by Sophie Jarvis, The Telegraph, March 9, 2018
There has been an astounding revolution in women’s lives over the past century. Just last month we were celebrating the centenary of our voting rights here in the UK. And despite outcries over gender pay discrepancies, the gap between men and women aged 22-39 is negligible, and usually emerges later in life often because female employees take time out of the workplace to raise children. And women are setting up their own businesses at speed: one of the last remaining pieces in the puzzle for female empowerment.
Female entrepreneurship dates back further than many realise. There would be yelps of nepotism if the widow of a major businessman took over his responsibilities today, yet in the 18th and 19th centuries this was not just commonplace, but often expected. While historically women were deprived the education or opportunity required to become inventors or entrepreneurs, a fearless pack bucked the trend: Marie Curie, Grace Hopper and Stephanie Kwolek are just a few of its members. In short, female entrepreneurship has soared and slumped over the years. But it’s on the rise again: between 2013-2016 there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of women setting up their own businesses (compared to a 27 per cent rise for men) and as the Telegraph's Women Mean Business campaign reported on Thursday, two million women are expected to become their own boss by the start of 2019.
What’s the underlying cause for this encouraging trend? Mostly it’s for the same reason anyone sets up a business: they’ve got an idea and want to run with it. But there are slightly more nuanced reasons for female founders: as many as 85 per cent are attracted to more flexible working hours, and almost all say they set up their own business to have more freedom. For women, however, this often means the ability to cultivate their own culture.
When Virginia Woolf made the case for “a room of one’s own,” she was referring to writing, but her powerful rhetoric could equally be applied to business. It is all very well, however, to say that women should have the room and money to strike out alone and create companies of the future. But views on how this can be achieved vary widely.
The government could certainly do more to provide role models by encouraging schools to host female entrepreneurs, following in the footsteps of its excellent Founders4Schools programme. Innovate UK recently produced a PR campaign around female entrepreneurs in the Getty gallery. More projects like this from government could inspire and spur on aspiring female entrepreneurs. And we know access to finance remains a persistent obstacle to female entrepreneurs in particular.
Our 2017 report into female scale-ups called on the media to highlight the funding gap: currently companies with a female founder account for just 9 per cent of the total sum of publicly announced raised capital, according to Beauhurst. Publications are full of male tech entrepreneurs, so let’s start highlighting female founders, especially those operating in typically male-dominated industries – not because they’re women, but because they’re inspirational leaders at the helm of thriving businesses.
But this is not an issue which can be exclusively resolved by the government. Female entrepreneurs, the media, and accelerators, incubators or co-working spaces can also have a big impact. Those who favour a more interventionist approach should just look to Denmark: a mix of generous childcare and maternity leave policies, dusted with an excess of comfortable, public sector administrative jobs for women, may be behind just 20 per cent saying they would set up their own business there, compared to 45 per cent of women here in the UK.
What Theresa May could do, however, is create a female entrepreneur friendly culture in the UK – something akin to the Cameron/Osborne team that invited entrepreneurs into No.10, created a small business minister and scrapped 3,000 small business laws. This would encourage more female entrepreneurs to follow in the footsteps of inspirational founders like Martha Lane Fox, Debbie Wosskow or Sara Murray.
Lack of confidence is the Lernaean Hydra of female advancement: it keeps rearing its ugly head and we need to find a red hot poker to stop it from holding women back. We are one of many organisations that hold mentoring sessions to link aspiring female entrepreneurs with successful founders. The more networks we can create, the more barriers we can break down by giving women entrepreneurs confidence and access to the right people – be they peers, potential fundraisers or even competitors.
Finally, we should be celebrating all entrepreneurs and the enormous value they add to not just the economy but society, too. Across the Channel, Macron is waxing France into a honeypot for entrepreneurs with a sprawling pro-entrepreneur campaign, introducing policies such as a new visa for tech specialists. And the Chilean government has gone above and beyond to support domestic entrepreneurs and encourage foreign entrepreneurs to move there and, as a consequence, Santiago now has a booming startup scene.
Woolf had the liberty to write how and what she wanted. Following her infamous mantra that “there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” a woman should have the choice to create a business of her own if she is truly to be at liberty.