‘The women seek financing and are asked if their husband will take over the business’

The cost to the UK economy of not supporting women entrepreneurs has been estimated at £250 billion.

Launching the list of 100 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in collaboration with The Telegraph, NatWest CEO Alison Rose said this would be the potential value if women in this country equaled men who are starting new businesses. The figure represents around four years of natural growth in gross value added (GVA), added to the UK’s current total GVA of around £1.9 trillion per year.

However, Rose said the barriers to women setting up businesses are often falsely perceived as a lack of ambition, greater risk aversion than men and not being as good at networking.

“Women don’t lack ability or ambition and we have the data from the Rose Review to prove it,” Rose said.

Only one in three entrepreneurs in the UK is a woman: a gender gap equivalent to 1.1 million defunct businesses. Women-led businesses are only 44 percent the size of male-led businesses on average, in terms of their contribution to the economy; and male small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are five times more likely to scale to £1 million in turnover than female ones.

Rose was commissioned by the government to head the Rose Review of Women’s Entrepreneurship, published in 2019. She said the problem is often the “soft barriers” women encounter when seeking large-scale funding. “At the horrible end of the scale, I’ve heard stories of women looking for financing and asking if their husband is running the business for them. Or get the clerk from the front desk so there’s another woman in the room. Or being asked ‘Do you really have the ambition to deliver this?’, really questioning her ability. These microaggressions, as well as perception problems, are the problem.”

Last week, Joshua Ma, a senior TikTok executive, was reported to be stepping down after making comments disparaging the concept of maternity leave. He allegedly said that, as a “capitalist”, he “didn’t believe” that companies should offer maternity leave.

“It’s very concerning,” Rose said. “It sends the message to young women and business leaders that someone in a senior position can think like that. It’s why role modeling and mentoring are so important; that oft-used phrase, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t believe it.’”

As the first woman to lead a major bank, Rose is a visible example of how family and business are not mutually exclusive. “This idea that if you want a successful career you can’t have children is complete nonsense. I have two children and my career is not going too badly,” she said.

The 100 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch list will highlight some of the UK’s most exciting high-potential women-owned businesses. The top ten will receive support including mentorship from the Rose Review Board, while the top female entrepreneur will receive a £10,000 grant to invest in her business. The results will be published in the run-up to the Telegraph’s Women Mean Business event, launched in 2018.

Rose hopes the watchlist and event will continue to connect more women with mentors and bridge the gap at a time when women face challenges in the workplace and in business.

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