International Women's Day has laudable aims – a better working world and a more gender inclusive world.
The Interface team celebrated March 8 by holding inspirational signs pledging their support for women under this year's theme - #BeBoldForChange - and posting them on our social networks to spread the message. Simple, but effective.
Supporting gender equality is embedded in our business engagement activities, promotion, policy work and support of knowledge sharing between businesses and academia – and it’s a long-term objective.
As long as there is talk of glass ceilings and sticky floors, and the number of women and men on boards remains unbalanced, gender equality will be on the agenda and an integral part of our work.
Our focus mirrors that of the Scottish Government’s three themes - equality, social inclusion and environmental sustainability – and that of the Scottish Funding Council Gender Action Plan, which helps to remove gender stereotyping of roles through education.
We support women in our work every day by taking the time to understand their businesses and the challenges they are facing. We help match them with the right academic expertise in Scotland's universities and research institutions and by forging these partnerships, we help their businesses to grow and develop.
In fact, two of the categories in this year’s Scottish Knowledge Exchange Awards, organised by Interface last month (February), were awarded to women – the Outstanding Contribution to Knowledge Exchange and Building Skills through Knowledge Exchange awards – both women making an impact in different ways on the world of business-academic collaboration.
The collaborations Interface fosters have wider impacts too, on the economy and on society by assisting businesses in developing innovative products, services and processes across all industry sectors.
Through our administration of Scottish Funding Council Innovation Vouchers, we know that 1 in 3 company applicants are women which compares well when benchmarked against similar schemes, where the equivalent statistic is 1 in 7 applications. (That's not to say that there are not women in key positions in the other businesses which apply for this type of funding, however it is a good indicator.) On the other side of the partnership, 31% of collaborative projects we facilitate are led by women academics.
We work with women running many different types and size of business, from home-based one-woman bands to sizeable companies.
We promote real people running real businesses, such as Karen Knowles re-launching Bon Accord Soft Drinks with the help of Abertay University; Sooz Chirino of Sansooz, who started her fashion apparel business at the kitchen table, supported by Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at University of Dundee, and farmer Julie Hermitage who worked with Dr Lisa McIntyre from the School of Textiles and Design at Heriot-Watt University when she diversified into luxury wool products.
Over the 12 years that Interface has been in operation, there has been an encouraging rise in the number of women starting businesses. In 2015, 7,100 businesses were started by women in Scotland, contributing £268m to the economy.*
The number of female academics working with businesses and the number of programmes enabling women to take on leadership positions have also increased.
International Women’s Day comes at very pertinent time for me as I have been lucky enough over the past six months to have been participating in Aurora, a women only leadership development programme for the Higher Education sector. Run by the Leadership Foundation, Aurora was born in 2013 from research that highlighted how under-represented women were in senior leadership positions. The programme aims to encourage more women to plan and prepare better for leadership roles at an early point in their careers.
And what a motivating journey it has been! Meeting once a month, 200 women from across Scotland come together to focus on key areas associated with leadership success with opportunities to share our own career experiences. Across the development days I have met some wonderful women with whom I wish every success in forging their leadership roles and inspiring those around them.
Interface will continue to promote equality, social inclusion and environmental sustainability, and who knows, perhaps there will be a day when the gender issue is not a headline story.
By Heather Alexander, Marketing Manager, Interface
To read about case studies of successful business-academic collaborations, go to interface-online.org.uk/case studies
*Research by The Royal Bank of Scotland and Development Economics