Understanding the barriers and opportunities for women in innovation


Ebiquity’s Head of Reputation, Catherine Griffin, finds room for optimism in a recent analysis of what’s holding British women back from participating more fully in innovation.

Innovate UK is the UK government’s innovation agency, committed to helping people develop and commercialize innovative ideas, products, and technologies to help the economy grow. For some time, the agency had been concerned by the under-representation of women applying for innovation funding. It wanted to understand the reasons behind this phenomenon and then use this evidence base to drive strategy, campaigning, and communications.

Analysis of the agency’s own requests for funding showed that women were lead applicants on just 14 percent of applications. This is disproportionately low, even considering that women are under-represented in many occupations at the heart of innovation, a trend most marked in careers requiring training and qualifications in the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This context is illustrated in Figure 1 below.


Gender Diversity by Occupation

What’s more, third party research indicated that women in the UK represent a powerful yet untapped pool of talent, and that there is a significant opportunity to boost the UK economy by involving more women in innovating in business. This is particularly relevant today and in the coming years, following the uncertainty caused by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

At the moment the system is heavily weighted against women and we are predominantly pitching to men; there is a lack of diversity within the finance sector.


Innovate UK approached Ebiquity’s Market & Stakeholder Research division to help the agency understand the barriers and challenges to women’s involvement in innovation. By understanding what holds women back and stands in their way, Innovate UK would be able to better support women in innovation.

We used both qualitative and quantitative techniques in the research. First, we interviewed 20 female innovators in-depth to uncover perceived challenges and barriers to accessing innovation funding and support. We then quantified the findings with a quantitative survey of more than 200 female innovators, by phone and online. The sample included a cross-section of UK female innovators from different industry sectors and types of organization. The study was the first of its kind to explore these issues.


The impact of being a women on a career in innovation


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Study findings

Almost a third (31 percent) of female innovators said that being a woman has negatively impacted their career in innovation. Examples cited include being required to pitch to all-male panels, their ideas being dismissed because of their gender, and being seen as “not sure what I’m doing.” By contrast, 41 percent believed that their gender made no difference, while 14 percent felt being a woman had had a positive impact on their career. See Figure 2 above.

Gaining access to and securing funding is the most challenging stage of the innovation process for female innovators, especially for those in small businesses and start-ups.

Everyone should get their job based on their skill, not their gender, but it’s about how worn-down women get when they are fighting a battle all the time to have an equal voice.


Convincing others, finding partners, and being taken seriously are challenges for female innovators. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg argued in Lean In, men are used to stepping up, while women may not feel they have the right to be there. Barriers are summarized in Figure 3 below.

Innovation funding organizations play a crucial role but organizations are too often perceived to be male dominated – a “boys’ club” – while funding competitions are seen as opaque. Female innovators view the application process as laborious, bureaucratic, and daunting, and the chances of success are perceived to be small.


Research application

By understanding the reasons behind women’s relative under-involvement, Innovate UK had the evidence it needed to validate the launch of its new annual infocus Women In Innovation Awards program, distributing its first grants in 2016. The awards are supported by a new ambassador program, pairing established female innovators to the innovators of tomorrow.

Lack of support in such a male-dominated field; voice is more difficult to be heard.


This new evidence base has also given Innovate UK the confidence to take positive action, including:

  • A commitment to simplifying the funding application process
  • Sharing success stories and promoting female role models
  • Offering focused support services and mentoring
  • Improving diversity within its own organizational structure
  • A drive to reach female innovators of today and active encouragement for more women to enter careers in innovation

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Additionally, our research helped Innovate UK identify news hooks for its media outreach. The report has been used as a platform for communications on this issue, and has been successful in securing Innovate UK exposure on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and coverage in key media outlets.

Dr Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, said: “Through this piece of research we have looked at the challenges specific to women in innovation. We have already taken some positive action to address some of the other findings in this report by Ebiquity, from our awards to our ambassador scheme. We are using this work to find women with great potential and exciting ideas.”

Harnessing research to shape strategy

Research for its own sake can only take an organization so far. With rigorous planning and application, research can help develop and drive organizational strategy and communications. Our work for Innovate UK demonstrates how this approach to research can help organizations achieve their objectives by delivering evidence-based and genuinely actionable insights – an over-promised and under-delivered commodity in research today.

To download a copy of the full research findings, find out more on the UK government’s website.

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About Author

oversees Ebiquity’s market and stakeholder research team and is responsible for managing a wide range of global communications and reputation research programmes for clients including Johnson & Johnson, GSK and Roche. Her award-winning work includes a study for GSK on international patient advocacy (winner of the Platinum AMEC award). She has more than 20 years research experience and is a member of the Market Research Society

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