It's time to make business sense around gender inequality

I'm sitting at a hotdesk in Google Campus, Old Street – an area in East London that has become known as Silicon Roundabout – the UK's answer to Silicon Valley. It's packed, and I'm surrounded by people who are working for start-ups like me, but I stand out. As I look around, a quick count reveals 19 men, and just one other woman. Once a week, our team works from IdeaSpace in Cambridge – a similar sort of space in ‘Silicone Fen’. There’s a wall of male faces representing the founders that use these offices. I can only pick out two women.

Despite the incredible progress the women's movement has made in so many areas, I’m left wondering why women are still so poorly represented within the start-up community – particularly in tech start-ups – and whether there is anything that can be done about it.

I work for a six-month-old equity crowdfunding platform called SyndicateRoom. We help other start-ups to raise the finance they need through our crowd, so I get to meet with a lot of other young businesses. But of those businesses I’ve worked with so far, I haven't come across a single one that has a female founder. In fact, I’ve yet to encounter a single female board member.

For too long the argument for more women in our country's start-ups (or even FTSE 100 boardrooms) has centred on the need for greater equality of opportunity and access. This message is failing to make enough of an impact, and as such, it's failing women. A more compelling case can be made by pushing the fact that having more women leading start-ups to success isn't just better for women: it's better for business.  Women make up half of all consumers and represent 47% of the entire workforce.  A successful business can only be effective in the long term if it is able to understand the needs of both women and men.

There are wider economic arguments too.  If women started new businesses at the same rate as men, we would have more than 100,000 extra new businesses a year.  Would all of these businesses succeed? No. But those that did would begin the process of reshaping our start-up base to be more representative, and receptive to a smarter, more agile consumer.   

And it's not just the founder community in which women are hugely under-represented. Equally important to the start-up ecosystem are people who invest in fledgling businesses. At SyndicateRoom we work with sophisticated investors, High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and business angels. Surprise surprise, very few of these are female. In fact, only 5% of business angels in the UK are women.

Dale Murray CBE, a leading entrepreneur and angel investor rightly observes that "women investors contribute in different ways to their investee companies: they often represent a large portion of a company's customer base". And yet a matter of weeks ago I received advice from a group of external consultants "not to chase women investors" because they are "too niche" a target market. “Too niche” they will remain if I fail to make our services relevant to them.

Most angels and venture capitalists will admit that investing in start-ups is all about the team, and investors tend to fund people they like. Everybody likes people like themselves. I've had the experience of pitching to a room full of middle aged suited male investors, and as a young woman I can tell you, it's a daunting experience. This mismatch goes a long way to explaining why only 4.2% of venture funding goes to women-led businesses.

So there is a strong case for change, but how can it be achieved?  Firstly, it's about scrutiny. Recently, a firm called Cellular Solutions – an integrated business communications company – went viral for all the wrong reasons. The business comprised of an entirely male senior management team, overseeing a team of 27 young female employees. All of the employees are white. The block of male faces on the business' "The Team" webpage, with a sea of female faces beneath it, perfectly visualised the problem, but perhaps the virality of it provides us with at least part of the solution. 

This kind of pressure can make a big difference: when Twitter launched its initial public offering (IPO) late last year it too came under fire for its all-male board. Less than a month later, the company announced that it had added former Pearson chief Marjorie Scardino to its board. Of course scrutiny is only good as long as it achieves long-term as well as short-term change, but shining a spotlight on the problem is surely a good place to start.

Secondly, it's about women targeting business and business targeting women better. As I have set out, for investors there is a large but relatively untapped market out there with the potential to return substantial amounts if given the chance. However it is also for that market to make the case for investors about why they deserve their money and time, and for companies like mine to entice women, as well as men, to invest.

Finally, Government and the market should not be afraid to take action. One hundred years ago women starved themselves for the right to have a say in their country's future. Twenty years ago the Labour Party introduced all-women shortlists to increase its diversity in Parliament. These were radical actions. Today we shouldn't be afraid to be equally radical. 

The women’s movement shouldn’t just be about remembering the mistakes of the past, but also about preventing the mistakes of the future. It's a worthy debate to be had, as I hope the 19 men and one woman sitting around me would agree.

Florence Wilkinson is Head of Commercial at equity crowdfunding platform SyndicateRoom and a member of the Young Fabian Finance Network

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