Regular readers will know that I’m always keen to celebrate examples of diversity in business leadership. So research revealing that we in the UK still significantly lag the US in terms of female business ownership is rather depressing.
The recent HSBC Essence of Enterprise report found that only 28% of UK business owners worth more than £663,505 ($1m) are women, compared to 38% in the US. This figure is reflected in the authoritative ongoing research from Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which shows that there is a higher proportion of women-run businesses in Germany, France and the US than in the UK – where men are twice as likely as women to be entrepreneurs. The HSBC report also found that Asian women are far more likely than British women to be running businesses.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few years about what puts women off taking on leadership roles in business, for example fear of being judged or difficulty juggling work with family. But these statistics are adding an interesting new layer onto the debate: what is holding UK women back in particular? I wonder if this lack of desire to start a business is something peculiarly British: the product of a culture that often doesn’t reward women for being ambitious and is stereotypically cautious.
Whatever it is, we need to combat it. The Women’s Business Council estimates that this country would have an extra one million entrepreneurs if women set up businesses at the same rate as men. That volume of new businesses would transform our economy.
It’s useful to explore what puts British women off becoming entrepreneurs. But it’s also essential that the government puts the right kind of effort into encouraging them. To this end, MP Lorely Burt published a report a year ago that made some recommendations about how government bodies can help.
A lot of this is about encouraging organisations to think and communicate in a more inclusive way; Burt highlighted, for example, the government’s Business is Great website. Although it has a section for female entrepreneurs, she felt this was undermined by the fact that the whole website seemed very masculine in its design. She pointed to the way the site is constructed around three stages of a business’s life – Start, Grow, Accelerate – which immediately alienates women for whom the idea of accelerating the size of their business is not an early goal. The report also commented on the total lack of anything on the site about collaboration in business, something that women are far more likely to prioritise.
As I wrote this article, I took a look at the Business is Great website, little seems to have changed; the Start, Grow, Accelerate buttons are still there. So if the government isn’t willing to take notice of its own commissioned recommendations for encouraging more women to start businesses, it looks like it’s down to us, ladies.
Luckily, we have a growing roll call of fantastic female entrepreneurs to learn from. People like Edwina Dunn, who co-created the Tesco Clubcard in 1995. Edwina is CEO of customer insight company Starcount and investor/director of Purple Seven, the arts sector’s leading data analytics company. She is also chair of Your Life, an industry-led and government-supported campaign that aims to drive young adults in the UK toward STEM subjects at A Level or equivalent by unlocking dynamic career opportunities to them.
Sarah Chapman meanwhile co-founded Iwana Energy, which helps businesses across Latin America and other emerging markets benefit from solar energy without paying upfront by linking them with global investors and equipment suppliers. Then there’s Vivian Chan, who co-founded Sparrho, a search and recommendation engine to help scientists and those interested in science with their research.
You may have noticed a pattern in the selection of these three, apart from their gender. They all work within businesses traditionally seen as male-orientated – data analytics, solar energy and scientific research. As a business leader within the male-dominated media sector, this is a subject close to my heart. I’m not knocking all the thriving food, fashion and flower businesses run by British women. I’d just like to think that female entrepreneurs can thrive outside these traditional female-skewed areas of enterprise. After all men show far fewer scruples about being successful in more ‘female’ sectors, as famous names like Nicky Clarke, Simon Lycett and Jasper Conran – giants of hair, flowers and fashion respectively – demonstrate.
What’s more there is a growing STEM skills gap; current estimates suggest that the science, technology, engineering and maths worker deficit is currently over 40,000 a year. So come on ladies, the UK plc in general and the STEM sector in particular, need your entrepreneurial talents. Let’s not let them down.