Universities should lead the fight for gender equality in business

Academia, like the business world, has a long way to go in the battle for equality and must do more, says Maggie Dallman

June 6, 2016
Gender balance

Fewer 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.

Read more: University gender gap emerging at age 13, Oxford study finds

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.

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

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Reader's comments (1)

I have been reading the gender equality issues for very long and today took the opportunity of trying to be proactive and understanding where is the issue? In India corporate bodies are talking of having certain number of people as women on their board ....this is because they are bound by certain statistics or suggestions/opinion etc. Being in the corporate world and now in skill development and academics, I am still wondering who or what is stopping women to be where they should be ......there are certain requirements which is applicable for both gender .......meet that and move ahead .....I am yet to comprehend how does one arrrives at certain financial numbers and say that had we x% of women as entreprenuers y% would be the additional revenue .....so what is stopping a company to achieve that - lets first get to the basics and understand the reality and then arrive at a conclusion. I read some place women do not get the opportunity which is not true. When we arrive at a point which probably is arrived via a research, lets understand what kind of research, what kind of sample size etc. It is not necessary a research however good a research agency is, can be used to arrive at a conclusion on such matters. It is like saying students are graduates in India but jobs are not there (very general statement). Jobs are there, students want specific jobs and locations. Coming back to the point, there are several women I know who are leaders both in the corporate world and in academics - but at the expense of their personal life/family. As one of the women leader mentioned recently, it is not possible for a women to maintain a work life balance which most of the women aspire - so a woman has to choose what is important - either working as an employee or being an entreprenuer one has to put in time and at times at the expense of the family - one can't have both ....so I encourage women to go ahead and do what they want ....but acknowledge that you would need to work real hard ...and for readers my reference point here is mostly pertaining to India.

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