Are women shut out of spinouts?

[Guest post by Heather Griffiths, Oxford Brookes University]

Over the last three years, myself and my colleagues at the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes have been working on an EPSRC funded research project looking at the underrepresentation of women in STEMM spinout companies. This is one of several ‘sister projects’, funded under the EPSRC’s first (and hopefully not last) ‘Inclusion Matters’ initiative, which aims to understand more about equality, diversity and inclusion issues in STEMM.

At the start of this research, I had never heard of a university spinout company. This is probably because I had never come across them as a social scientist but also, since we started the project in November 2018, there seems to have been a surge of interest in research commercialisation across the higher education sector. But…is this shift toward commercialisation recognising the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion?

Our research found that since 2011, only 13% of (currently active) university spinout companies had a woman on the founding team and 59% of spinouts had no women at all in their C-suite*. Some critics of these stats say that this just reflects the low numbers of women STEMM researchers but we argue that these numbers are a result of ingrained biases across STEMM but also within innovation and investment (see also Rosa and Dawson, 2006).

As part of the study, we interviewed 20 women and 15 men spinout founders in the UK which highlighted there are areas of gender bias and discrimination within the spinouts ecosystem, as well as many instances of exclusion that can only be seen through the lens of gender and EDI.

- We found that women researchers experienced gender stereotyping with women receiving comments about their sexuality as well as what they were wearing. There was also some evidence of these gendered stereotypes intersecting with racial profiling, exacerbating the issue for women from ethnic minority backgrounds.

- Both women and men founders commented how male dominated it is in business and investment and women founders said they lacked relatable role models. This meant that mentors tended to be older white men who, at best, could not always understand the experiences these women were going through and at worst were responsible for some of the aforementioned sexist comments.

- Founders also struggled with poor work-life balance which led to several women researchers with young children leaving academia altogether to focus on their spinout companies. Within our sample, half of the women interviewed retained academic roles whilst running their spinout compared to almost three quarters of men. It also seemed that some institutions were more supportive than others about their staff engaging in commercialisation activities during work time.

So what do we recommend? First of all, it is important to state that rather than ‘fixing the women’, this research is about encouraging institutions to change their approach and ensure that academic entrepreneurship is inclusive and accessible to all. Having said that, as a result of our findings we have created a few resources to support women who want to consider academic entrepreneurship, including:

- A series of profiles of successful women founders (including Tiger In STEMM founder Prof. Rachel Oliver!) to inspire women academics and demystify the experience

- A LinkedIn group to connect aspiring women academic entrepreneurs to women further along in their commercialisation journey, including a number of spinout founders and other women from across the spinouts ecosystem.

- A number of videos almost exclusively featuring women that can offer advice about anything from exploratory funding to marketing, as well as more stories about the spinout journey.

Whilst we hope these materials will be useful we want more than anything for research institutions to adopt our recommendations for change. After all, these recommendations are based on evidence collected from their members and as interest in commercialisation and spinouts grow it would be great to see them adopt these suggestions from the outset. Such as:

- Recognising commercialisation activity in promotions and work/time planning to ensure all academics, but especially those with caring responsibilities, have the time to pursue academic entrepreneurship as part of a legitimate career trajectory

- Promote more inclusive entrepreneurial role models for women and those from other underrepresented backgrounds. This includes everything from examples used in training materials to personal mentors.

- Work with partners both inside and outside the institution to encourage and promote more inclusive and representative practices. For example, encouraging more cross-disciplinary initiatives to diversify spinout founding teams and working with investors who have signed up to the Investment in Women code.

Although this project is now completed our mission to support more women and minority groups into academic entrepreneurship is not over. We hope we can continue to highlight and challenge more of the structural barriers that are excluding women from these exciting and valuable career opportunities. If you’d like to help us do so please do get in touch as there are some amazing women researchers out there with incredible ideas that will one day change the world!

*C-Suite: the company’s most senior level executives, so-called because their positions often have the word ‘chief’ in the title.

TIGERS asked some women spinout founders to comment anonymously on their experiences of launching their companies. Here’s what they had to say:

Founder 1: “I found the transition from academic to CEO interesting because the academic ecosystem mimics the corporate one to some extent, but there are some more subtle and not so subtle displays of classism involved in creating a company. Whether that’s expensive lawyers, upfront cash or access to highly sought after mentorship, it can feel like a secret world with secret rules. Without generalising, when you meet some male founders (two thirds of businesses in the UK are owned by men) you get this sense that its easy for them to obtain these resources, and that they expect to get them. You don’t want to learn to have a sense of entitlement, but to push back against sexism and be heard as the ‘founder’, you need to.”

Founder 2: As a female founder of a tech start-up company, I have noticed not being taken seriously because I am naturally softly spoken; I have consciously had to change the way I speak in order to counteract this bias. As a company, we have also experienced initial scepticism and condescension — particularly by men over 50 — because our governance is composed entirely of women.

Founder 3: As a woman with a young family, I found the experience of pitching for funding presented particular barriers, including inflexibly timed events which caused childcare chaos. Moreover, the heavily male-dominated environment in which these pitches take place allowed men to dismiss or denigrate my expertise. Whilst I have enjoyed advice from some excellent male mentors in the spinout process, I've also encountered some who take advantage of their position, in subtle ways: conversations held apparently with my chest rather than my face, hands that linger too long on the lower back or upper arm. Overall, although I'm proud of my achievements as a spinout founder, getting to where I am today has been one of the more uncomfortable experiences of my varied career.

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