Over-confident contestants in pin-stripe suits. Finger pointing tycoons. Birds-eye views of London skyscrapers. Authoritative music. Yes, it’s The Apprentice, which sadly came to a close last week with its TV finale.
While the show usually passes me by without notice, this time round I couldn’t help but pay attention. There’s no doubt it received more limelight than usual, hovering around the BBC iPlayer homepage and finding its way into TV reviews.
The apparent reason? Because the show has two female contests battling it out for the £250,000 golden ticket to entrepreneur-dom.
This shouldn’t be a novelty but it is. Analysis undertaken on behalf of RBS show that men are twice as likely as women to start up in business (see the graph below). Only 26 per cent of self-employed people are women, and this is despite them making up a growing proportion of the UK labour force.
Part of the reason for this under-representation stems from a lack of ‘entrepreneurial capital’. The aforementioned research (which is worth a read) indicates that many women lack the skills/knowledge, financial resource and access to networks that are necessary to start a business. But perhaps an even greater cause of low start-up rates among women is the dearth of female role models in the business world.
Which brings us back to The Apprentice. Is the TV show helping or hurting efforts to boost entrepreneurship among women? In theory, having an all-female final should do wonders. The show is watched by millions of young girls thinking about what they want to do and be in later life. But my fear is that, as is so often the case, the reality is a different story.
The worry with the Apprentice is that it tends to promote a certain ‘use’ of entrepreneurship at the expense of others that are much more common and valuable to women. Most of those taking part in The Apprentice are in business for the fame and the fortune. In practice, however, lots of women (and men!) become entrepreneurs because it gives them, among other things, the freedom to look after children, or the space to act upon a great new idea. In fact, only half of women who are self-employed even call themselves ‘business owners’.
So our concern with The Apprentice should not just relate to who is taking part (male or female) but rather why it is the participants are there in the first place.* If we want more women to start up in business, we need to begin showcasing female entrepreneurs who are able to demonstrate how entrepreneurship can be a vehicle for achieving all of life's objectives - achieving freedom, acting upon ideas and, yes, making money too.
* Witness Social Enterprise UK's call upon BBC producers to include more social entrepreneurs in their shows.