This Thursday is International Women’s Day, an annual calendar event which focuses on the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the globe. While real progress is being made, the recent spate of disturbing stories about bullying, sexual harassment and other forms of abusive behaviour within (but by no means limited to) show business, politics and the international aid sector, remind us how much work is still to be done to achieve gender equality.
In a year where new movements, including Me Too and Time’s Up, have come to fruition, with strong support from many men, it is hugely encouraging to see people uniting to change a culture of repression, but it’s also somewhat depressing that such action is still necessary in the 21st Century. Last year’s report by the World Economic Forum, suggesting gender parity could be as far as 200 years away, leaves little doubt of the enormity of the challenges that remain.
Without underestimating the difficult journey ahead, I believe it is right to mark International Women’s Day in a positive tone by celebrating the great advances that are being made by women in so many areas, including within the world of business. Here in Scotland, we are seeing impressive growth in female entrepreneurship. In the past year, we have seen a doubling in the numbers of women entrepreneurs putting themselves forward for the AccelerateHER Awards programme run by our organisation, Investing Women. It is encouraging to see many of those pitching to lead their companies into international expansion.
We need to continue this upward momentum by building a culture where women feel they have the confidence and the right access to support to help more of them succeed in business. Our organisation was set up on that basis, bringing together a group of established businesswomen who have been there, done it and now want to help other female entrepreneurs progress. Their support is not an act of benevolence but rather a means of creating a new channel to identify and help great businesses maximise their potential.
Getting more women into the investment community helps female-led companies which need to access finance, an issue which is often a key barrier to growth. There is clear evidence from the US, known as the “echo effect”, that increasing the level of female businesses angel investors leads to a direct rise in the proportion of female entrepreneurs securing investment for growth. With women now representing more than a quarter of all American business angels, up from just eight per cent in 2005, investment in female-led companies has grown by an even higher proportion to around 35 per cent.
Supporting female entrepreneurism should be encouraged, not only because it is helping create a more equal society, but for the compelling economic argument that goes with it. The current £5bn that women-led companies are contributing to Scotland’s annual GVA (gross value add) would increase to an estimated £13bn if we could grow the number of female-led businesses to the same level as those run by men. Providing a channel for financial investment is an important aspect to this but it’s often the hands-on support and mentoring, especially in the early days of a new business, which can make a real impact.
Next Thursday, we’ll be marking International Women’s Day with our third annual Ambition and Growth Conference which will also include the finals of the AccelerateHER Awards. These are both examples of great initiatives that provide an important platform to aspiring female entrepreneurs.
With Edinburgh ranking as the top UK city for investment in last month’s report by Arcadis Consultants (and Glasgow placed 8th place), the business environment in Scotland is promising. The challenge now is to ensure we do more to encourage further growth, including helping more female-led businesses access opportunities so they can also thrive within this landscape.
On the happy day that the UK business community becomes a level playing field, there will be no need for exclusively female-focused groups like ours. The concept of marking International Women’s Day may become obsolete once we achieve true gender parity. There is still a long way to go in that journey; but the continued progress in female entrepreneurship will only help get us closer to reaching that goal.
Jackie Waring is founder & CEO of Investing Women