While Swiss universities and public research institutions play a pivotal role in enabling Switzerland to maintain the top rank as an innovation leader, the gender contribution of researchers, particularly female academics, has until now not been extensively researched. Swiss Universities and the University of Applied Arts and Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) have published the first FemSpin report:Spin-Offs and Start-Ups of Female Academics at Swiss Universities: Activities and Support by Brigitte Liebig and Alain Soltermann, to serve as a database on start-up and spin-off activities at Swiss universities and research institutions.
The FemSpin study is based on a national survey of Swiss universities (HEI) and a selection of major non-university research institutes (RI). Participants include the two federal institutes of technology ETH Zurich and EPFL, eleven Swiss universities (UNI) and nine Swiss universities of applied sciences (UAS), as well as five non-university research institutions (RI) in Switzerland.
The participating Swiss universities had between 139 and 144 spin-offs or start-up companies per year over the three years. Between 2019 and 2021, 243 and 270 founders were documented, with women accounting for 14% and 17%, respectively. Overall, the report showed an upward trend in female-founded spin-offs.
Female scientists vs patent submissions
Looking at the student and staff gender composition, the number of female students and staff is, in contrast to, the number of spin-offs established significantly higher and varies with the institute. The study found that a third of all students are female, with the mid-level faculty representing 32% and less than 20% of the senior-level teaching staff. The situation looks different at UNI and UAS, which had 57% and 49% female students, respectively. The UNI employed the same proportion of male and female technical and scientific staff, while at UAS, the ratio of female scientific staff is significantly lower (38%).
One reason for the gender disparity regarding spin-offs are the low patent submissions by female researchers. According to study results, female academics are rarely involved in knowledge transfer from research & development (R&D). Last year, for instance, according to the European Patent Office, only 11.9% of patent applications were submitted by women, making Switzerland one of the most poorly performing countries on the European stage. Between 2010 and 2019, only 19.4% of female academics applied for patents.
Implications and Recommendations to boost female entrepreneurship
As the first of its kind, the study has shed light on women in science and technology and provides a topic for discussion to ecosystem players to support them in designing frameworks to promote female academics and their entrepreneurial activities and research and innovation policy in Switzerland. Some of the current barriers hindering the success of female entrepreneurs are cultural and societal biases and family structures as well as lack of role models, access to funding and institutional resources, as highlighted in the FEM report by the FEMtrepreneurs and the Innovation Office of the University of Basel, in collaboration with the FemSpin-Project and swissuniversities.
Among the suggested measures, the FemSpin report suggests, in their order of significance promoting role models, creating awareness and visibility on the topic, promoting support networks, enabling qualification for women, promoting female leadership, giving women more encouragement, funding their ventures and providing a foundation to reconcile work and family.
The detailed FemSpin report is available for download.