Enterprise Lab

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Business schools have a responsibility to tackle the growing gap between male and female entrepreneurs says Dr Markus Perkmann, Head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Department.

Despite the number of highly visible women in top roles at entrepreneurial and technology firms, men are substantially more likely – about twice as much – to start new businesses as women. As a result, the number of female entrepreneurs, particularly in high-growth startups remains low.

While this is certainly due to the persistence of gender stereotypes, there are also structural reasons as to why we have so few women at the helm of ventures in areas such as digital tech or biotech.

Research shows that when women first graduate from university, they aspire to the same heights as men in their careers, but their confidence wavers as time goes on thus impacting their long-term career success.

At present there are still just seven female CEOs on the FTSE 100 boards, despite the progress achieved by the 30% Club to increase female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, with a target of a minimum of 30 per cent women on executive boards by 2020.

Lack of role models

While male entrepreneurs have long benefited from opportunities to network with relevant role models in industry, the absence of similar support for women has meant that many women are put off from attempting to launch their own businesses. The cultural perceptions around entrepreneurship don’t help women either.

Entrepreneurship has traditionally been perceived as a masculine endeavour and this idea still holds firm within most cultures. Within a family of entrepreneurs, it tends to be the male members who are nominated or put themselves forward to take on the role of company founder. This further reinforces the idea that setting up your own business and therefore providing for a family is something that only men can do.

The new generation of high-growth, high-tech entrepreneurs doesn’t normally originate within families and hence one may think that the pro-masculine bias often prevailing within families may help women play a stronger role. The culture of these businesses generally embraces people from a wide range of educational backgrounds and professional networks, which are seen as positive drivers that young companies need to succeed.

Structural barriers

However, in many of the new crop of high-growth entrepreneurial firms, gender imbalances are “inherited” from the professional fields in which they operate. For instance, there are a lot more men amongst software developers than women, giving the technology industry a male dominated image which puts off many women from wanting to work or set up businesses in this area. Within such male-dominated environments, women are systematically disadvantaged or expected to “overcompensate”.

For instance, research shows that female-lead companies seek and raise a lot less funding compared to male-lead firms, which can be problematic for new startups who are seeking vital investments to get their businesses off the ground. Women may struggle to attract investors because they are perceived to be less skilled or competent.

Championing diversity

Universities have a key role to play in shaping the CEOs and company founders of the future. So what should business schools be doing to address the lack of female entrepreneurs?

Business schools need to make gender parity a key priority, and recognise their role in building a strong pipeline of women equipped to lead companies and launch their own ventures. This starts by challenging the perception of the “typical MBA candidate” and sharing diverse student success stories to inspire women who may not have considered an MBA as an achievable next step.

Alongside attracting more women to apply for graduate management education, business schools need to work to remove unconscious bias from their selection process, and recognise that female candidates may face different barriers in pursing their goals – and therefore need different support. Imperial has a strong commitment to achieving gender parity on our programmes and championing diversity as part of our admissions process.

At Imperial College Business School, our overall student body is equally split in terms of gender. Last year we achieved a 45 per cent intake of women on our Full-Time MBA programme and we’ve just admitted 40 per cent women on our Executive MBA, which demonstrates our commitment to gender equity.

The Business School is a proud sponsor of the Forté Foundation, offering fellowships to top Full-Time MBA women and access to career support, guidance and inspiration to our female students on all programmes – as well as working with Forté to support future MBA women in the early stages of their careers.

We also run a number of initiatives to promote gender diversity including the Dorothy Griffiths Full-Time MBA Scholarship for Excellence for candidates who demonstrate outstanding academic achievement and a drive for innovation, excellence and gender parity. The Business School also offers Executive MBA scholarships in partnership with the 30% Club.

Business schools should also hire more female academics to teach about entrepreneurship, to challenge the notion of entrepreneurship as being something that only men can do. We have followed this principle in our Innovation & Entrepreneurship Department, with half of our faculty being female, but we need to do more to ensure women academics are also adequately represented at senior professor level.

Students also need access to women entrepreneurs to give them the confidence and tools to get their business ideas off the ground. We do this through the Enterprise Lab, a facility based within Imperial College London, which puts female students in touch with prominent female entrepreneurs who act as mentors.

Students from the Business School and the rest of Imperial College London can also take part in the Althea-Imperial programme, where female students are invited to pitch their business ideas in the hope of winning at £10,000 prize.

Students can also get involved in the College’s startup community in other ways. For example, MBA Connect is a new initiative that puts MBA students in touch with budding student entrepreneurs to provide advice on the business aspects of launching an enterprise. The Business School students involved in the scheme are from a diverse range of backgrounds and nationalities, with an equal balance between men and women.

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Markus Perkmann

About Markus Perkmann

Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Academic Director, Imperial MBA
Markus Perkmann is Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He is the academic director of the Imperial MBA and academic director of the Imperial Enterprise Lab. He also curates the Entrepreneurial Journey, our school's experiential startup programme across all on-site MBA programmes.

His research focuses on the business of science, science and technology entrepreneurship and university technology transfer. He is editor of the journal Innovation: Organization & Management, and his research was published in journals including Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Research Policy and MIT Sloan Management Review.

Markus has startup experience stemming from working at Greychip, a London-based startup company founded to create an e-learning platform. He holds a PhD in Sociology from Lancaster University.

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