Management Tips

2024-06-06 Laura Gatti

Women in Innovation: Overcoming the Gender Gap for a Bright Future

From the life sciences world to startups, women are gaining ground in scientific and entrepreneurial sectors. However, on the path toward true gender equality, significant challenges persist—sometimes subtle but always difficult to overcome, especially as one approaches leadership roles. In light of the roundtable organized at the 2024 Management Festival, Laura Gatti explores current dynamics and strategies for overcoming remaining barriers, highlighting how women-led innovation can positively transform the economic landscape. Even through a healthy 'disobedience' to the norms of our society.


In recent years, the presence of women in the fields of scientific research, life sciences, and startup management has gained attention and recognition. However, despite the vibrant and dynamic innovation landscape, gender equality remains a persistent challenge. Women, with their creativity, intuition, and determination, are gradually gaining ground in sectors historically dominated by men, but it is crucial to keep a spotlight on the gender gap and focus on gender perspectives to support its overcoming.


Scientific Research, Life Sciences, and Academia

In scientific research, women are increasingly taking centre stage. According to the SHE Figures 2021 report by the European Commission, women represent about 41% of researchers in the Union. In Italy, the situation is similar: women make up about 37% of researchers. However, in the life sciences, women are more present compared to physical and engineering disciplines. Despite the positive trend, female representation progressively drops at higher levels. The phenomenon known as the "leaky pipeline" leads to a significant reduction of women at the top of academic and managerial careers.

The pharmaceutical industry presents a more positive picture. Women constitute 44% of the total workforce and 53% in R&D. Among executives and managers, the percentage of women is higher than the average in other manufacturing sectors (45%). The situation is less positive in healthcare organizations. According to the Global Health 50/50 report, globally, women make up 70% of healthcare workers and even 90% of the nursing and midwifery workforce but only 25% hold top positions.

The academic sector is the most affected by the leaky pipeline phenomenon. Recently, Marina Marzia Brambilla became Rector of UNIMI, joining the rectors of Politecnico and Bicocca in leading the three Milanese universities. However, according to a study by the European University Association, only 23% of university rectors in Europe are women, and in Italy, based on data collected by ANVUR, the percentage stops at 13%.


Entrepreneurship and Innovation

According to ISTAT data, last year the female component among entrepreneurs reached 30%, a significant increase and certainly a good omen. Unfortunately, the picture is much less encouraging in the startup sector. The gender perspective of startups reveals a significant gap in funding and representation of women in the sector. Despite financial analyses showing that women-led startups represent safer financial investments over time, research indicates that women face difficulties in accessing venture capital.

In the United States in 2022, companies founded solely by women raised only 2% of the total invested capital. In Europe, the percentage was even lower, stopping at 0.9%. Despite difficulties in obtaining capital, in Italy, the value of innovative initiatives founded by women is better than average. Innovative startups with a female founder are just over one in ten (12.6%), but scalable ones founded by women have a company value of two billion euros, with an average percentage of 16%, placing Italy second behind Finland (23%) and at a double level compared to the European average (8%).

This data confirms that women's participation in business innovation improves opportunities to address business challenges from diverse and promising perspectives and increases companies' ability to identify and respond effectively to needs often overlooked by less diverse entities because they themselves are a less 'served' target.


Impostor Syndrome, not only

If these are the growing but still disheartening numbers describing research and innovation from a gender perspective, let us consider the dynamics that led to this scenario and the reasons for the slow but steady improvement in progress.

It cannot be said that significant efforts have not been made in raising awareness and regulation, starting from regional initiatives like the European Strategy for Gender Equality 2020-25 and the criteria applied in research and innovation funding of the European program, to the national dimension with the National Strategic Plan on Gender Equality and specific measures contained in the PNRR (with related funding), and reaching corporate initiatives regarding certification and support for inclusion and diversity.

Noteworthy progress has been made, such as the increased presence of women on boards of directors aligned with European averages, but in all countries supported by strong institutional 'moral suasion' if not specific laws. Where pressures on 'gender quotas' do not apply, the gender gap remains significant: only 21% of women managers in the private sector.

More inherent to cultural and social transformation is the growth of the female component in STEM areas. According to Eurostat data, female graduates in these disciplines (science, mathematics, statistics, IT, engineering) are about one-third of the total, and in Italy, they reach 39% (2021), placing us fourth in the EU ranking.

Yet, even in academia, the leaky pipeline phenomenon persists. In universities, the percentage of female presence, from the slight advantage at the time of enrolment (55%) and graduation, progressively decreases with career advancement from associate professor (43.2%) to full professor (27%) to the recently reached 13% of rectors.

Thus, subtle barriers persist and are difficult to overcome. All research shows a persistent imbalance in our country to the detriment of the female component in family responsibilities and work-life balance, with women tending to take on greater caregiving responsibilities. On the other hand, support policies in this regard are still insufficient, as is the flexibility related to work organization. A male vision of priorities and values still shape the organizational culture in most companies.

These elements are easily identifiable, and it is possible to intervene promptly to correct them. However, it is much more complex to overcome the cultural attitude regarding the implicit expectations society expresses towards its female component. Even the youngest girls who share studies and aspirations with their peers without apparent differences eventually experience these implicit rules where they should follow their partner in career-related relocations or accept a professional renunciation imposed by organizational and logistical reasons.

In entrepreneurial and professional aspirations as well as in research, we should remember that often 'Innovation is a disobedience gone right'. Hereford: disobey, girls, disobey.


Laura Gatti is a communication and B2B marketing expert with many years of experience in multinational contexts within the pharmaceutical consulting sector. She is the Co-Founder and board member of G-Gravity, a startup specializing in innovation support services.


This article stems from insights gathered during the roundtable titled “Women and Lifescience Innovation & Startup Management: The Research and Innovation Ecosystem from a Gender Perspective” at the 2024 SIMA Management Festival.



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