This year, the International Women's Day (IWD) campaign theme #BreakTheBias invites individuals around the world to actively call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping in each and every area of our lives.
Whether deliberate or unconscious, gender bias makes it impossible for women to gain parity in a world where they are still undervalued, over looked and written off for being the "weaker" sex. Under this lens, this article examines how applicable the campaign is to the world of small business, female entrepreneurship and investment in the UK.
Record number of Female led-start-ups in 2021
According to the latest figures from the Rose Review – an independent review into female entrepreneurship led by NatWest Chief Executive Alison Rose - more than 145,200 companies were established by all-female led incorporations in 2021, up from 56,200 in 2018. This figure is growing by a third each year, with particularly strong growth in female-led start-ups among those aged 16 to 25.
Commissioned by the Treasury, the Review found that for the first time the growth of new female-led businesses surpassed their male equivalents. Amidst these increases, Black women have become one of the fastest growing segments of entrepreneurs, with Black female entrepreneurial activity now almost equal to that of Black male entrepreneurial activity (97%).
If these figures don't yet convince the "traditionally minded" sceptics that women are just as commercially minded and business savvy as their male counterparts, the prediction that £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men should.
Battle not yet won
Although these figures are encouraging, the unacceptable disparity between men and women starting and sustaining businesses remain. The COVID-19 pandemic vastly exacerbated the difficulties and expanded obstacles faced by many women in starting, continuing and scaling their business.
In 2019, official data from the BBC showed that during the first months of the first UK-wide lockdown, women were carrying out, on average, two-thirds more of the child care duties per day than men. Three lockdowns later, a new BBC commissioned survey suggests that this gender inequality has not lessened, despite both parents more often working from home. This is despite fewer than 8% of people believing that primary parental responsibility should lie with women.
Furthermore, when it comes to raising capital, women in the UK reported the highest levels of gender bias (54%), followed by the US which reported 46%. An example of how this bias presents itself in the sphere of venture capitalism is in the questions that investors ask, with females far more likely to be quizzed about personal circumstances and their credibility as business people. Black women, trans-women and the disabled face even more scrupulous barriers, with other deep rooted biases brought into sharp focus in traditional investment environments, structure and processes.
Building Back Stronger
In 2021, an update to the Rose Review stated that post-pandemic we must "build back stronger" – meaning the system of gender bias which has plagued entrepreneurship in the UK for centuries needs to be dissected, ripped up, and then re-built on values which better suit modern times. The classic value and action gap needs to be greatly reduced, with behaviours aiming to challenge the "traditional" placements of men and women in society, particularly when it comes to childcare and responsibilities surrounding the home. These include suggested solutions such as shared paid parental leave being the default.
Other suggestions to break the bias includes building stronger business support networks, of the kind men enjoy, increasing contact with peers and mentors. Trailblazers such as the Allbright network and Sister Snog already demonstrate how effective these networks are at both starting and, importantly, sustaining women-led businesses.
Overall, it's safe to assume the glass ceiling of entrepreneurship in the UK is being rocked, however the figures arising from the impact of the pandemic demonstrate the pressure needs to continue and be intensified by all individuals, corporations and entities, not just those who are female-led, if the gender bias is to be shattered entirely.