In 1869, Arabella Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the United States. In the UK, we had to wait until 1922 before we got our first solicitors. Prior to the 1919 Sex Disqualification Act, it was illegal for women to practice law. Although there’s no doubt room for improvement – perhaps most notably with firms’ treatment of women returning from from maternity leave – it’s telling that of the 17,335 UK students who were accepted onto courses to study law in 2015/16, 67.3 per cent were female. Lawyers have been around since the orators of ancient Athens, or at least the reign of Emperor Claudius. On that timescale, it’s surprising that just a century ago it was commonly thought that women couldn’t or shouldn’t practice law. Pessimists may note how wrong most people can be; optimists might console themselves with how far we’ve come.
Like law, business ownership has historically been a male preserve. Though in recent years we have seen many successful women buck the trend, we are still seeing too few female entrepreneurs scale their business. The week, we at The Entrepreneurs Network released a report with Barclays looking at why too few women-led businesses reach the same economic scale as that achieved by male-led companies. Untapped Unicorns, a project of the Female Founders Forum, draws on the latest academic research and the knowledge of the female founders of Britain’s fastest growing businesses to address this important issue.
According to the Women’s Business Council, the UK economy is missing out on more than 1.2m new enterprises due to the untapped potential of women. This matters because new and scaling companies are more likely than other businesses to do the stuff that we all like: employ people, increase economic growth and innovate.
The findings and recommendations of the report are multifarious. With entrepreneurship it could never be as simple as suggesting quotas. In fact, the government’s role for change is restricted to better data and its crucial responsibility as the near monopoly provider of education. There are many organisations – such as the inspiring Founders4Schools – that the government should better champion.
We all have biases. They’re shortcuts for the brain to deal with a complex world. While sometimes useful, they’re often based on misconceptions. A series of randomised controlled trials, carried out at the University of California and Harvard University, showed that a female name, picture, or voice cut the odds of receiving investment for the same idea. The venture capital industry is disconcertingly male – of the top 100 venture firms globally, just 7 per cent of the partners are women. Quotas aren’t the answer, but the venture capital industry would do well to learn from law firms about how they’re increasingly managing to attract women to the profession. Having a genuinely diverse workforce helps to challenge the curses of groupthink and motivated reasoning. Another way of overcoming biases is through processes. For example, the accelerator MassChallenge has a sophisticated blind application process so that entrepreneurs are chosen on a meritocratic basis.
Regular press coverage is important for building credibility, customers and therefore funding. The media also has a role to play in promoting female entrepreneurs. Research suggests that on average women are less keen to push themselves forward and shout about their skills and successes compared to men. As such, journalists who doesn’t actively seek out more introverted entrepreneurs will be missing out on many great female (and male) entrepreneurs who have products and stories every bit as impressive and compelling as those of a more extroverted disposition.
There is a significant and growing pipeline of brilliant female entrepreneurs. The more this continues the greater the arbitrage opportunity will be and the higher chance the gap will narrow. Over the next 12 months the Female Founders Forum will turn its attention to mentoring. We all need inspiration: 83 per cent of women who have started their own business have known someone else who has done so. I’m an optimist about the future and in awe at the progress humanity has achieved – but that’s no excuse for being panglossian.