I recently had the privilege and pleasure of speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting for Women & Enterprise, along with my colleague Graham Roberts. It was exciting and inspiring to be surrounded by so many women leaders and entrepreneurs, even more so because we were brought together to contribute to an important challenge: how to unlock the estimated £10.1bn of economic growth potential in women’s proactive participation in our economy. More on that in a moment. First, a pop quiz:
Name five well-known female entrepreneurs
If you’re like me, you’ll find that difficult. The names we tend to hear about most – Zuckerberg, Musk, Jobs, Gates, Brin, Page – all men. Where are the women?
These men in Tech are inspiring. We admire them. We hold them up, along with sports, movie and rock stars, as aspirational figures in society. And some of us, especially kids and young adults, might be dreaming of becoming like them some day. But what happens if you’re a girl or young woman and you don’t see very many women in business or tech to aspire to? I think it puts you at a disadvantage. People tend to believe they can do things if others like them have already done them.
Of course, women entrepreneurs are out there. Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce Knowles…and in our (Tech) industry Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, Ann Budge and Alison Newell (all of who form part of the Sopra Steria story, by the way). We just tend to hear less about them.
Just as with the number of women in top executive positions, the number of women-owned businesses is still too small, and those that do exist don’t seem to get the same visibility and attention. I love chocolate and have been a fan of Montezuma brand chocolate for a while. But I didn’t know Montezuma was co-founded by a woman, Helen Patterson, until she got up to speak at the APPG reception about her experience starting the company.
Does it matter that my chocolate is made by a company co-founded by a woman? Not when I’m eating it, no; but in the background, somewhere in my subconscious mind, it does. It contributes to the unconscious ideas and beliefs I have about women. The concept of unconscious bias is an area of study that’s getting a lot of attention, and focus from corporate diversity programmes. It suggests that we all develop beliefs about the world we live in that we may not even be aware of on a conscious level: what certain groups of people are like, what people who look like that are like, what people like us and what people who are not like us are capable of. For example, if someone tells you they have been to see their GP, you are likely to imagine that they saw a man, not a woman, even though there are many women GPs. So knowing that my chocolate comes from a woman-owned business might help me chip away at the unconscious biases I have and build up a picture of women running businesses.
Sopra Steria is an example of a company that has seen real business benefits to increasing the number of women in more senior positions, and improving their visibility. In the last few years, the number of women on our UK board has jumped to just under 40%. At the same time, many of our senior women are getting involved in gender equality initiatives within and outside the company, raising awareness of the issue and seeking to improve it. And we have noticed something occurring simultaneously: more women are coming forward, asking for career advice from the women they can now see at the top, and joining in the conversation about diversity in tech and business; many are saying,
“I have something to offer and I’m ready to do more.”
Women entrepreneurs – and would-be entrepreneurs – would benefit from a similar increase in visibility of role models. Right now in the UK, women start new businesses at half the rate that men do, and the gap widens as businesses grow. There are a lot of reasons for this – unequal access to finance, the persistent cultural expectation that women will continue to bear more caring and domestic responsibilities than men are but two. Giving women more entrepreneurial role models that look like them will not solve everything, but it’s worth including it in the mix of initiatives that we need to start on now.
The UK economy is missing out on over £10bn by not addressing the challenges women face in starting their own businesses, according to a recent study by Facebook. We can’t afford to lose out on that growth. Let’s make sure we’re doing everything we can to inspire, encourage and practically support the women who will create new businesses – as well as the next generation, the girls in school and college. Shouting about the examples of successful women entrepreneurs already out there is a good start.
What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.
The meeting of the APPG for Women & Enterprise took place on 12 September 2016.