«There are so many reasons why we need more female entrepreneurs»

15.09.2022 In Switzerland, it is still more unusual for women to found companies than it is for men. A team of researchers headed by Bern University of Applied Sciences’ Dr Nadine Hietschold set out to investigate why. We discuss sticking points, clichés and what needs to change.

Porträt Dr. Nadine Hietschold
Dr Nadine Hietschold is a researcher at Bern University of Applied Sciences’ Institute for Innovation and Strategic Entrepreneurship. Image: supplied

The study that Dr Nadine Hietschold co-authored on women’s entrepreneurship was prompted by facts that do not paint a particularly positive picture: «According to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report on Switzerland, the proportion of women involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity, from setting up a business up to 3.5 years of business activity, is 7.2 per cent. This is significantly lower than the equivalent figure for men, which is 12.3 per cent.» Dr Hietschold wanted to explore the reasons for this difference. Together with Professor Susan Müller, Jan Keim and Professor Ingrid Kissling-Näf, she therefore investigated the framework conditions for female entrepreneurs and identified five areas where there was a lot of potential for improvement.

How did you and the co-authors of this study, which is entitled «Improving Framework Conditions for Women Entrepreneurs in Switzerland», go about gathering the data?

We opted for a two-pronged approach. Firstly, we worked with written questionnaires and sent these to national experts as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s Swiss National Expert Survey. Secondly, we interviewed representatives of the Swiss start-up scene and decision makers and opinion leaders from politics, business and society.

The results are not without contention. How well does our education system prepare students for careers as entrepreneurs, for example?

At the moment there is too little focus on teaching entrepreneurial skills at primary and secondary school level. So in our study, we recommend incorporating entrepreneurial attitudes and activity across all stages of education. Entrepreneurship should be woven into all study programmes in vocational schools and universities. Because entrepreneurial skills are future-oriented skills. We also need more visibility of female role models who girls can identify with.

How crucial are role models?

They are very important, but there’s a tendency to work with clichés, including in the media. The focus is often on growth-oriented, time-intensive start-ups – the type that tend to be founded by male entrepreneurs. At the same time, female entrepreneurs are often depicted as «superwomen», which means that «ordinary» women cannot identify with them. This depiction does not correspond to reality or reflect the diversity of female entrepreneurs and their start-up projects.
To make entrepreneurship more attractive to women, we need to highlight alternative start-up models. We need, for example, to celebrate start-ups that prioritise social value creation or have a local regional focus. We also need to show organisational models that allow an entrepreneurial initiative to get off the ground without involving a 60-hour week. Why not set up a company with two co-CEOs?

Is there room for improvement when it comes to funding?

Yes, this is the second sticking point. A lot of funding vehicles are aimed at younger people. This disadvantages women in the middle phase of life who are looking to start a company after having a family. Access to technology is also more difficult in mid life. So a lot needs to be done to make it easier for women in the middle phase of life to start up a company: funding organisations could extend their reach to women and men of different ages, for example, and networks should be set up for women who are looking to become entrepreneurs in this mid-life phase.

There is increasing interest in ‘social entrepreneurship’. This could be perfect for female entrepreneurs, couldn’t it?

Exactly, because it represents a value system that speaks to many women. More strongly highlighting a sense of purpose may help attract more women to entrepreneurship. There are several ways to do this: in media reporting, in training programmes for budding entrepreneurs or in financial support for initiatives. In education, a stronger focus on impact-oriented entrepreneurial initiatives could also help interest more women in STEM subjects, as technology can also, of course, be used to create social value and propagate social enterprise ideas. If more girls and young women developed an interest in STEM subjects at school, that could have an impact on the nature of their start-up projects.

Is changing perceptions and traditional roles important when it comes to entrepreneurship, too?

Yes. Traditionally, care responsibilities are primarily seen as the mother’s role. The associated internalisation and stereotyping, coupled with inadequate state childcare, have led to a situation where women are less likely to create their own start-up. Although these patterns require long-term rather than short-term change, measures could be introduced to address the implicit gender bias and encourage more women into entrepreneurship in the long term.

Give us four reasons why we need more women entrepreneurs.

If more companies are founded by women, diversity increases – including within founding teams – and perhaps we would see more alternatives to heavily growth-oriented and monetarily motivated start-up projects. We can assume that women entrepreneurs pay more attention to ensuring that products and services are not just tailored to the needs of men – as to date – but also to the needs of women and diverse customer groups. Diverse teams also perform more effectively. Then we have demographic change and the skills shortage: our economy can’t survive without the input of qualified women – the economic loss would be huge. More companies led by women would – and this is the fourth reason – drive the change towards a more sustainable economy, because a lot of female entrepreneurs want to have a positive impact on society through their business.

In the study, you visually highlighted statements by several female experts. Why?

Female entrepreneurs and female experts in different phases of life have an important position as role models. And they illustrate the calibre of people we were privileged enough to work with in our study.


This interview was first published in BernerBär in July 2022.

For more female entrepreneurs in Switzerland

Read more information and stories about (female) entrepreneurship in the latest issue of the magazine "Präsenz" (German edition).