Women in Spinouts: The Current Landscape and Gearing Up for Change

Translating research into products and services that can benefit our societies is often achieved through the creation of university spinout companies. Broadly speaking these can be defined as registered companies set up to exploit intellectual property that has originated from within universities. This is an aspect of academic careers, especially in STEMM subjects, that seems to be under the radar. People would not necessarily think of academics as entrepreneurs who have founded a company to commercialise their inventions and discoveries. Yet many do, and sometimes found more than one company through their academic career. However, they tend to be men as women scientists are significantly under-represented in spinout leadership. Only 13% of these companies across the UK have at least one woman founder.

My colleagues and I at the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University have undertaken research in this area to understand the causes of women’s under-representation in the ecosystem of university spinouts and use the insights from our research to promote change. Some of the key findings from this work are discussed below.

University spinouts landscape: where are the women?

The geographical distribution of university spinouts is uneven across the UK. Most of these companies are created by the Universities of Cambridge (with 82 spinouts), Oxford (114), and in London, with Imperial College (51) and University College (40). Scotland is also a hot spot for spinouts. Although these universities have a high level of spinouts activity the percentage of women founders is low. For the University of Oxford, 18% of spinout companies have a woman founder. For the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, these are 17% and 22% respectively. University College London reflects the national average of 13% of women spinout founders, while the University of Edinburgh is below the national average with only 9%. It is worth noting that although the Royal College of Art has only 28 active spinouts, 43% of them have at least one woman founder. This is the kind of representation all universities should aspire to for spinout leadership.

When looking at the level of investments received by spinout companies, and when controlling for other factors, the number of women founders was negatively associated with both receiving a large innovation grant and featuring in a high growth list of companies. What this data shows is that not only women scientists are significantly under-represented in the spinout ecosystem but when they do found a company they are likely to receive less funding than their male colleagues.  To understand what lies beyond these figures we interviewed 35 men and women scientists who had successfully founded a spinout company to compare their experiences.

The spinout journey from a gender perspective

The under-representation of women as spinout founders is often dismissed as being a reflection of the lack of women in STEMM disciplines. Another argument, based on the assumption that spinout founders are likely to be senior academics at the peak of their career, is that there are not enough women in these roles in STEMM. While there is some truth in these arguments, they are both insufficient to justify the current situation. Women’s representation in STEMM disciplines varies: there is a good level of representation in some disciplines like biology and chemistry although still a lower one in disciplines like engineering. Moreover, our interviews with spinout founders show that several of them and, especially women, spun-out at an early stage of their academic career and, in some case, shortly after completing their PhDs.

When we explored the spinout journeys of our interviewees, these presented several challenges. Some of these were shared by both men and women, such as the lack of knowledge and understanding of business processes. However, women’s experiences were marked by additional hurdles compared to those of their male colleagues. The most notable was around securing investments for their companies. As previously mentioned, issues around investments had been flagged up by the quantitative investigation. The interviews with the women highlighted that a number of them had negative experiences when pitching for funding. They felt that the male-dominated investors’ community may be biased against women.  This is typified by the experience of one woman founder who told us that when she pitched for funding “…I had my confidence knocked by how dismissive they were when I came into the room, and then the first question was, why are you even here?”.

Work-life balance was also a significant challenge for women founders with childcare responsibilities. As one woman commented, challenges around work-life balance were amplified by a culture in the spinout community that the business ought to come ‘before everything else’. Another issue related to the lack of women role models and relatable mentors. Many women talked about the importance of ‘making role models more visible for other women’ and ‘to get as many female entrepreneurs to act as mentors’. Finally, some described instances of gender stereotypes about what women scientists should look like. An example of this was the experience of a woman who described how she was portrayed in an article by a cartoonist who ‘drew me in like a dark colour with slightly hairy leg, a very weird leg and I look kind of fat with a lab coat and nerdy pens in a pocket, like just a stereotype and the idea of what a female scientist is meant to look like’

What next?

These findings highlight several structural problems and that there is a need for universities to develop a more gender inclusive spinout ecosystem. Although they relate to the UK Higher Education context, they still provide useful insights to inform the development of interventions in other European universities. The Gearing Roles project presents an opportunity through its equality plans to focus on achieving a gender balance in spinout leadership. Find out more about our project at https://www.brookes.ac.uk/research/units/obbs/projects/women-and-spinouts/ and get in touch if you are interested in this area.

Post created by Professor Simonetta Manfredi, Dr Heather Griffiths, Alexis Still and Dr Charoula Tzanakou

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.