Fostering entrepreneurial talent for women in STEM

Article by ISBE member Dr Sahattaya Achtzehn 

This article summarises the highlights of our recent publication in International Small Business Journal – “Do enterprise education competitions have gendered outcomes amongst STEM early-career researchers?” – which was awarded Best Paper in Enterprise Education Track from ISBE Conference 2021, Cardiff, UK.


The underrepresentation of women starting a business within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sectors has long attracted UK Government attention. Nevertheless, the gender gap within STEM entrepreneurship still persists and this gap is relatively larger within the academic environment. According to Griffiths and Humbert (2019), only 13% of UK university spinouts have female founders or co-founders.

Feminist critiques on entrepreneurship education

In this paper, we criticised the limited success of Government policy in tackling this problem and pointed towards the gender bias embedded within entrepreneurship and its education. Entrepreneurship is largely perceived as a masculine pursuit – associated with masculine traits and characteristics such as individualism, competitiveness, assertiveness, risk-taking and ambition (Ahl, 2004). Government policy, entrepreneurship research and education are all informed by this masculine construction of entrepreneurship (Treanor et al., 2020).

Enterprise education competitions, typically known as business plan competitions, have been widely promoted as a vehicle for introducing and developing entrepreneurship (Brentnall et al., 2018). The Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (YES Competition), founded by the University of Nottingham and BBSRC, is one of the first business plan competitions aiming to develop commercialisation awareness and the communication skill sets of STEM early career researchers (ECRs: PhD students and post-doctoral researchers) across UK universities (Mosey et al., 2012). The programme has run every year since 1990, with over 6,300 ECRs participating to date.

Our research

We tested and compared the impact of the YES Competition between female and male ECRs in relation to:

  • Their intentions to start a business (Entrepreneurial Intentions: EI)
  • Their self-confidence about their ability to start a successful business (Entrepreneurial Self-efficacy: ESE)

We also incorporated the following three gender barriers that women business owners and scientists face:

  • Their perceived negative stereotypes towards themselves as a business owner (Stereotype Threat)
  • Their perceptions of work-family life for a business owner (Childcare-Work Conflict)
  • Their perceptions of relevant entrepreneur role models (Lack of Role Models) 

Our results

The results from our research is surprising. Previous research indicates women tended to have lower intentions and confidence about their ability to start a business, and that women would benefit more from entrepreneurship education than men do. However, the competition increased the intentions to start a business of both men and women participants. There is no difference between how they perceived their intentions and abilities to start a business. It might be that these participants voluntarily signed up to the competition due to their personal interest in entrepreneurship; consequently, this group of women participants might already have a degree of intent to start a business (Liñán et al., 2018).

The YES Competition reduced gender barriers to entrepreneurship for all participants; however, this impact is stronger for women. The competition reduced perceived stereotypical threats among women participants which, in turn, eliminated the difference in perceived negative stereotypes in entrepreneurship between men and women. Although women participants perceived lower conflict between childcare and the working life of a business owner, they still perceived child care to be a higher barrier than for men. Nevertheless, women participants were more aware of the lack of role models in business after attending the programme.


Overall, our findings suggest the YES Competition played an important role in reducing young women scientists’ perceived gender barriers to starting a business. A reduction in perceived gender barriers could increase women’s perception of their entrepreneurial abilities and their intentions to start a business. It is clear that issues around childcare support and the lack of role models need to be addressed in entrepreneurship programmes to increase their effectiveness in enhancing STEM women entrepreneurship.

Please click here to read the full article (open access).


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