive industry needs the skills and expertise from both men and women so that Britain can maintain its position on the global stage.

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Greater collaboration between the startup community and big business, schools and government, will help to drive a national movement to inspire young girls to pursue careers in the digital startup sector, by breaking down preconceptions that depict certain industries as male-dominated.

This campaigning mentality is vital. But a bottom-up approach that addresses the root of the problem must work in tandem with a trickle-down strategy that showcases and champions successful female entrepreneurs.

What we need are more role models to set an example. If we celebrate female achievements across industries such as science and engineering we can promote the image of women leading the way in these fields. 

And if we put female founders across finance or technology sectors directly in public view, we can banish those stereotypes, and we can re-define the notion of ‘jobs for the girls’.

To do this we need to unlock a new movement that sees more girls dreaming of starting or leading their own businesses.

Data unveiled by The Female Lead this year revealed a stark difference between female role models and their male counterparts. The research found that 92 per cent of the 200 most followed females across social media were from a narrow selection of celebrity-focused professions, whereas, the top 200 most followed males derived from a far broader professional spectrum.

It’s clear that, in order to inspire young women to realise their potential across a variety of careers, we need to present a broader range of female role models that they can aspire to.
  
There is no doubting the good news that Britain is leading the way in gender diversity in entrepreneurship. But we must also dig beneath that headline to see what more needs to be done to create the foundations for a progressive and prosperous future. 

Let us celebrate the shining examples of female entrepreneurs across all sectors, and let us show young girls how these iconic women – women like them – are helping to boost Britain’s standing on the global stage. 

Through this we can paint a picture of the creative and exciting opportunities that lie within their reach.
 
Edwina Dunn, is founder of The Female Lead, a campaign that champions a more diverse range of female role models, and chairs the Your Life campaign.