The study from Girls with Impact included data on six years of college venture competitions in which there were 1,454 participants and 535 teams comprised of student from freshman to Ph.D level. across three universities — University of Connecticut, UCLA and Rice University.
Data from the universities on the types of courses that female students take backs up the gender gap in business competitions. Women have lower participation rates in real-world business courses versus theoretical classes. Even though the business school population is roughly equal men and women, when entrepreneurship classes are positioned as being about "real-world business creation," female student participation drops to as low as 5 percent (versus 18 percent for all entrepreneurship courses).
As 20th century operational jobs are taken over by computers and artificial intelligence, "The main function of the human worker going forward is to be entrepreneurial, to be innovative," said George Brooks, Americas Leader, People Advisory Services at EY. "Anything early on that requires you to be competitive has a direct correlation to developing swagger," Brooks said. "When I look at the key new attributes, entrepreneurship and resilience carry over to the business world."
But he said it is clear from the low participation rates in business competitions among women that girls need to be encouraged. "They need someone to be their role models and give them a nudge," Brooks said, especially since the results show that when women do compete they outperform men.
"It is a missed opportunity," said Jennifer Openshaw, CEO of Girls With Impact.
Openshaw said that while the study data does not result in firm conclusions about the reasons behind the gender gap in education choices, one theory is that female students feel a greater lack of confidence about courses and competitions branded as "real-world." They may perceive this as being a more male-dominated arena or avoid because they associate it with higher risk and feel they are more likely to fail, even though the data shows this not to be the case.
Recent venture capital firms founded specifically to invest in female-run start-ups also have shown that there is no shortage of women starting businesses: one venture capital firm said it has reviewed more than 4,000 companies founded by women since it started investing.
When girls do compete, there is a direct correlation to confidence gains. "Girls executing on business plans, the confidence is doubling, because the learning is not just theoretical, it is real," Openshaw said. "Early exposure changes the mindset, and it is great if it happens in high school, but needs to happen even earlier."
She also noted that while STEM educational programs receive needed focus, entrepreneurship is another "E" to insert in the acronym that will be key for the next generation of women leaders. "By definition, entrepreneurship is problem solving, and businesses have migrated to that mentality because they have to," Openshaw said.