20 August 2018

Kate Clayton-Hathway from Oxford Brookes University discusses the importance of increasing diversity in the creation of spin-out companies

Government Strategy sets science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as a key priority. Women may, though, face greater barriers when undertaking entrepreneurial paths. Oxford Brookes’ recent report on women in spinout companies forms the basis for an exciting new, EPSRC-funded project exploring the impact of gender in this area.

The UK Industrial Strategy published in November 2017 identified investment in research and development as a key priority, fuelled by a vision for a knowledge-led economy underpinned by world-leading research and an ambition to be the most innovative country in the world by 2030. Addressing the current shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills is therefore a priority, and key government policies for this include commitments to invest an additional £406m in digital and technical education, and to raise total research and development investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027. Entrepreneurs already add to the millions of small or medium enterprises that make a significant contribution to the UK economy, although it is recognised that women face greater barriers to success in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Universities, and surrounding ‘innovation clusters’ form a key role in the government’s vision to create thousands of skilled jobs in R&D and wider sectors driven by growth in STEM skills and in new business developed through property licencing and spinout businesses. Universities are often on the cutting edge of new discoveries and have long been actively engaged in commercialising their intellectual property. In the 2014-15 academic year, for example, £52.8 million was realised from the sale of shares in spinout companies. However, though over 1,700 spinout companies have been created since 2000, according to Spinouts UK, information on the role of women in their formation and development is scarce.

To better understand women’s involvement in spinouts, Oxford Brookes Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice produced a scoping and discussion paper, University Spinouts: Exploring Women’s Participation published in March. Primarily, this work provided a baseline understanding and a set of initial metrics across various aspects of the spinout process. The desk-based study drew on Spinouts UK data listed on companies formed between 2015 and 2016, venture capital organisations and Companies House information. Analysis focused on four key areas, including spinout founders, company governance, venture capital companies and the university technology transfer offices (TTOs) that play a pivotal role in providing links to potential investors. Each area was assessed to determine the levels of women’s representation.

Findings showed that of the 131 spinout companies included in the Brookes study, only 20 founders or co-founders were women. Interestingly, these were found to be predominantly from universities which actively promote women in STEM through the Athena SWAN initiative. Women were similarly underrepresented in governance positions, with the boards of these companies found to be almost exclusively made up of men (88%), and only 5% of chairs being women. The picture of under-representation was confirmed for TTOs too, with just 19% of director roles being held by women, though executive teams were slightly more gender-diverse with 27% being women. Finally, venture capital companies also showed a lack of gender diversity at the top, with 13% of 61 directors in the sample being women.

Although the paper features a more positive perspective by providing inspirational profiles of successful women entrepreneurs, overwhelmingly it shows that men hold the majority of leadership roles across key aspects of the spinout process. This, arguably, raises a range of questions about contributory factors to women’s under-representation, and though the challenges relating to women’s research career progression are well understood, the report identifies a lack of research relating to their entrepreneurial career progression in Higher Education (HE). Given the importance of a knowledge and innovation-led economy, more work is needed to transform the ways that the STEM community and the HE sector understand pathways for women researchers to spinout.

The EPSRC recently announced awarding funding to Oxford Brookes University as part of its ‘Inclusion Matters’ initiative, to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in spinout companies. This forthcoming project is therefore timely, and an exciting development in this area. The research will identify barriers as well as enabling factors that exist for women scientists, engineers and mathematicians in key stages of the spinout process and entrepreneurial activities. The vision for this work is to achieve a step change in institutional capabilities to increase the participation of women researchers in STEM disciplines in university spinouts and mainstream gender in the ecosystem which drives innovation. Such change is arguably essential if the strategic vision for the UK to leading the way in innovation is to be realised, and women entrepreneurs are to be supported in making full use of their talent and potential.

Oxford Brookes Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice specialises in inter-disciplinary research on equality and diversity, focusing on work and organisational settings, with many of their projects addressing gender equality. Recent work includes the first UK study into the exchange of board-level talent between business and academia, researching the role of Executive Search Firms to promote diversity in senior appointments in HE, gendered career trajectories of leaders in HE and measuring gender diversity and performance in research teams in STEM. Such work has provided a wealth of insight into the reasons women might be underrepresented in certain professions and roles.

Written by Kate Clayton-Hathway, Research Fellow, Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice, Oxford Brookes Business School, Oxford Brookes University

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