Innovation and business development through the gender lens

Female entrepreneurs and scientists cooperate with Europe

Europe is striving to become “the world’s most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy” by 2010. This has already been on the political agenda of the European heads of government and states since the Lisbon strategy was adopted at the turn of the millennium. In order to achieve these ambitious aims, it is essential that the potential offered by women in science and business is utilised to help fill the 700,000 vacant research posts in Europe. As a result, the European Union actively supports projects aimed at ensuring equal opportunities for both women and men regarding access to research and innovation. Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum currently coordinates a number of European projects focussed on female entrepreneurs and researchers and women start-ups.

Whether in industry or research, European women are still coming off worse in terms of the employment comparison with male counterparts. The higher the scientific position, the higher the deficit in the number of positions held by women. According to European Commission statistics, the number of female and male undergraduate and PhD students are similar, however differences are already visible on completion of doctorate studies: in Europe, 57% of PhD researchers are male and only 43% are women. Looking at the middle sector of the employment scale, the difference becomes more evident: only 32% of positions are held by women as opposed to 68% by men. At the top of the scale, statistics published by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) show that only 15% of high-level research positions are occupied by women. Germany shows a lower number of female researchers in these categories than the European average. Highranking positions in research are mostly occupied by men. Only 13.6% of German professors in universities are female. This number is even lower when regarding independent research institutions, where the number of women accounts for only 6.5%.

In Europe, about 30% of small and medium sized enterprises (SME) are managed or owned by a woman. Yet hardly any of these companies take part in technology and innovation support programmes. A series of discussion sessions organised by Steinbeis- Europa-Zentrum which was supported by the BMBF and was attended by European experts showed that the scenario is essentially the same all over Europe: technology and innovation are considered stereotypical masculine attributes which women often fail to relate to their own situation or their area of competence. A key to tackling this situation is in the wording. A micro-financing programme for innovative SMEs in general that hadn’t previously attracted women-owned SMEs suddenly became appealing when it was addressed to female entrepreneurs although the content had not changed. Research and development information days have been highly frequented but only when women have been specifically targeted as the core participant group. By setting up a department specifically aimed at dealing with business women, a bank could find new ways to approach half the population. Business development agencies also need to learn to take into account and understand the differences between men and women regarding their dissimilar approach towards risk, finances and terms such as technology or innovation and adapt its services accordingly.

The European funding policy has taken such discrepancies as occasion to kick-start “gender mainstreaming” activities. In 2001, Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum implemented its first EU gender-specific project and has not looked back. Since that time a number of concerted actions have successfully supported women in business and science, European projects have been initiated and an international network created.

The European project WomEn2FP6 coordinated by Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum aimed to increase the number of female entrepreneurs participating in European research projects. The project partners acted on the assumption that women do not profit adequately from mainstream business support actions. Only 6% of R&D projects in Europe are coordinated by women. WomEn2FP6 therefore informed women about European funding programmes, helped them to find partners for their own projects or become partners in 6th Framework Programme projects (2002-2006). Fifteen partners from ten countries carried out information events and specific training sessions in ten European countries. In the space of 18 months, nearly 800 women participated at the events. As a result, participants were subsequently involved in over 50 European projects.

The experience gained during this project is now being transferred to other countries: within the WE-Mentor project, business development agencies in Romania, Turkey, Israel and India are supported by four mentor countries – Germany, Great Britain, Belgium and Italy – in developing specific services to help more female entrepreneurs get involved in European research projects. After the mentoring period (“train the trainer”) the training sessions for women entrepreneurs began in each region in autumn 2007.

Another initiative, WENETT, raises awareness among female entrepreneurs and researchers about the benefits of going international. Thematically focused seminars organised by Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum and the European partners in Scotland, Sweden, Poland and Bulgaria allow female entrepreneurs, researchers and business support agencies to come together. During these events participants present their activities and research ambitions and take the opportunity to meet potential clients or partners. Video clips presenting female entrepreneurs and researchers who already cooperate in trans-national projects or activities provide inspiration and encouragement for others to take the plunge to instigate trans-national co-operations. Information about current events is available from the internet, including the final event in Glasgow in April 2008 where women entrepreneurs and research from the five countries involved in the initiative will meet to exchange ideas for bilateral cooperation projects.

The gender typical behaviour regarding the planning, start-up and management of a company as shown in numerous studies, means that business start-up advisors also need to take note. Until now, not much thought has been given to this issue by the relevant departments at European universities. FemStart, an initiative funded by DG Research: Women and Science and coordinated by Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum, is carrying out a series of public debates at selected universities throughout Europe which will raise awareness as a first step to finding out why so few women start a high-tech business after university. Experts introduce national and international gender specific support programmes and female scientists talk about their own experiences and why they have started a business or not considered it as a viable alternative to a career in research. After public debates at universities in Stuttgart, Valencia and Wroclaw in 2007, a further 3 debates will take place in Riga, Bucharest and Twente in 2008.


Dr. Petra Püchner | Charlotte Schlicke |
Tracey French | Valerie Bahr

Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (Stuttgart)

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