If you watched last week’s Cheltenham Festival or followed some of the headlines, you couldn’t help but be impressed by Rachael Blackmore, the 31-year-old from Tipperary who received the accolade for leading jockey at the festival, becoming the first woman ever to do so.
She picked up six wins during four days of demanding racing, including the prestigious Champion Hurdle, and through her success has already inspired the next generation of women.
In the business world, women also compete on the same course as men, but it appears there are still too many hurdles put in front of them that prevent many from getting to the starting gate.
Back To The Start-up, a report published on Tuesday by the FSB and Ulster University Business School, identifies that our rate of business births continues to lag consistently behind other parts of the UK, while the female rate of entrepreneurial activity is typically one-third of the male rate.
This is also reflected in our self-employment statistics, as only a quarter of self-employed people in Northern Ireland are female.
That’s not to say that we haven’t got some outstanding women business leaders doing remarkable things and creating employment and prosperity, but the statistics show us that they are too few and far between.
So, what are the reasons behind this under-representation? Policy, or the lack of it, does play a considerable part, with the absence of a properly funded childcare strategy limiting the choices available to parents, in particular women, which has a bearing on roles they might play in the economy.
The impact of a lack of investment in childcare is clearly visible in economic inactivity figures, which include those unable to work or who aren’t seeking employment.
For women, the most commonly cited reason for being economically inactive is attributed to caring responsibilities. By contrast, in the analysis of males who are economically inactive, caring responsibilities is not a commonly cited reason.
Therefore, we can see that while the lack of proper investment in childcare impacts all parents, it disproportionately impacts women and so can prove a major barrier to women starting a business or even believing that it is a possibility.
While policy plays its part, culture and practice also have a role. In the Back To The Start-up report, culture is identified as a substantive issue relating to entrepreneurship.
In Northern Ireland, once someone has actually decided to start a business, there is practical support available.
However, not enough is being done to reach further into society and stimulate demand for starting a business in the first place.
Institutional supports on their own are clearly not enough. We need to encourage more people to have the ambition, shake the fear and take that first step. Given the under-representation of women, reaching that cohort should be top of the agenda.
Research published by the Treasury has found that more effective policy development to engage and support females in new business ventures at levels commensurate with their male counterparts had the potential to add £120bn to the UK economy.
This demonstrates that increasing female entrepreneurship could have massive benefits.
In the novel and TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian state exists where women are subjugated and prohibited from working, owning assets or pursuing careers. While incredibly unjust, this also becomes an inherent weakness of society, as the talents of women in politics, medicine, sport, law and other fields and professions are not utilised and everyone suffers because of it.
While not wishing to stretch the comparison, the basic point is that if the role of women in business remains underdeveloped, we are not coming close to reaching our full potential and our economy and society are poorer as a result.
Increasing the amount of female entrepreneurs by addressing and removing policy and cultural barriers should be the cornerstone of our economic thinking.
Properly tapping into the potential of female entrepreneurs could provide transformational benefits to our historically underdeveloped private sector.
In order to encourage more women to take the first step, we must champion our existing female business leaders, so the next generation can see that, just as Rachael Blackmore has demonstrated, hurdles can be overcome and great things can happen.
Tina McKenzie is chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, NI
You can find out more about the ‘Back to the Start-up’ report and campaign at https://www.fsb.org.uk/backtothestartup.html