At the time of writing, the InvestUK Group has supported 119 ambitious female entrepreneurs from around the world to set up innovative businesses in the United Kingdom. A significant majority of these founders hail from China (49%), followed by the Middle East (12.1%) and Africa and the Commonwealth of Independent States in joint third (8.4%). However, despite our continued support for the promising numbers of women interested in setting up UK businesses, attainment at the later stages of their entrepreneurial journeys is grinding to a halt.
All entrepreneurs have felt the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic in some way. However, the impact on female entrepreneurial attainment is so severe, according to the International Monetary Fund, that it threatens to roll back 30 years of economic progress for women. Since the start of the crisis, female entrepreneurs have often had to take on greater unpaid work burdens, such as balancing childcare with the challenges of adapting and maintaining their businesses. What’s more, women are more likely than their male counterparts to have started businesses in industry sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as Fashion & Beauty, Healthcare, Social Care and Consumer & Retail. Even amongst start-up businesses in the comparatively resilient Technology industry, the IMF gravely suggests that the pandemic could halt the already-slow progress being made towards gender parity.
Unfortunately, gender inequality has been systemic in the UK’s start-up ecosystem for some time. Even before we were locked down and businesses were boarded up, female entrepreneurs were less likely to apply for funding than their male counterparts. When they did, the investment amounts that female entrepreneurs received were, on average, smaller. Events this year have shone a light on the comparative vulnerability of female-led businesses to economic shocks, and it comes as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened these inequalities even further.
Now, with the announcement of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, there is a possible end in sight. And as we emerge from this crisis to ‘build back better’, it is crucial that we re-level the playing field. A sensible place to start would be reducing the funding gap. Secretary of State for International Trade the RT Hon Elizabeth Truss MP notes that equality in funding could unlock “as much as £250 million of new value” for the UK economy. But the buck does not stop with government: private companies must also act to realise the potential of this opportunity, such as Barclays, who have pledged to support 100,000 female-led businesses over the next three years.
There can be no doubt that, in the wake of COVID-19 and Brexit, we all face testing days ahead. But if we are to navigate the challenges to come we need women, with their resourcefulness, resilience and intelligence, to unleash Britain’s economic potential.