International Women’s Day on Monday is a great time to assess how we as a nation are progressing in terms of gender diversity in business and entrepreneurship.
It is not that long ago the number of women entrepreneurs was extremely low; at Enterprise Ireland, in 2011, only 7pc of our high potential start-ups (HPSUs) included a woman on the founding team.
This position has improved greatly — in 2020, 24pc of our HPSUs included a woman founder, well on the way to the ambitious goal we set of 30pc of HPSUs by 2025.
Towards the end of 2018, Enterprise Ireland embarked on research to look at the broader issue of women in business to assess the current situation and see what could be done to improve the situation.
It revealed some unsettling statistics: less than 20pc of CEOs were women, falling to 9pc in larger companies; Ireland had the highest gender gap in self-employment in the EU; and less than 10pc of venture capital funding was going to companies with female founders.
The resulting strategy, the Enterprise Ireland 2020 Action Plan for Women in Business, has four objectives: to increase the number of women becoming entrepreneurs, to increase the number of women founders in HPSUs, to increase the number of women-led companies growing internationally, and to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions in companies in Ireland.
While Enterprise Ireland is well known for its entrepreneurship supports for women, increasing gender diversity in business leadership is a relatively new objective.
There is significant international research — including McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, the IMF and the International Labour office among others — which clearly demonstrates companies with gender diversity in decision making and leadership positions perform better.
The part-time key manager grant was introduced by Enterprise Ireland last year to facilitate the recruitment of part-time senior managers — it is available for both men and women, but aims to attract more women to senior management roles.
We have developed a healthy start-up ecosystem open to everyone, where entrepreneurs can get help and/or funding from the idea stage all the way up to success on a global scale.
However, we recognise there are still barriers that pose more of a challenge for women entrepreneurs.
For instance, women still bear the brunt of unpaid work in Ireland; in 2019, the ‘Caring and Unpaid Work in Ireland Report’ from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Economic and Social Research Institute revealed 45pc of women provide care for children and older adults on a daily basis, compared with only 29pc of men.
Access to networking opportunities, mentors and the visibility of women leaders in enterprise have also been identified as important for women in business.
Our focus has been on making Enterprise Ireland programmes as accessible as possible for men and women.
The first stop for entrepreneurs is at the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) with 31 branches around Ireland. The New Frontiers programme is delivered on behalf of Enterprise Ireland by third level institutes in 16 locations and helps entrepreneurs develop their business in readiness for further investment without significant financial risk.
Enterprise Ireland has also taken steps to address the barriers to funding for women founders. Our Competitive Start Fund (CSF) invests up to €50,000 into start-ups that have the potential to become HPSUs with specific CSF calls for women entrepreneurs. In 2020, 42pc of the CSF projects awarded were led by female founders.
Just as important as funding are the mentoring and networking mechanisms supported by Enterprise Ireland.
The Going for Growth initiative offers peer support and mentoring from successful women entrepreneurs through interactive round table sessions. Alongside our CSF, we offer the ‘Innovate’ intensive accelerator programme, which provides mentoring and a chance for women entrepreneurs to network and learn from each other.
The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge. A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.
Through these initiatives, Enterprise Ireland seeks to address the challenges facing women in business and to inspire and accelerate the growth of Irish businesses by advancing gender diversity in leadership teams and excellence in our start-up sector.
Sheelagh Daly is Entrepreneurship Manager at Enterprise Ireland