Break the bias? Let’s give women the tools to succeed

By Polly Purvis OBE, deputy chair of the Converge strategic advisory board, former chair and founder of CodeClan

According to data from the Rose Review in 2019, 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs are female. While perhaps somewhat unsurprising, this is a disappointing read when set against figures internationally, as that same report highlights that only 5.6% of women in the UK run their own business (versus 12.1% of men in the UK who their own business). This is in stark comparison to 15% of women in Canada, 11% in the US, and over 9% in both Australia and the Netherlands. These figures emphasise that female entrepreneurship is still significantly lagging male entrepreneurship, and also reinforce that the UK is trailing its peers.  

So, what more can we do to bring the UK in line with the best international standards?

During my career, I have seen the position of women within business extend and increase substantially. However, many women still lack the confidence to set up their own businesses and often constrain their career development, continuing to balance career aspirations against their caring responsibilities. On the domestic front, things are changing for the better with a much greater level of shared parental and household responsibilities, but nonetheless women are still taking a more cautious approach when considering starting their own business. 

Indeed, the Rose Review also highlighted that women will generally only proceed with a business idea if they know it will work or be successful – with only 39% of women confident in their capabilities to start a business compared to 55% of men. However, while some business ideas are quicker to establish and convert to success (for example digital businesses), for those embryonic businesses centred in some of the sciences it can take a significant amount of time not only to develop the initial concept but to prove its success. 

This is not a reason for women to be held back and despondent, but it reinforces the vital need for people and platforms to celebrate and encourage female entrepreneurial ideas and channel them along the right path. This is not just about breaking the bias to increase female confidence in ideas, it is essential to our societal economic wellbeing and growth. 

Role modelling

Having a champion or mentor is not a new concept, but for a female entrepreneur perhaps developing a radical idea that will deliver societal change, the business world can feel lonely. Knowing the steps to take to advance the idea into commercial reality and navigating the avenues for funding or investment can be complex. Fortunately, we have seen more programmes and initiatives come to the fore in recent years that provide a platform of support and expertise, such as Converge, which specialises in helping academic entrepreneurs.

With an increasing number of people developing their business ideas with the support of programmes like Converge, previous participants – the alumni – can support and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs providing tangible proof that it is possible to grow and succeed. These alumni can also provide the wisdom of hindsight – highlighting unforeseen challenges they might have encountered along the way, providing support and guidance so that it doesn’t happen to others. 

Creating role models to empower the next generation is valuable not only to inspire others to try themselves but also to provide an ongoing cycle of inspiration and support for future generations of entrepreneurs. 

Breaking out of our modest mindsets

The slow progress we have seen over the last twenty years in unlocking the undoubted entrepreneurial potential women have can feel like constantly pushing water uphill.  We must all work to address this, breaking down gender bias not only in life but across every workplace. That way we should enable a snowball effect that creates real and permanent change. 

Women are notoriously modest when it comes to sharing innovative ideas. There are reams of articles highlighting that this can hold female entrepreneurs back. Shonda Rhimes, creator of several highly successful US television shows, speaking at an event in 2019 said: “The other day, I came to this conclusion that men brag and women hide.” Modesty can often be confused with a lack of confidence. This is a mistake, and we need to educate managers and professional advisers to see through the modesty and encourage women to share their ideas and expertise.  

Again, much of this can be addressed through positive role models, but I’d encourage any female entrepreneur to take themselves out of their comfort zone so they can become more confident in promoting their idea and successes. We need to encourage both men and women to recognise these different ways of working and ensure we are creating the environments where women thrive. Challenging such mindsets (and our tone of language) to encourage this self-belief is vital to enact real change and drive success.  

Establishing a platform to succeed

Once mindsets have been addressed and the role model community has been established, the last aspect of breaking the gender bias is to provide the practical tools to succeed. For potential entrepreneurs, the provision of wrap-around support and training can be the difference between progressing with a brilliant idea or not. Accessing training from industry experts can further empower those exploring entrepreneurship. This access to practical information is typically always welcomed by those who know what they want to achieve but don’t necessarily have the knowledge to navigate starting up a business. 

We have  recently seen the Rose Review updated for 2022, acknowledging that progress has been made since the original 2019 report, but that more support is required for female entrepreneurs to unlock their “untapped potential”. From continued clarity around finance to investment, it’s important to give those with a passion for their idea the tips and tools to move forward and increase the pace of change.

As we mark another International Women’s Day, I challenge all women who are considering taking the mighty step to commercialise their innovative idea to break the bias and act for their future. Let’s build an increasing number of women-led businesses that can help shape a much more sustainable, equitable, internationally competitive economy for the future.  

This article first appeared in Scottish Business News on 8 March 2022, International Women’s Day