Innovation is one of the key drivers of human progress and this year, like no other, we celebrate the success of innovation with vaccines offering a path out of the COVID pandemic.
Everybody would agree that women are no less innovative or creative than men. One just needs to think about examples of Hedy Lamarr – famous actress, gifted mathematician and engineer. She aided the World War II effort by creating something called “frequency hopping” which provided the model for what would later become GPS, Bluetooth, and WIFI. There was Josephine Cochran - inventor of the dish washer who came up with the idea of a rack of dishes cleaned by pressurized water and changed all of our lives for the better.
However, even today relatively few women are named inventors on patents. In 2019, a study by the UK's Intellectual Property Office showed that women inventors account for just under 13% of patent applications globally.
Similarly, only 25% of UK high growth companies have a female founder. When it comes to spin-outs, this number drops to 13%. Similarly, the recent government review found that only 13% of leadership positions in the UK’s investment teams are taken by women and nearly half of them have no women at all. And though the research is clear that diverse teams outperform peers, the progress of growing number of women on boards is slow.
But it is not all doom and gloom and things are getting better, in particularly in the last 20 years. I started my business in early 2000 after doing my undergraduate degree and then a PhD in Life Sciences. During my studies I was surrounded by a fairly equal number of men and women and therefore never thought about gender inequalities. I was fortunate to be awarded an Enterprise Fellowship by the Royal Society of Edinburgh aimed at helping early career researchers to transition into the business world. I was excited, yet terrified about the prospect of becoming a CEO of a technology company. At the time, there were only a hand full of support mechanisms for budding entrepreneurs and nothing that was aimed at women. When talking to customers and investors, dealing with potential mentors and non-executives directors, most of the time, I was the only female in the room.
Move on to the current day and we see a very different picture. Female entrepreneurship is supported by many organisations: we have female led business angel syndicates like Investing Women and Addidi Angels, accelerators for women like AccelerateHer and Hatch Female Founders. Changing the Chemistry and Women on Boards are helping to attract more female non-executives. It has become the norm to see more women on stage and in the audience at conferences, judging panels and pitching events. But it takes consistent effort.
When I started Converge Challenge - the leading company creation programme for Scottish Universities, we had only 18% female applicants. Within eight years, after several dedicated campaigns, this number rose to 50% and last year all of the competition’s winners were women.
I would like to think that being female-led has helped Converge to attract more women. Having role models is hugely important. As they say, seeing is believing. We need to shine more light on women in leadership positions within Universities and businesses: being that academics, spin-out founders or technology transfer professionals. There is not enough of us and it is our duty not to shy away from talking about our careers and from supporting others.
At the University of Strathclyde we do our best to promote female role models such as Holly Butler, co-founder of ClinSpec Dx, a brain cancer diagnostic company that recently closed a £3.5M funding round, and Rebecca Pick, who founded Pick Protection, a lone worker protection company. We have big plans for our newly launched entrepreneurship strategy – Strathclyde Inspire that has strong female leadership from academic and professional services.
I would like to finish by making a call for action: next time when you are asked to mentor someone or to be on the panel - say ‘yes’ and if, for whatever reason, you cannot, please nominate another woman.
Director of Innovation and Industry Engagement, University of Strathclyde
Written in celebration of International Women's Day 2021 for the PraxisAuril blog series - Women in Innovation