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To infinity and beyond – the case for more female STEM entrepreneurs

Written by Frances Dickens on Wednesday, 16 September 2015. Posted in Diversity, People

There is still a paucity of female leaders in science, technology, engineering and maths. But fortunately there is a solution: help more women launch their own STEM startups

To infinity and beyond – the case for more female STEM entrepreneurs

I can’t deny it any longer. I’m a STEMinist – a passionate advocate of women in science, tech, engineering and maths. Increasing the number of women working in or – better still – launching businesses in traditionally male sectors such as engineering, technology and finance is a no-brainer. This issue was front of mind when I was named as a finalist in the NatWest everywoman Awards, which celebrate the business achievements of the UK’s female entrepreneurs. I felt privileged to be nominated and it was inspiring to see the ambition and resolve of the other finalists. However, as someone who launched a successful business in a traditionally male sector – media barter – I was particularly wowed by the comparatively few candidates who had launched businesses in non-female sectors such as tech or manufacturing. 

Standout candidates for me included 16-year-old Nina Devani with her company DevaniSoft and its Prompt Me Nina app, which helps consumers remember their passwords. Similarly impressive was 29-year-old Emily Brooke, founder of Blaze, a company that manufactures the Blaze Laserlight, which protects cyclists at night by projecting a bicycle image into the path of traffic in the road ahead.

Unfortunately, tech and engineering initiatives from women are still relatively rare, something that’s not surprising given the very low numbers of women entering these sectors or reaching the top of companies operating in them. According to unionlearn, the TUC's skills organisation, women make up under 4% of apprenticeship starts in engineering. Similarly, the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the European Union, at less than 10%. And the technology sector doesn’t fare much better. Just 18% of directorship positions in east London’s tech companies are held by women, according to Procorre, the research professional services consultancy, compared with 25% at FTSE 100 companies.

So what can captains of industry and educationalists do to address this problem? A recent roundtable discussion organised by Tech London Advocates and chaired by Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for the digital economy, established an action plan to encourage more women into technology and its suggestions can be broadened to encompass other male-dominated sectors. The panel argued for positive narratives and role models to combat negative stereotypes, stronger female networking and mentoring opportunities and a push to boost awareness about careers in the sector.

Apprenticeships specifically aimed at young women can provide an educational route into traditionally male fields. Trudy Norris-Grey, managing director of central and eastern Europe public sector at Microsoft and chair of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISE), is an example of a prominent educationalist championing apprenticeships for women in IT. WISE campaigns to increase the percentage of female employees in STEM sectors to 30% by 2020. Figures from August 2015 showed that women currently make up just 14.4% of all people working in STEM occupations. Elsewhere, Network Rail has committed to encouraging 30% more women to apply to its IT graduate and placement programme by 2018 through engaging with women on computer science and IT degree courses and hosting lunches and presentations on university campuses.

All these initiatives are admirable. However, the bottom line is that improving the female talent pipeline within engineering and tech companies is going to take time. Arguably a quicker route to increasing the number of women in STEM sectors might be to encourage them to launch their own businesses. Recent research conducted by YouGov on behalf of private bank Kleinwort Benson showed women are more likely to succeed when starting their own business. It revealed that just one in nine businesses started by women fail, compared with a sixth of those started by men.

Commenting on the findings, head of entrepreneurs at Kleinwort Benson, Paul Bentley, said: “In our experience, female entrepreneurs tend to be more risk averse and position themselves better to create long-term value. This means they often avoid the pitfalls that befall early stage businesses."

My experience as a female entrepreneur is relevant here. As CEO of Astus, I run a successful business in the male-dominated sector of media barter. The industry is not sexy – media barter is a complex process and you need top notch communications skills to explain its benefits to new clients. But I find it challenging and creative and I’ve shamelessly exploited many typically female strengths, such as strong interpersonal skills and a passion for networking, to build the business into the UK’s biggest barter company.

When it came to launching a business in a traditionally male sector, mentors played an important part for me. Zoe Barry, founder and CEO of ZappRx, the digital health startup, agrees, saying that having a mentor had a huge impact on her growth and success. “The great thing is 80% of female tech entrepreneurs report being mentored," she explains. "I believe that bodes well for their future success.”

Awards have an important role in raising the profile and celebrating female entrepreneurs in non-traditional sectors. The FDM everywoman in Technology Awards highlights talented female entrepreneurs and business leaders in technology. Similarly, the Real Business First Women Awards, which have been running since 2005, aim to find and promote inspiring women from sectors including manufacturing, science, finance and technology. Candidates this year included representatives from Dell, Monitise and Silicon Valley Bank.

It is an exciting time to be a woman working in a non-traditional sector. The challenge going forward is to maintain the momentum until there are as many women in STEM as there are in the fashion, health, beauty and food sectors.

To paraphrase former Star Trek actress and NASA ambassador Nichelle Nichols: "Science [tech/engineering/maths] is not a boy's game, it's not a girl's game. It's everyone's game. It's about where we are and where we're going.” 

About the Author

Frances Dickens

Frances Dickens

EB cover star Dickens set up Astus Group more than 10 years ago and it is now the UK’s biggest media barter company, working with over 200 major brands and almost all media owners. Frances pioneered a new approach to business through Astus, placing accountability, transparency, integrity and delivery on promises as central values. As an experienced entrepreneur, Frances has strong views on good business practice, including issues of sustainability, equality and the role of government in supporting the business community.

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