In the UK, there are twice as many male entrepreneurs as female, even though women outnumber men in the general population by 1 million. Although the UK ranks better than the rest of the EU, with more than a third of its start-ups founded by women, women in the US have made more progress, thanks to more dedicated business resources targeted at helping women access critical capital and essential management know-how. The US data also shows that in 2016, women owned approximately 20% of all businesses, of which about one-quarter were minority owned. More than half of these minority women-owned firms were Asian-owned.
But women entrepreneurs still routinely get substantially less funding. More than 90% of all venture capital funding goes to male-led start-ups; the share going to women and minorities remains woefully inadequate.
Not only do women start businesses under-capitalised, often with less management training and experience, but more critically, they often lack essential professional networks. These limitations hinder women’s prospects, but more relevantly, erode their confidence about their ability to start a business.
Research published recently by the Unilever Foundry found that four in 10 female founders say they frequently encountered gender bias while running their start-up, and 42% believe gender discrimination will stay the same as they scale up. These inherent gender-related concerns also chip away at women’s confidence as they seek to overcome familial and community expectations and stereotypes in an effort to achieve professional advancement and success.
Despite the attention given to promoting women in entrepreneurship, we’re still not focusing enough on the widespread cultural and gender biases for all women, especially for those from traditional cultures that limit women’s social, cultural, and financial independence.
For example, in the Middle East and South Asia, “girls faced scepticism from family members, who felt that entrepreneurialism was too ‘risky’ a pursuit for women”. For young women, suitable marriages are often prioritized at the expense of educational and professional advancement. This gender and ethnic bias is often maintained by families even when they migrate to the UK, Europe, and North America.
For many of the young women I mentor, particularly from traditional cultures, the fact that they are female becomes the most relevant factor regarding their ability to be entrepreneurs. While there are still deep cultural limitations to equality everywhere, minority women face a double set of barriers, based on both their gender and their culture.
Around the world, there’s still a widespread lack of female role models. Regardless of where in the world they live, when both little girls and boys receive constant messages that there are not just biological differences, but differences in skills and aptitude—disparities that result from limited opportunities—it impacts the ability of both genders to interact equally and with mutual respect.
Gender perceptions affect boys and girls at a young age, and there’s still a problem with men and women not being encouraged to enter roles or industries that stereotypically are not associated with their gender.
It’s clear after a prominent year of #MeToo globally that both women and men need to equally believe in women’s abilities and opportunities.
It can take decades to change cultural influences—which are, in essence, the attitudes, values, beliefs, and practices that each of us is “programmed” with from birth by our families and communities; nevertheless, we need to pay more attention to the cultural messages that young women and men receive. While there are numerous regional, national, and global initiatives encouraging women to pursue entrepreneurship, these focus mainly on capital and management resources. We also need to focus more on encouraging confidence in girls in their homes, schools, and communities.