Confidence is the biggest barrier women entrepreneurs face

Lack of confidence ingrained at an early age holds back female entrepreneurs, says Ann Harrison of lawyers Stephensons

The story of female entrepreneurship to date makes for grim reading:

  • Only half the numbers of women start their own businesses compared with men
  • Just 17 per cent of start-ups are run by women
  • Only 20 per cent of SMEs are run by women
  • There are only 30 women in full-time executive roles at board level in FTSE-250 firms

These numbers may not be surprising, but they should be disturbing. They suggest a huge waste of talent and skills. Approximately 1,000 new businesses are started every single day in the UK. If we encourage women to put their good business ideas into practice, there could be more.

So, what are the barriers preventing women from being more entrepreneurial?

  • Maternity leave and family care needs form a huge barrier to women starting up their own business. It’s very hard to devote the time needed to nurturing a fledgling firm when you are also the main carer for children and possibly older relations as well. There is a real need for support from government and the development of flexible working.
  • Investors may be less willing to put money into new businesses owned by women. Or do fewer women have the confidence to approach their bank or investor for financial support? Support from lenders to work with and encourage potential female entrepreneurs could assist. Perhaps one of the mainstream banks should promote their services to potential female businesses.
  • Lack of confidence in their own ability, combined with a macho atmosphere in some board rooms, can be a significant barrier. This problem starts in schools where girls experience gender stereotyping throughout their developmental years. A recent TV series highlighted the issue in primary schools, where both teachers and parents unwittingly adopted different approaches to boys and girls. This led to boys overstating their abilities and expectations, whilst girls very much understated their own abilities.
  • Lack of good female role models. Successful women need to tell their stories; to put some time into encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.

Boys overstated their abilities, while girls very much understated their own abilities.

What can we do to change things?

It starts in schools and colleges – a programme of mentoring and coaching girls would help significantly, especially if led by women who have already forged a career for themselves in business.

Some professions are also beginning to address the situation. Christina Blacklaws, newly elected President of the Law Society, is taking diversity and inclusion as one of her main themes, focusing on social mobility and women in leadership in the law. Blacklaws is hosting various round tables and events to encourage young Solicitors to think about a senior role in their firm.

There are also various initiatives in colleges and schools encouraging women to tell their stories to girls by way of encouraging them. “If I can do this, so can you “– is a good way of inspiring young women and helping them to build their confidence.

Networking groups run by women for women are also helpful. It can be very daunting to attend a networking event populated mostly by men talking about football. Local Chambers of Commerce have a role to play here, organising events to attract budding female business owners. The Women in Business Network is a good model for such events and organisations such as The Prince’s Trust do wonderful work to help nurture, empower and inspire young women to build their own futures.

We can’t change the world overnight, but if we can, gradually, encourage women to start up and promote their own businesses, then this would be good for the economy, for the culture of our business communities, and for women themselves.