Friday 8 March 2019 8:10 am

International Women’s Day is a reminder to keep breaking down barriers

Nicola Mendelsohn is vice president EMEA at Facebook.

As a senior woman in business, I’m often approached to speak at events about the importance of nurturing diversity, in the technology industry and beyond.

It is both a privilege and a regret.

I long for a world where diverse leadership is simply the norm; where senior female business leaders are just known as “business leaders”; where female founders are exceptional, but not the exception.

Sadly, we are not there yet. Today, the Treasury publishes its much anticipated review, led by RBS deputy chief executive Alison Rose, into the barriers facing women starting businesses – barriers that have resulted in fewer than one in five small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK being led by women.

Numbers like this are why moments like International Women's Day still have a place in society.

I have hosted International Women’s Day events every year since I joined Facebook, and people often ask: “shouldn’t we just be promoting diversity all year round?”.

Absolutely. But it is important to carve out the time to reflect on these issues, celebrate the progress we’ve made, and take stock of how much further we yet have to go, or we can all too easily be lulled into complacency.

I have always championed female entrepreneurship. My grandmother and mother were both entrepreneurs, and I was exposed to that spirit early on. But it is disappointing to think that the startup scene of their generation is not all that different from the one we witness today.

In honour of International Women’s Day, Facebook wanted to better understand why that is. In partnership with the World Bank and the OECD, we commissioned a report looking specifically at the experiences of female-run businesses that use our platform.

It reiterates what other reports have recently highlighted: access to funding remains a major challenge for female founders. A third admit to starting their business with personal savings, and only a minority said they currently have a bank loan or line of credit.

But the research also gives us some cause for optimism: 39 per cent of owners or managers of small businesses on Facebook are now women, significantly more than the one in five cited in other research into the general business landscape. I meet them every day – women who have built fantastic businesses using social media.

One of my favourite examples is Mel Bounds. Five years ago, she put up a post on a Facebook group for mothers to find a running buddy, and 75 other mums turned out to join her. That evening, Mel started a Facebook page to build a community of running mothers and now works full-time on This Mum Runs, which boasts 35,000 women in its community.

And she isn’t alone – 81 per cent of female founders say that social media was beneficial to their business. Many are women who might not even have thought of starting a business without inspiration and support from their social network.

In 2016, we created #SheMeansBusiness, an information site and set of training programmes for female founders, helping them to harness the potential of social media to catapult their businesses. Our research has shown that the entrepreneurial potential of these women represents £10.1bn of untapped economic value.

In just three years, we’ve trained over 50,000 women in the UK, giving them the tools, networks, and know-how to start and grow a business. And it’s a blueprint that we’ve now taken to a further six countries across Europe and the Middle East.

What I love about #SheMeansBusiness is that it’s not just about business. It’s about building communities of amazing women who can share advice, offer support, and inspire each other.

That’s what International Women’s Day is all about too, and why it will always be a firm fixture in my calendar. As long as the barriers remain and the gaps persist, we need to keep up the dialogue, the pressure, the example, and the inspiration.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.