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Female business students compete less than male peers

College students participating in a business competition

Young women are missing out on the benefits of one major aspect of business school — competition. Women represent just 22 percent of those participating in entrepreneurship and business competitions, which are essential exercises for advancing and networking, according to a new study by Girls With Impact.

“Participation rates demonstrate a systemic issue within university level entrepreneurship programs, and not taking steps to improve participation fails to provide female students with critical skills for life beyond schools,” according to the study, which looked at data from 1,454 venture competition participants, ranging from freshman to Ph.D. students, on 535 teams at three colleges over six years.

When women do participate in business/entrepreneurship competitions, they overtake young men in performance metrics, winning in significantly greater numbers than their representation in the total population. Of the ranking teams studied, 51 percent had a woman founder and 32 percent had a woman CEO.

So why aren’t women participating in entrepreneurship competitions?

One thought: 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, compared to 18 percent for all entrepreneurship courses. “Anecdotal evidence suggested that when course descriptions moved from theory-based to more ‘real-world,’ women appeared to avoid opting in,” the study noted.

Less access to mentoring

Women students may lack confidence to enter what may be perceived as a more rigorous or, based on stereotypes, more “male appropriate” program. Another possible explanation is these young women are avoiding high-risk scenarios where they may feel they’re more likely to fail, according to the study.

To address the confidence gap and help young women succeed as their education advances, their exposure to real-world business and high-risk scenarios needs to happen sooner, according to the Girls With Impact report.

“Students and leaders need to understand that studying entrepreneurship doesn’t mean they’re on the path to become one — just as studying business doesn’t ensure one becomes a CEO or other business leader,” the report notes. “It requires the ability to actually execute — and that’s exactly what employers are seeking. For this, the next generation must be exposed both earlier and directly to programs [where] they connect theory with real-world application.”

While much of that early work naturally falls to parents and teachers, corporations can do their part, too. Girls With Impact encourages businesses to invest in training programs that focus on entrepreneurship, especially for youth, and to offer high-value opportunities for young employees, such as including them in important meetings or creating reverse digital mentoring programs.