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Women and Innovation – what’s going wrong?

On International Women’s Day, 8th March 2016, HSBC announced the shortlist in their recent business competition. Of the ten people short-listed, there was just one woman- and that’s out of over 1000 applicants to the competition.

This could have been a one-off, but similarly, last summer, in the Virgin Pitch to Rich competition which attracted multiples of 1000s of entries, yet again, the shortlist of ten was nine men and one woman (http://www.virginmediabusiness.co.uk/pitch-to-rich/). What is going wrong here? Why is it that business ideas presented by women are not chosen as winners? I can’t believe that the quality of the applications from women to both competitions was so much lower that it caused them to be so under- represented in the short-lists. I’ve used these business competition examples as a proxy for women’s engagement in innovation, which is perhaps misplaced, but having searched my networks (which are mainly North East England based) and tried to uncover women who are innovating, it is clear that there are women in senior positions in supportive /facilitative roles in innovation environments, but it’s hard to find women who are openly ‘innovating in business’.

At this point I should declare my interest; one is that as a former secondee to the North East Local Enterprise Partnership Innovation team, but secondly, (and my major prompt for this article), is I am particularly irked as I entered my invention to both competitions. Now naturally I feel my innovative business deserves to be up there in the top ten(!) (in a nutshell, I’ve designed a new baby’s cotbed, (see http://www.karekot.com/) which systematically reduces the hazards I faced with my baby in a traditional wooden-barred cot). I’ve followed all the due process rules of product development, including spending thousands on intellectual property, but for whatever reason I have not yet managed to get it ‘over the line’ and get it to market. Karekot was inspired by my daughter when she was a baby- she’s now six and a half and it’s getting embarrassing that it has taken me so long! There are mitigating circumstances however, and rather than brooding on my own bitterness, which I admit I’m good at (!), I’ve tried to understand why it is that women are so under-represented in innovation:

The investment network is imbalanced

I’ll start off by saying it’s great that we have a female investor network here in North East England http://www.gabriel-investors.com/, but most of the investment opportunities still require pitching to a majority of men. I have recently been recommended to approach a North East based investment network and did some research on their members – all 16 of them listed are men! Whilst I have no fear of pitching to this audience, and have done it with some success in the past, for some women with great ideas and creativity, this can really be off-putting. From the investor perspective, (and indeed in any grouping of similar types of people), they will naturally associate with those who are like them. But, wouldn’t it be great if there could be a more diverse mix on our investment panels resulting in a more diverse mix of businesses funded? It’s interesting (and quite sad really) to note that an investment platform called CircleUp uses data to select potential investment businesses, rather than a human, to avoid bias see http://www.fastcompany.com/3057844/when-data-not-humans-guide-vc-funding-more-women-win but it is with some success, as 35% of its funded companies have a female Chief Exec or Founder compared to the usual rate of traditional VC investments being less than 10%. And there are examples of where investments in female led businesses pay off; First Round Capital reported female founders performing 63 % better than investments made with all-male founding teams (http://thenextweb.com/insider/2016/03/11/961528/). Village Capital (http://impactalpha.com/social-enterprise-leveling-the-investment-playing-field/) found that female-run companies outperformed male-led firms by at least 20 percent in revenue earned and jobs created while raising less capital. Now these examples are from the USA- what might we do here?

Women present their ideas/opportunities differently and with less confidence

I’ve noticed that women are much more humble, to the point that they are apologetic about their idea/invention when presenting. It seems to be a natural default position to accept any criticism, implied or otherwise, rather than legitimately challenge it. This is about belief and confidence I guess. Avril MacDonald wrote a fabulous report about the different approaches boys and girls take in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) environment (https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/uploads/wise/files/not_for_people_like_me.pdf) and has done some very interesting work on the different approaches that men and women adopt when applying for jobs: When it comes to for example, the ten essential criteria that the job requires, potential female and male applicants might have just seven essential skills, but at this point the female will reject it out of hand as she does not have the full set of essential skills, whereas a male will just go for it anyway and probably get the job– well good on him! In my recent experience I was speaking to an excellent financial advisor about what would be reasonable to pitch for as a salary for me to potential investors; my default position was around minimum wage, his advice was to almost double it as in the past investors had not baulked at the Chief Executive taking a reasonable, but not exorbitant salary!

Innovation is perceived as “techy” but truly great innovation sees unarticulated needs and women are often better at identifying these as product or service opportunities

Innovation is ‘sciency and techy’ ?– No its not, it certainly can be, but innovation can apply to every aspect of our lives. However, looking at the on-going imbalance of women who study and work in the STEM industries and the perception that innovation predominates in these industries, this might again partially explain why there is an under-representation of women in innovation in the workplace. An article published on International Women’s Day : http://www.information-age.com/industry/uk-industry/123461066/international-womens-day-2016-10-things-you-need-know-about-women-tech#sthash.Z5BDLfkL.dpuf cited just 7% of girls currently taking up computer studies A-level courses. At University only 17% of those studying computer science in higher education are women, which is the lowest percentage in any field except for engineering and technology. In these subjects women make up just 15% of the enrolments. Of that small percentage of women who take STEM subjects, only half (51%) actually go on to do STEM-related jobs. But, women are good at seeing problems and creating solutions to them. The nursery industry is a really good example of where mums especially come up with new products because what they have experienced simply didn’t work well enough.

Women still remain the main carers

‘Mummy, you’re always working!’ – how can that plaintive wail from a cute as chips six year old not tug at your heart strings and not take you away from that important aspect of your business plan? I regularly get this and I constantly feel the guilt as I juggle to keep her sweet, the house in a state of reasonable tidiness and progress my business, in effect, in my spare time. And school run and school pick up always mean that I’m one of the last in work and one of the first to leave so, those breakfast meetings and dinners in swanky (and not so swanky hotels!) are off the agenda. This is, I know, where many informal, but productive conversations are had.

And finally, the pearler!:

‘It’s a lifestyle business’

WHAT??? When recently speaking to a potential investor about my business, this is the comment I received from him. Why is there an assumption that because you are female you naturally fall into the ‘lifestyle business’ category? – the conversation ended pretty soon after that!

So, that could appear to be quite a subjective rant, and whilst I know a lot of men want to see change I do feel a little better for it! If this article provokes responses of women (and men!) who can challenge my assumptions and relay different experiences great – but even better if they are actually doing it, let’s shout about it and get it out there!

Katharine Paterson
Founder and Director at So To Company Ltd