Do we need women-only entrepreneurship programmes?

Research has revealed that women-only programmes have a positive impact on female tech entrepreneurs.

According to Dr Shima Barakat, who specialises in research in the teaching of entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School, women-only programmes could be the solution to getting more women to set up businesses in the high-growth tech sectors.

“This definitely isn’t about trying to make women into better men,” she says. “It’s important to understand that there is a place for women-only programmes – offering the environment for women to do and say things that they may not feel comfortable doing and saying in a mixed-environment – but that such programmes should be seen in the wider context.”

She says that women in science, engineering and entrepreneurship are seen as tokenistic. “So if you’re a female entrepreneur in a STEM subject, you’re a double token and that creates a particular dynamic in learning environments which seems to involve women either trying really hard to step away from the stereotype in order to get on with the majority or magnifying their differences, both of which are artificial behaviours. When men aren’t around, those behaviours are minimised and women operate and communicate differently – and ultimately do better.”

There’s also been suggestions that this could affect women earlier in their educational career if entrepreneurship was a compulsory part of STEM subjects at undergraduate level. “This is the time when women are really enthused about the STEM subject they have chosen, so let’s use the opportunity to get them enthused about the idea of start-ups too,” Dr Enass Abo-Hamed, research associate at the University of Cambridge, says.

However, Dr Chih-Chun Chen, co-founder of Cambridge Coding Academy, suggests that the way that STEM subjects are taught needs a complete overhaul. “Even when I did my conversion masters in computer science, less than a quarter of the class were women and most of them didn’t thrive in the subject,” she says. “I have since learned that this is not unusual – a fact that I think is at least in part due to the way the subject is taught. It’s just not framed in a way that seems to interest women. I happened to love it and went on to do a PhD, but I was in the minority.”

In fact, Dr Chen think this is a problem that goes right back to school.  “I’m very interested in how these subjects are perceived by children in different countries. In Taiwan, for example, it’s as expected for girls to be good at maths or computer science as it is for boys, but in the UK, the expectation and encouragement from peers, family and even schools seems to be lower. I think the STEM subjects are often seen as ‘masculine’ or ‘cold’ subjects, even if only at a subconscious level. The same thing seems to happen with boys and more ‘arty’ subjects like English, which are seen as ‘girly’, perpetuating this idea that some subjects are gender-specific. The stats for university applications and intake also support this.”

Dr Chen adds that although she witnessed women performing better in the entrepreneurship part of her masters degree, she found that they tended to show entrepreneurial characteristics less frequently – particularly she found they were more risk-averse, less impulsive and more afraid of failure than men. “Several women considering becoming entrepreneurs have said to me that they wish someone was there to reassure them that their idea is worthy, whereas I rarely hear this from men, and I can’t help feeling that affects the number of start-ups by women,” she says.


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