In an industry that's still trying to decide where the fault lies for this statistic - and the absence of a single, discernible solution, we asked female entrepreneurs from the Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 to offer their advice on how to navigate bias in modern business.
1. "I feel like I've been battling, all of my life, people's perceptions of who they think I am. And they link what I look like to my performance. My advice would be to others, to not pass judgment on people until they really know how much that person's achieved." Melissa Morris, CEO, Network Locum
When less than half (42%) of women are confident their gender will have no bearing on their career progression, Melissa Morris is not alone in feeling her biology has an unwelcome habit of masking her true merit.
Social psychologist, Corinne Moss-Racusin, offered an even bleaker assessment when her research experiment demonstrated that female job applicants were considered less competent and less hireable than male applicants. They were even offered a significantly lower starting salary on average, despite identical qualifications.
To create a system based purely on aptitude rather than biology, we must recognise the significance of gender bias and put in place procedures that forcibly recognise merit.
2. "As a woman, people can make assumptions about you, so you have to be alert to such assumptions and tackle them head on. If you're clear about what you want, then be open about it." Kate Markham, Managing Director of Hiscox Direct.
In any industry, assumptions can be made about what's best for women. This may involve concluding that some jobs or projects are better suited to men. Or that if a woman has a baby she'll want to work fewer hours, she'll be reluctant to take on more responsibility or won't want to travel.
And while it's the collective responsibility of businesses to tackle these damaging assumptions, Kate advises women to be transparent about what they want "to stop people from making any career-limiting assumptions."
3. "No one's going to ask you to do anything. You have to do it. And you have to keep doing it." Edwina Dunn, Co-founder of dunnhumby
As of 2015, female-led start-ups received just 10% of global venture capital investment. It's an astonishing figure when you consider the successes of female led start-ups in the tech field, which include achieving investment returns 35% higher than male-led businesses and creating 12% more revenue with venture capital backing.
Edwina's advice reminds us that a starting handicap exists for female entrepreneurs because of their gender, and of the unfair reality that if a woman waits for opportunity to present itself chances are it won't happen. Women must acknowledge their strengths when others ignore them, and push through regardless.
4. "You have to believe in yourself, probably slightly more than is altogether comfortable. Without that you won't break through." Edwina Dunn, Co-founder of dunnhumby
The importance of self-belief and self-confidence is often trotted out when advising women on how to achieve in business, but unfortunately it's still necessary to neutralise the tide of opinion that can hold women back.
We only need to cast our minds back to the recent outburst from Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who soberly announced that women are 'weaker, smaller and less intelligent.' While Korwin-Mikke is the pantomime villain here, we must grudgingly acknowledge that this 'weaker, smaller, stupider' discourse still exists. So much so, that it's given a mouthpiece on the European political stage.
Perhaps worse is how the enduring nature of this discourse can prey on women's perceptions of their own self-worth, sometimes to the detriment of their career progression. Vastly increasing female representation at top levels is one way to counter these opinions. As is removing any influence that causes this toxic opinion to spread.
5. "I do think there's some truth in the cliché of Sheryl Sandberg's line that 'women should lean in.' Some of the most talented people I've worked with have been women, and yet they've not necessarily been quite as confident in their own abilities as I think they would have been, if they'd been men." William Reeve, Co-CEO Hubbub
William Reeve borrows from Sheryl Sandberg's philosophy to illustrate his experience of how differently men and women communicate ambition in the workplace.
It's a commonly referenced statistic that men will apply for a job when they fulfil 60% of a role's requirements, whereas women won't do so unless they're 100% qualified. But this confidence divide translates into opportunities too. KPMG's Cracking the Code report revealed that more men are promoted to senior roles than women, which had a compound effect higher up the career ladder.
It may be necessary for women to 'lean in'. But rather than limiting self-promotion as the only practical method to make it big in business, industries need to change the field of judgment into something that works on the objective recognition of skill.
What's clear from our entrepreneurs' advice is that women need to seriously toot their horn. Whether it's to obtain an equal chance at a promotion or project, to inspire other women into making a non-traditional career move, or simply to make sure their intellect is acknowledged.
The need for this kind of action is a stark reminder that the battle for equality in business is not yet won. However, by recognising these obstacles, female entrepreneurs are better equipped to overcome them, and to take full charge of their own careers.
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