Women Entrepreneurship in STEM Fields:
Alarming Stats that Require Further Exploration

For many, the idea of a female establishing and managing a firm in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field seems foreign. Despite the socio-economic relevance that female STEM firms do have, this topic is untapped by scholars and policymakers internationally.

The number of firms created and led by women has increased worldwide over the last decades. However, these firms are largely established in low value-added sectors, characterised by small scale and minimal profits.

Troubling Statistics

In comparing the characteristics of entrepreneurs across gender, men and women generally have the same educational levels, though women are less likely to have a formal education in business, financial or STEM fields. According to a 2017 report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, women entrepreneurs tend to be more risk-averse and less self-confident than men, especially in the areas of financial decision-making and investing. They generally show a negative perception of banks as sources of finance mainly because of their past negative experiences in seeking funding, which discourages them from seeking further support (i.e. “self-discriminatory” behaviour). Finally, women entrepreneurs generally show a lower self-confidence in regard to their own abilities that, coupled with a higher fear of failure rate, may well contribute to the highlighted problems.

At the same time, data shows that women’s interest in STEM disciplines has dramatically improved over the past 25 years. In Europe for example, women have higher levels of tertiary education than men, but the percentage of women studying STEM disciplines is still much lower than men in most European countries, according to a Eurostat report from 2015. Eurostat notes that women in all EU countries accounted for 42.2% of tertiary education graduates in the natural sciences, mathematics and statistics and information and communication technologies. This percentage decreases to 39% when considering OCSE data (2017). Several explanations about this gap have been proposed over the years such as gender stereotypes, different vocational interests, the absence of female role models and family background.

Meanwhile in the US only 5% to 15% of high-tech business are owned by women, according to the US Department of Commerce. A study by researchers Susan Marlow and Maura McAdam demonstrates very similar percentages in Europe.

A Call to Action for Entrepreneurship Researchers

Such low participation of women in STEM education is a barrier for economic development worldwide that hinders both women’s empowerment and the development of society. Specifically, this low involvement of women in STEM education inevitably has a number of consequences. According to a European Commission report, it leads to the impossibility to create heterogeneous teams, thus reducing the possibilities to achieve better scientific and technological results and make the best use of them.

It is important to study the existing female-led STEM firms for at least two reasons:

  1. Firms established in these fields are crucial to countries’ socio-economic growth, as these fields are the fastest growing sources of occupations and innovations (this is true regardless of the gender of the entrepreneur).
  2. Women entrepreneurs in these fields can act as mentors and role models for younger women. Women generally underestimate their performance within STEM fields; offering them a female role model in these fields can activate a virtuous process able to push girls towards education in STEM.

By analysing the experiences and characteristics of women entrepreneurs in STEM fields, we can identify and propose targeted policies and programmes that are able to engage and promote women in STEM entrepreneurship. Join us on our journey at Tor Vergata to make an impact on this important topic.

Sara Poggesi is the director and Michela Mari is the vice director of Osservatorio Scientifico Imprese Femminili (OSIF), a research center that is part of Tor Vergata University.