In order to fully realise the economic benefits to Ireland, it is critical all the skills and talents of our diverse population are allowed to flourish. With this in mind, we recently launched a new six-year strategy for women in business, underpinned by our 2020 Action Plan.
Focused on bringing about long-term sustainable change, our action plan has four key objectives: to increase the number of women becoming entrepreneurs; to increase the number of female founders of high-potential startups (HPSUs); to increase the amount of women-led established companies which are growing internationally; and to increase the number of women in senior management and leadership roles.
This is important as, for a number of reasons, women continue to be significantly under-represented.
We know, for example, that, in general, women take a more cautious approach to risk and prefer more fully informed decision-making, which can lead them to be more critical in assessing their own capability and can have an impact on their confidence levels.
Women also tend to prefer a more relationship-based approach to business. However, their networks tend not to be as broad as those of their male counterparts and their access to 'warm introductions', particularly in the area of securing funding, can have an adverse impact on their growth opportunities.
On a societal level, women shoulder the bulk of unpaid work and are three times as likely to work part-time. Only one in three senior SME managers and one in five CEOs are women. Also, while female graduates in health and education far outnumber men, the reverse is true for the engineering, manufacturing and technology sectors. These factors contribute to the ongoing significant gender gap in entrepreneurship and enterprise in Ireland, where three times as many men are starting and growing businesses.
Despite this, things are beginning to change as, for several years now, Enterprise Ireland has been focusing on increasing the number of HPSUs founded by women.
In 2011, only 7pc of the annual Enterprise Ireland funded startups involved a female founder. To address this, we supported the introduction of various programmes such as the internationally recognised network initiative Going for Growth, as well as accelerators such as the DCU female high-fliers programme and Dublin BIC Innovate. We also initiated women-specific funding calls for very early stage investment funding under our Competitive Start Fund scheme. The effect was significant and, by 2019, we had managed to treble the number of HPSUs founded by women to 21pc.
This is very encouraging as there are two very strong reasons for driving an increase in female leadership roles. Firstly, significant international research demonstrates that companies with gender diversity in decision-making and leadership positions perform better, are more profitable and productive and deliver better returns on assets.
Secondly, we know that people who have senior management experience are more likely to see an opportunity for an innovative new enterprise, and are more likely to have the confidence and capability to do something about that opportunity as well as having a network of connections to support its realisation, including better access to finance.
In essence, more women in senior roles means better businesses and more entrepreneurs.
With all of this in mind, for any woman who is looking at pursuing a career path or starting and growing a business, I would say there is no better time. Ireland offers great opportunities for women - and men - in what is a progressive and supportive enterprise environment.
I believe we are seeing significant momentum towards achieving gender balance as Irish companies are genuinely seeking ways to encourage and address barriers to career progression for women. And in terms of entrepreneurship, there is a multiplicity of supports available for all stages of the journey from conceiving an idea to launching on international markets.
There is also an extraordinary level of goodwill here - from both women and men in leadership positions - to support others, and I would strongly advocate asking for advice and on-boarding an experienced mentor as well as engaging in some of the many networks available for professionals and entrepreneurs.
Above all, on this International Women's Day, believe in yourself and seize the opportunity to take that first step. The supports are there to help you along the way.
Sheelagh Daly is entrepreneurship manager at Enterprise Ireland