Oxford University Innovation unveils five recommendations to increase the proportion of women founders to 34 per cent by 2025

Profile images of Mairi Gibbs, Catherine Spence, Pippa Christoforou, Dr Holly Reeve, Prof Kylie Vincent and Dr Danuta Jeziorska

14th March 2024

Oxford University Innovation (OUI) backs International Women’s Day 2024 call for accelerating women’s equality through creation of gender parity in enterprise.

Oxford University Innovation proposes a new target to increase the proportion of women founders or co-founders from 15 per cent in 2015-16 to 34 per cent by 2025. The University of Oxford’s Increasing Diversity in Enterprising Activities (IDEA) initiative aims to promote inclusivity in entrepreneurial activities, first tackling the under-representation of women in entrepreneurship. Over the past eight years, the proportion of women founders and co-founders of spinout companies at the University of Oxford has roughly doubled to over 28 per cent.

Oxford’s women founders leading the way describe their experiences of systemic bias throughout their entrepreneurial journey. According to founders, measures currently in place to increase women’s participation tend to focus on training to enhance women’s skills, rather than addressing the structural and wider behavioural issues which these individuals cannot overcome alone.

Oxford’s women founders report that educating men to demonstrate more encouraging, positive, and constructive behaviours would help to inspire women’s confidence, assertiveness and assuredness. Continuous training to confront stereotypes both within academic institutions and the wider innovation ecosystem would ensure that the entrepreneurial environment becomes more supportive towards women.

According to the British Business Bank, 89p in every £1 of UK venture capital investment in 2019 went to all-male founder teams. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), meanwhile, found that average investments in companies founded or cofounded by women were half those in firms founded by men entrepreneurs. BCG reports that women-founded startups accounted for just 2 per cent of funds raised in key European markets.

Mairi Gibbs, Chief Operating Officer of Oxford University Innovation, said:

“According to the consultancy Beauhurst, less than 8 per cent of UK university spinouts had all-women founding teams in 2023, while over 75 per cent were all-male. That’s a significant improvement on 2016 when all-women founded spinouts represented an alarming zero per cent, but if progress continues at this pace, it will take half a century to bridge the gap. That is why we are calling for a plan to deliver our ambitions to reach 34 per cent by 2025.

“This is not just about equity, it’s about economics. In 2019 BCG showed that if barriers to women in entrepreneurship were removed, allowing women and men to participate equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by up to six per cent, or $5 trillion.”

The UK government’s recently commissioned Independent review of university spinouts recognises the opportunities and the challenges. Women find it more difficult to get investment in patents and to convince investors to keep them in leadership positions. This is influenced by a range of economic, cultural and political inequalities opposing women in positions of leadership, according to the Harvard Business Review. But the government’s independent review stopped short of detailed recommendations to help shift the balance with more concrete action. What is needed is a plan to get to an equal gender split among founders by 2030. Here are five recommendations that Oxford University Innovation has gathered from its women founder community:

  1. Acknowledge, fund and start addressing the institutional and economic barriers preventing women from engaging in entrepreneurial activities, including awareness of the uneven burden of caring responsibilities.
  2. Provide dedicated support in postgraduate and postdoctoral studies to uplift women to engage confidently in entrepreneurship, including women-focussed national and regional networks for sharing experiences, mentorship, training and guidance.
  3. Promote unconscious and conscious bias training across organisations and throughout entrepreneurial and investment education, to challenge prevailing stereotypes affecting women-led enterprises.
  4. Work with the investment community and government to increase funding dedicated to women-led ventures and increase the number of women venture capital investors.
  5. Boost attendance of women at conferences and events to increase the numbers of role models, networking and investment opportunities that showcase women entrepreneurs.

Professor Dame Molly Stevens, University of Oxford Academic Champion for Women & Diversity in Entrepreneurship said:

“It is vitally important to have diversity across all levels of university spinouts and start-ups. Through my experience growing companies, and now championing the IDEA initiative to empower women and diversity across the University of Oxford, I have seen first-hand the positive impact of support for women in entrepreneurship. We need to continue to build the profile of women innovators to encourage funding and investor partnerships that will foster more world-class female-led technologies and companies. These advances in championing female founders should sit alongside strong efforts to promote broader diversity in other underrepresented groups of entrepreneurs too.”

Danuta Jeziorska, CEO and Co-founder of Nucleome Therapeutics, said:

“The prevalent cultural understanding of what a strong leader looks like is heavily masculinised. This needs to be redefined such that people understand what strong female leaders look like on their own terms, for example by celebrating and highlighting the features of women that make them great leaders.

“Painting entrepreneurs as superhumans creates barriers to entry. Women often do not apply for jobs unless they are unquestionably qualified, or even overqualified. Most initiatives focus on training around skills, but the issue for women is not a skills gap, it’s a funding and access gap.

“The Oxford entrepreneurial ecosystem played a large part in the Company and my successful start. I have benefited from multiple Oxford initiatives, such as Idea2Impact, and advice from successful leaders.”

Dr Holly Reeve, CEO and Co-founder of HydRegen, added:

“The buzz around entrepreneurship has increased rapidly, and with that comes more awareness of what being an entrepreneur is like. By demystifying the process of becoming a successful founder, we can make this seem like a viable option for women who may be less confident but no less capable.

“In my journey, I have utilised schemes such as ICURe, as well as leadership, IP and project management training to build confidence and push my self-defined boundaries. I love seeing the initiatives, such as RisingWise and IDEA, creating networks for entrepreneurially minded women.”

There have been some excellent initiatives from universities and their technology transfer offices that have lowered the barriers to women participation in entrepreneurship. Progress has been made, but society should be more impatient for the day when the gender balance among entrepreneurs reflects the gender balance in the general population.

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