Universities should lead the fight for gender equality in business


Gender-handsFewer women started businesses last year than the year before. This should worry everyone who works in higher education.

We’re missing out on tens of billions of pounds of potential economic growth. Even more importantly, countless innovations are failing to reach the marketplace. These missed opportunities really matter.

We hear a lot about the need to increase the number of women on the boards of big businesses, and rightly so. It’s been demonstrated that when organisations reach 30 per cent of women among their leaders, a critical mass is reached and new opportunities emerge. Some executives are listening and recognising the need to change.

The 30% Club, which challenges big businesses to achieve a minimum of 30 per cent women on their boards, is having a tangible impact with the UK’s largest firms. The FTSE 100 is now up to 26.1 per cent female executives on their boards. But it’s not just the corporate giants that have a gender problem. Start-ups – the potential giants of tomorrow – do too. We need to be getting it right in all sizes and types of business.

A recent report by Deloitte and the Women’s Business Council found that if women were setting up and running new businesses at the same rate as men, Britain could have an extra one million female entrepreneurs. The business case for more women entrepreneurs is indisputable. The societal impact could be even greater.

Take a look at some of the nascent businesses founded by women in Britain and you’ll see why.

Electronic engineer Esther Rodriguez-Villegas, who is based at my own institution, has developed a wearable sensor that can detect illnesses through the sounds our bodies make – offering hope to millions afflicted by heart and lung conditions. Charlotte Slingsby, driven to find a solution to the frequent electricity black-outs at her relatives’ home in South Africa, invented a material that can harvest tiny amounts of wind energy from the sides of buildings. Vidhi Mehta is working to tackle the threat of antimicrobial resistance through a citizen science platform, PostBiotics, which helps anyone join in the search for new antibiotics.

The world is changing. We’re facing unprecedented challenges in public health, transport, the environment and housing. We need bright, creative innovators to help us find solutions to these problems. We cannot afford to leave half our talent pool untapped.

Universities, as much as businesses, can lead the fight in righting these wrongs.

Within our universities, brilliant ideas germinate. Science and academia have a long way to go in gender equality. As we work hard to redress this imbalance, we must also ensure that the increasingly entrepreneurial culture in universities is preparing and encouraging innovative women to be the founders and CEOs of tomorrow’s businesses.

We know that obstacles to women entrepreneurs include limited access to start-up networks, a lack of role models and too few professional mentors. Entrepreneur and investor Alexsis de Raadt-St James offers one compelling answer: well-crafted mentoring schemes for female entrepreneurial students, such as the Althea-Imperial programme, which she founded.

The scheme takes some of the best students of science, technology, medicine and business from Imperial College London, and catalyses their entrepreneurial instincts.

These bright young women are precisely the people we need to create the next generation of UK start-ups. They get exposed to workshops where they turn ideas into viable products, mentoring from top execs, and the chance to win seed funding for their early-stage businesses.

After less than two years, several promising businesses have emerged from the programme. Student-founded start-up, FungiAlert helps agribusinesses to detect dangerous pathogens early, potentially saving billions of dollars. Student Clementine Chambon’s renewable energy start-up uses crop waste to produce clean, reliable and affordable electricity in rural India. They’re not just producing products in search of a market; they’re finding solutions to real-world problems.

The need to remove barriers for women in the start-up world feels more urgent than ever. Britain’s business and political leaders should put female entrepreneurs at the top of their agenda, and universities can help make that happen.

Author Bio:Maggie Dallman OBE is associate provost (academic partnerships) at Imperial College London