In Switzerland, the number of women running their own companies or start-ups remains low. Innosuisse has also noticed this trend in its promotion offers (see box). The Swiss Innovation Agency is therefore making a commitment to providing the necessary change in perception to reverse this trend and attract more women to entrepreneurship and research. For one of its leading figures, Dominique Gruhl-Bégin, head of the Start-ups and Next-Generation Innovators Division, there are still too many obstacles standing in the way of women's access to management positions and investment in women owned businesses, and change is needed. Interview.

Innosuisse: According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2019/2020, there are currently 7 female entrepreneurs for every 12 male entrepreneurs in Switzerland. Last year, that figure was only 5 women for every 10. This is a slight improvement, but still a long way from parity. How can this result be explained?

Dominique Gruhl-Bégin: This development is due to a combination of different factors. In my opinion, awareness of female entrepreneurship is gradually increasing. There are more and more initiatives to encourage women to start their own businesses, women who have launched their own companies and who are being promoted as role models and motivating other women to do the same, organisations dedicated to women who want to start entrepreneurial projects, and so on. But parity will only be achieved when women feel not only fully able and ready to get involved, but also welcome in the world of entrepreneurship. There are many factors that influence how they feel and trigger some gender biases. For example, it begins with encouragement from a very early age from parents or at school when it comes to career guidance. Balancing family life and career is another important aspect. Until childcare facilities are adequate and women who devote a great part of their energy to their work are truly accepted, it will remain difficult for many of them to reach leadership positions.

At Innosuisse, too, the percentage of women participating in innovation projects and coaching programmes is lower than that of men*. Was that disappointing to find out?

Yes, it was disappointing, but we are not giving up on our goal to increase this number! We support science-based innovation and therefore a large proportion of the applications we receive come from polytechnic schools and from technical colleges and universities. In these institutions, women are, generally, under-represented (see box). So, it's not surprising that we receive fewer applications for our support instruments from women, and consequently fewer projects are carried out by women. Nevertheless, we are continuing to launch initiatives to raise awareness of female entrepreneurship and to encourage and raise the profile of women entrepreneurs, by recruiting female coaches who can serve as role models and allies for new start-up founders, for example. We are also working to develop new methods and initiatives to have the greatest possible impact, increase participation rates and create a culture of equality.

What are women missing when it comes to entering entrepreneurship or research?

Women may still lack the depth of connections and credibility in entrepreneurship and research. Also, I believe that they sometimes are missing the conviction that this is a role that belongs to them just as much as to men. Although some studies have shown that women feel quite capable and interested in starting a business, when it comes to actually concretizing the launch of a business and, after starting out, there may be a breaking point that puts them at a disadvantage compared to men, namely when it comes to funding. While the majority of investors perceive the funding landscape as balanced, their actual investments in women-owned businesses are highly skewed as shown in a study by Morgan Stanley. Furthermore, it seems that women do not feel comfortable putting forward their skills. Finally, I am noticing more and more how some closed networking circles, which can play an important role in fundraising, encourage and maintain mainly male networks. Leveraging role models, opening up these networks to women or creating women's networks could potentially encourage more of them to become entrepreneurs.

As a federal innovation agency, what can Innosuisse do (and what is it already doing) to reverse this trend and increase the number of women in business and research?

Initiate sensitization measures to change perception, activate more funding towards diverse teams and gather data. To this end, we should make visible the benefits and the positive impact that female entrepreneurs have on economic prosperity. Awareness should be raised, also earlier in young people's education. To this end, we should encourage the development of new measures or the strengthening of measures that have already been implemented by the ecosystem in order to act collaboratively and therefore increase and multiply joint efforts.

Why do we need more women in entrepreneurship? Why is it important for more women to participate in promoting innovation?
This is a core issue! I am convinced – also based on several studies to this effect – that diversity, particularly in terms of the gender of the members of corporate management teams, plays a central role in the profitability and sustainability of companies. Moreover, the clashing of ideas from different sectors, experiences and ways of thinking is at the root of most radical innovations and the gender factor most certainly increases this diversity. In my opinion, therefore, a balance is an indisputable asset that we must aim for at all cost since it would lead to real economic and societal progress.

Women in science and at Innosuisse

Female students in the technical sciences are still a minority at Swiss universities. In 2019, while women accounted for 68% of students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, they only represented 32% in the Technical Sciences. This is, nonetheless, an improvement compared to previous years: The proportion of women in training was only 22% in 2000, according to the Federal Statistical Office (FSO).

In 2019, for approved innovation projects, Innosuisse recorded 15% of women involved on the research side and 13% on the entrepreneurship side. The proportion of women in the founding teams of start-ups benefiting from coaching has risen to 14%.  

Last modification 25.02.2022

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