Image of a woman's profile and some graphics suggesting innovation
Image of a woman's profile and some graphics suggesting innovation

Expert Comment: Maintaining momentum on women’s entrepreneurship at Oxford

Dr Mairi Gibbs, Chief Operating Officer at Oxford University Innovation, explores what can be done to increase the number of women founding companies.

When you hear the word entrepreneur, who comes to mind? A titan of technology perhaps. Or a sharp suited City type. Or maybe a future Nobel laureate beavering away in the lab. Chances are, whatever the stereotype, you’re probably thinking of a man.

You shouldn’t feel too bad about that. There remains a colossal gulf in the numbers of men and women business founders. This is despite the fact that revenues generated by women-led startups are 10 per cent higher than those of their all-men counterparts.

According to the consultancy Beauhurst, less than 8 per cent of UK university spinouts had all-women founding teams in 2023, while over 75 per cent were all-male. That’s a significant improvement on 2016 when all-women founded spinouts represented an alarming zero per cent, but if progress continues at this pace, it will take half a century to bridge the gap. The lack of representation in university-borne enterprises is not for lack of talent. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 54% of STEM students in UK higher education in 2021/22 were women.

The University of Oxford’s Increasing Diversity in Enterprising Activities (IDEA) initiative aims to promote inclusivity in entrepreneurial activities, starting with the under-representation of women in entrepreneurship. We’ve set a target to increase the proportion of women founders or co-founders from 15% (in 2015-16) to 34% by 2025, and we’re making progress. Over the past eight years, the proportion of women founders and co-founders of spinout companies at the University of Oxford has more than doubled to over 28%.

We know there is still work to be done to address structural issues underpinning the gender disparity.

Oxford’s women founders leading the way have described to us that they experience systemic bias throughout their entrepreneurial journey. We heard from our founders that measures currently in place to increase women’s participation tend to focus on training to enhance women’s skills, rather than addressing the structural and wider behavioural issues which these individuals cannot overcome alone. A lack of visible women role models reinforces the masculinised stereotype of a business leader.

Our women founders report that educating men to demonstrate more encouraging, positive, and constructive behaviours would help to inspire women’s confidence, assertiveness and assuredness. Continuous training to confront stereotypes both within academic institutions and the wider innovation ecosystem would ensure that the entrepreneurial environment becomes more supportive towards women.

According to the British Business Bank, 89p in every £1 of UK venture capital investment in 2019 went to all-male founder teams. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), meanwhile, found that average investments in companies founded or cofounded by women were half those in firms founded by men entrepreneurs. BCG reports that women-founded startups accounted for just 2 per cent of funds raised in key European markets.

This is not just about equity, it’s about economics. In 2019 BCG showed that if barriers to women in entrepreneurship were removed, allowing women and men to participate equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by up to six per cent, or $5 trillion.

The UK government’s recently commissioned Independent Review of University Spinouts recognises the opportunities and the challenges. Women find it more difficult to get investment in patents and to convince investors to keep them in leadership positions. This is influenced by a range of economic, cultural and political inequalities opposing women in positions of leadership, according to the Harvard Business Review. But the government’s independent review stopped short of detailed recommendations to help shift the balance with more concrete action.

What is needed is a plan to get to an equal gender split among founders by 2030. Here are five recommendations that we’ve gathered from our women founder community:

1)     Acknowledge, fund and start addressing the institutional and economic barriers preventing women from engaging in entrepreneurial activities, including awareness of the uneven burden of caring responsibilities. 

2)     Provide dedicated support in postgraduate and postdoctoral studies to uplift women to engage confidently in entrepreneurship, including women-focussed national and regional networks for sharing experiences, mentorship, training and guidance. 

3)     Promote unconscious and conscious bias training across organisations and throughout entrepreneurial and investment education, to challenge prevailing stereotypes affecting women-led enterprises. 

4)     Work with the investment community and government to increase funding dedicated to women-led ventures and increase the number of women venture capital investors.

5)     Boost attendance of women at conferences and events to increase the numbers of role models, networking and investment opportunities that showcase women entrepreneurs.

There have been some excellent initiatives from universities and their technology transfer offices that have lowered the barriers to women participation in entrepreneurship. Progress has been made, but society should be more impatient for the day when the gender balance among entrepreneurs reflects the gender balance in the general population.