Late last month, a member of the public called out EY New Zealand for shortlisting only one female among its 17 finalists to compete for the title of Entrepreneur Of The Year. The winner will represent New Zealand at the EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year awards in Monaco next year.

Quite rightly, the question brought focus to the gender imbalance in the programme. In 2016, three of the six category winners were women, but this year, very few female entrepreneurs put themselves forward. Hence only one woman, lawyer Mai Chen, made it onto the finalists' list.

So where are all our female entrepreneurs?
Sadly, it's not for want of trying to persuade successful women to become involved in the Entrepreneur Of The Year programme. Diversity is the cornerstone of our values and how we conduct business at EY. The Entrepreneur Of The Year award is our flagship programme to promote entrepreneurial business globally, and we aim to make it as fully inclusive as possible, with a broad range of female and male entries across every conceivable sector.

At the beginning of each year, we go to great lengths to encourage women to enter. A key principle is to ensure that we identify a balanced mix of men and women to pipeline talent into the awards. We begin with a 50/50 long list of potential entrepreneurs to target and we personally contact all of them.

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For female entrepreneurs, we do this by leveraging existing client relationships and channelling key female business networks such as Global Women, Network of Winning Women and Company of Women, to name a few.

The challenge, of course, is that while there are thousands of great entrepreneurs out there with inspiring stories and great businesses, not everyone wants to put themselves forward for the awards. The programme, after all, requires entrepreneurs to self-nominate or be nominated by their peers so, at the end of the day, EY has influence, but no control, over who chooses to enter.

So if all of this effort is going into targeting females, why are we still seeing such a low representation in the awards programme itself? I have a theory on this.

As a strong advocate for women, I have worked hard during the past three years to find great women and get them into the Entrepreneur Of The Year programme.

It has not been easy. Almost universally, female entrepreneurs are a humble group, who don't see their success as important enough to be recognised within the awards programme. I know, from first-hand experience, how hard it was to convince women to enter.

A great example of this is Ranjna Patel, a category winner in 2016. She has an unbelievable entrepreneurial story spanning four decades, but it took a lot of cajoling for a number of years to persuade her to enter.

In some ways, I see the so-called "impostor syndrome" playing out in this group of women. Somehow, they believe they just don't measure up. By contrast, when we speak with male entrepreneurs, there is little hesitation. They are in, boots and all.

Males tend to see the Entrepreneur Of The Year programme as a prime opportunity to promote their businesses and network with a global alumni of entrepreneurs to further enhance their success. But many of the females I speak to measure their success in different ways, seeking to avoid the limelight and just getting on with the job. This sentiment is not confined to women, and many entrepreneurs just don't see what they do as being particularly unique or worthy of accolades.

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Recognising some of these different traits, EY is tackling the issue head on. Our Entrepreneurial Winning Women (EWW) programme was launched globally five years ago, with the specific purpose of identifying the next generation of female entrepreneurs and partnering with them to grow their business, build confidence and connect them into EY's network of business leaders.

We want women to understand that success is measured in several ways, and hard financial data is only one of these. So we use EWW as a primary vehicle for identifying and getting talented women into the Entrepreneur Of The Year programme. It's a slow process but is starting to be fruitful.

EY also goes to great lengths to ensure all entrants are treated on an equal basis.
This starts with a gender-neutral application process, going through to our gender-balanced, externally-appointed judging panel.

This year two of the four judges are female - Anne Norman CNZM and Carmel Fisher (a category winner in 2016). Last year's judging panel was chaired by Diane Foreman CNZM - the New Zealand Entrepreneur Of The Year winner in 2009, and a judge at the World Entrepreneur Of The Year awards in 2011 and 2017. Foreman is also the ambassador to the EWW programme.

We also assign a female EY executive to each female Entrepreneur Of The Year entrant to mentor her through the process so she doesn't get cold feet. But ultimately, it's up to the women themselves to step up and be counted.
-Susan Doughty is an executive director at EY.