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debate this: innovation in universities

Barbara Orser, business professor at the University of Ottawa, says academic funding agencies and universities should be held accountable for female participation in the funding of entrepreneurial infrastructure.Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

In the introductory lecture of my entrepreneurship class, I present students with two scenarios. In the first, each student is described as having a brilliant idea for a new business. Optimism and experience leads them to believe that it is a 'sure fire' winner. A question is posed: "Who is willing to pursue business start-up?" Hands are raised.

I then present the second scenario. The student has recently attended a job talk by a large corporation. The presentation focuses on entry-level employment opportunities. The firm's Human Resources department has called to offer an interview. Again the question is posed: "Who is now willing to pursue business start-up?" Inevitably, it is my male students who are most likely to raise their hands – to both questions!

The exercise illustrates two important facts. First, complex influences are at play in the decision to pursue venture creation, and one key influence is gender. Second, compared to male students, females are less likely to consider venture creation as a career option.

Gender differences are evidenced in large-scale, multi-country research studies about entrepreneurial intent. Research conducted by the University of Ottawa Telfer School of Management has also found that gender of ownership relates to the growth performance of new firms, including sales revenues, profits, number of employees and salaries. After controlling for a variety of potential drivers of growth, women-owned young Canadian firms grow less quickly than do male-owned counterparts.

In the face of mounting evidence about gender influences in intent and enterprise performance, entrepreneurship curriculum remains essentially gender-blind. This is at a time when there has never been such a high proportion of females among Canadian postsecondary students. Yet, captains of industry comprise a roster of male role models: high-tech billionaires such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Terry Matthews, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. Few students follow the accomplishments of Oprah Winfrey, Amber Chand (Baby Einstein), and Heather Reisman. Fewer know the story of North America's first colonial female entrepreneur. During the 1600s, Lady Sara Kirke managed an international fleet of ships. Setting out from Newfoundland, she carried out commerce through military campaigns and political turmoil. The list of female entrepreneurs is long – but all too often they are not as visible as male role models.

Introducing female role models and case studies about female-owned firms in the for – and non-profit sectors is an obvious area of improvement. But these suggestions scratch the surface of "opportunity recognition." Few university–based entrepreneurship initiatives target female-dominated faculties such as communications, natural sciences, nursing, early childhood studies, and education. Many of these graduates will be self-employed or pursue enterprise creation during the course of their career, some upon graduation. As a result, entrepreneurship is widely perceived as a masculine knowledge domain. Research also shows that female faculty are underrepresented in university incubation and technology transfer centers. The majority of entrepreneurship and innovation funding is directed at male-dominated engineering and technology facilities. It is time for innovative solutions.

Earlier this week, one of Canada's largest investment funds advocated for minimum representation of women on corporate boards, or risk sanctions such as delisting from the stock exchange. The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan studies found that voluntary options are unlikely to have lasting impact.

Academic funding agencies and universities should also be held accountable for female participation in the funding of entrepreneurial infrastructure. Funding guidelines can be used to stimulate entrepreneurship in female-dominated disciplines. This infers outreach to female students and faculty. Finally, desired program outcomes should be expanded from a current emphasis on invention, patents and potential commercialization to include the creation of social enterprises.

My experience suggests that universities and funding agencies can play a more proactive role in ensuring that entrepreneurship curriculum and infrastructure reflect the learning needs of all students. From an economic perspective, "A performance gap between female and male entrepreneurs … would imply that countries are not fully utilizing their human and physical capital and that the repercussions on their (and their country's) growth potential are negative." Such curriculum and investment guidelines will better serve the social and economic fabric of Canada.

Barbara Orser is Vice-Dean, Career Development at the University of Ottawa Telfer School of Management. She holds the Deloitte Chair in the Management of Growth Enterprises. Working with Telfer colleague, Dr. Catherine Elliott, she is the co-author of a forthcoming book about women's entrepreneurship.