On International Women’s Day, Georgina Ainscow, Olivia Buckingham and Xiaoxi Zhu attended Innovate UK and KTN’s Women Innovate event. The event was a fantastic celebration of women in innovation, but also carried a message of much more to be done to achieve true diversity and inclusivity. A clear message too, that this can only benefit the economy, with estimates ranging from £180 billion to £250 billion, that could be unlocked by boosting the level of female entrepreneurship.
Funding opportunities for women in innovation
Innovate UK’s Emily Nott introduced the event, presenting the challenges faced by women in innovation. When the Women in Innovation program was launched in 2016, research showed that just 1 in 7 lead applicants for Innovate UK funding were women. Since then, women applying for funding and has increased by 70% – a great achievement for the program. Science Minister, Amanda Solloway, spoke next, announcing the winners of the UK’s Women in Innovation awards. 40 of the country’s top female innovators have each been awarded £50,000, along with the provision of bespoke mentoring presenting an opportunity for female led companies to take their innovative ideas to the next level, whether this is further R&D, prototyping, protecting their IP by way of patents, or working up their brand. Paul Mason, also from Innovate UK, showcasing the role of a male ally, spoke on the importance of diversity and inclusion, noting that it is the right thing to do, and it is good for innovation. He quoted a study by McKinsey according to which companies with gender diversity on their executive teams are 25% more likely to outperform their competitors that don’t. Alicia Greated, CEO at KTN rounded out the opening session, making the point that greater use of remote working has the potential to increase flexibility and inclusivity.
Technology and AI
The event split into a number of sessions at this point. We attended a session titled “Changing the Narrative: International opportunities in technology and AI”, chaired by Giulia Sirigu, from Innovate UK Edge and Inventya.
Patricia Gestoso from Dassault Systèmes spoke about the effects of lockdown, and the financial penalties of the feminisation of unpaid work. The pandemic has led to some of the progress achieved for women in the workplace to be undone. A survey of professional women in the UK, Europe and USA showed that the amount of unpaid work (chores, caregiving etc.) women are doing increased from 41 hours a month in 2019 to 92 hours in 2020. In 2021, coming out of the pandemic, hybrid working has been proposed as an ideal solution. However, will women with caregiving responsibilities and a tendency to work from home miss out on the in-office conversations that are likely to get them noticed for promotion? The net result is a high attrition rate in the sector, which needs to be brought down if women are to be equally represented at board level.
Ivana Bartoletti, technical director at Deloitte,focused on technology and AI. Developments are made by those in power, and the data used reflects inequalities in society. Only 20% of the workforce in AI is made up of women. We do not only need more women in the coding room, however, we also need them to be making decisions on how technology is going to be used. The underlying message was a warning of automated inequality; that the future of technology and AI needs to be shaped by everyone, and women have been left out of the conversation for too long.
Denise Gee from Findexable looked at how and when women are employed, where the most successful regions for gender diversity are and practical actions to improve gender balance. Only 10 companies globally have reached gender balance at all levels and only 15 have closed the gender pay gap. In the UK, only 17% of fintech companies have female founders and women account for less than 30% of the workforce. However, women-run private tech companies have a 35% ROI, and hiring just one more women to a company’s board generates an increase in returns up to 13%. Hiring women just makes economic sense.
The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund
After lunch, we attended a session which focused on opportunities for funding from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Sarah Banning and Seonaidh McDonald spoke about funding available for developing smart sustainable plastic packaging (SSPP). Household recycling is largely sustained by women, and firms with gender diverse leadership are more effective at pursuing environmentally friendly strategies. The SSPP challenge funds projects led by women at the cutting edge of technological, social and business solutions for the future of plastic packaging. Ben Walsh then spoke about the foundation industries. The large industrial polluters, which account for 10% of all the UK’s CO2 emissions, but which are worth £45bn to the UK. These industries need to be transformed, but in a way that they remain internationally competitive. Katrina Hayter focussed on funding opportunities for transforming food production, with the aim of achieving net zero emissions productive food systems by 2040. Kerissa Khan then spoke on the “Future Flight Challenge”, which involves new classes of electric and autonomous vehicles. A major aim is to accelerate solutions for zero emission, and to do this while propelling a gender balanced future.
Accelerating net zero
A further session looked at the role that women have to play in Accelerating Net Zero for a better Britain.Innovate UK’s Sarah Tennison led a panel with Amna Bezanty from KEW Technology, Nicole Velho from Sie, Jane Toogood, from Johnson Matthey, Emma Fieldhouse, from Future We Want,and Wendy Pring, from The Way Forward 2045.
The overriding message was that there is a lot to do, right now, but that women are critical to achieving net zero and meeting climate change goals, particularly climate change will impact women more than men. While the world today is much better in terms of inclusivity, there is still much work to be done. If we stick with the normal, nothing will change, and change is very important when we have net zero to achieve. This change in turn brings many opportunities for women working in innovation, and in communicating environmental concepts in an interesting and entertaining way. Successfully engaging with people is critical when net zero depends, to a large extent on people changing their habits, and women are well equipped to take on such roles. Women are also particularly suited to creating a true collaborative approach to climate change solutions. Jane Toogood noted that we need all the brainpower and capabilities of mankind to deal with climate change and this means that there is a lot for women to do.
Later in the afternoon was a session titled “Showcasing Growth and Investment Potential”. This was a series of short pitches from companies in a wide range of technical fields. To pick on just a few examples, Anja Stolte’s, company, Enable Manufacturing, develop complex metal parts for the aerospace, automotive, marine and industry sectors using additive casting; Christina King’s company, Tribosonics, recognise that 23% of the world’s energy is wasted through tribological contact, and their sensing technology measures changes in components/systems to address these issues, with potentially hugely beneficial results for applications such as wind turbines and Katharine Paterson’s firm, Karekot, produce safe cots for babies and children.
Ecosystems of support
We also attended a session titled “From Global to Local: Tapping into different ecosystems of support”. This session had 5 keynote speakers, aiming to support women entrepreneurs, to guide women entrepreneurs and show them where and how to seek for support and opportunities, as well as a good promotion opportunity for these speakers to introduce their organisations/platforms.
Encouraging future generations
In the closing session, Laurena Robinson spoke about the work of Founders4Schools, who facilitate partnerships between entrepreneurs, employers and educators, to prepare students for the world of work, and what can be done to close the gender gap in STEM subjects, and called for volunteers across all fields to help out.
Big actions for change
The event ended with a talk from keynote speaker, and BAFTA award winner, Roberta Lucca, former CEO and Non-Exec Director of Bossa Studios. While noting the under-representation of women in tech, and particularly her field, the video games industry, she advocated big, uncomfortable actions for change, and gave an upbeat presentation encouraging women founders to focus on their vision, ambition and conviction to gain investment and success for their ideas.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.