Did you know that women only represent 14%-24% of start-up founders and only 4% of funded Australian start-ups — those attracting investment — are led by female entrepreneurs?
In business and in education sectors, women in tech are grossly underrepresented. International Innovation asserts that in the early 80’s, 38% of those graduating from tech-related degrees in the US were women. Today the number has shrunk to 17%.
So what’s contributing to a lack of women in technology?
The answer is complicated. Some of the trouble is that in 2016 tech still isn’t regarded as a woman’s sport. And Aleks Krotoski suggests that: ‘Educators have been gnashing their collective teeth to figure out why’. She argues: ‘The best explanation, from years of analysis and interviewing, is that computing is not viewed as a girls' sport. Young women aren't exposed to computing, or steered in that direction by parents, peers or career counsellors. Recent headlines about gender pay gap disparities won't help matters.’
Blue Chilli’s Nicola Hazell, Director of SheStarts also asserts that the conversation about women in tech needs to change: ‘Particularly in STEM industries, women can feel locked out by the culture. In the start-up scene, the stereotype of the young guys in t-shirts and sneakers, playing ping-pong is pervasive.'
Women themselves can also be a barrier to fostering more talent in tech and leadership spheres. As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook acknowledges in her bestselling book, Lean In, the crux of the problem is that women can hold themselves and each other back. She states:
‘Women in the generations ahead of me believed, largely correctly, that only one woman would be allowed to ascend the senior ranks. In the days of tokenism, women looked around the room and instead of bonding against an unfair system, they viewed each other as competition … Unfortunately this ‘there can only be one’ attitude still lingers today. It makes no sense for women to feel that we are competing against one another anymore, but some still do.’
Ms Hazell also suggests that sometimes a lack of confidence can prevent women from taking an entrepreneurial plunge:
‘Many would-be entrepreneurs have incredible ideas, but feel as though their lack of tech skills prevent them from furthering the idea. There’s this notion, for example, that you need to be able to code to start and lead a digitally-enabled business. This isn’t true. Knowing the [coding] language is really important in communicating with developers, but you certainly don’t need to be an expert.'
The way to tackle these attitudes is to starting thinking about representation. Women and girls need to see themselves in tech industries and in leadership positions. And changing that narrative is critical in challenging this perception. As Ms Hazell acknowledges:
‘Women need to have stories where they can see themselves represented. Companies must design for inclusivity. Even things like how you create your company website can be a powerful tool in attracting or deterring female talent. If women and girls start to see themselves succeeding in STEM roles, success becomes normalised and the perceived barriers fade’.
Why women in tech?
Organisations are realising the value women bring to the tech world and are motivated to change the industry. It’s not just vital to attract more talent because the tech industry in Australia has a skill shortage, but because there are many women out there who have ideal qualities for the start-up culture. As Ms Sandberg notes:
'Endless data show that diverse teams make better decisions. We are building products that people with very diverse backgrounds use, and I think we all want our company makeup to reflect the makeup of the people who use our products.'
How to make a difference
Many companies are realising that they need to redress the balance and there are a number of exciting initiatives happening. And the start-up industry is the ideal place for it to happen. Ms Hazell explains:
‘The start-up industry is a relatively new scene, so the issues that we see aren’t as entrenched as they are in some of the more traditional enterprises. We have a unique opportunity to overcome perceived challenges to female entrepreneurship and get the message out there that women have a very welcome part to play in our economy.’
Her company, Australian incubator BlueChilli, initiated SheStarts, in partnership with MYOB, UTS, ANZ and SunSuper.
SheStarts will select 10 female founders with high-impact ideas. These founders will attract $100k in pre-seed funding and space in the SheStarts accelerator program, allowing them to take their business from idea to launch. They will also receive mentorships, access to an incubator space in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney and access to in-house developers and designers.
The process will be documented in a web series that will kick off January next year, chronicling the journey of the 10 finalists as they build and launch their businesses in 2017.
There is also the SAGE program (Science in Australia Gender Equity) run by Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Adapted from the UK Athena Swan Charter, it aims to ‘improve the promotion and retention of women and gender minorities within STEM in Australia. Launched in September 2015, over 40 Australian businesses are dedicated to attracting and retaining extraordinary female talent.
Do you want to be a female entrepreneur?
If you’re looking to improve your skills, find mentorship, or grow connections, there are a number of steps you can take, including:
The world of coding can make prospective business-owners feel overwhelmed and out of their league. Happily, there are many great courses, events and evening classes you can attend. If you want to learn how communicate your vision to your developer, or if you want a more hands-on involvement, there is something for everyone. Some of the women-focused courses include:
It’s also worth checking out this excellent TED Talk by computer programmer Linda Liukas that demystifies the aura of coding and instead focuses on how coding should be just a tool on the road to your achieving your end-goal:
Women in Tech
There are some exciting forums for women in the technology industry. These groups are a fantastic way to meet women who’ve succeeded, create great relationships and look for talent. There's a load of meet-ups, but some of the bigger ones include:
If you have an idea that could change the world, the applications for SheStarts are now open, Your experience could help change the narrative around women in technology, one that inspires our next generation of developers, entrepreneurs and business leaders.
We are regularly reminded that many areas of ICT are facing a skills shortage, yet the percentage of women in technology is disproportionately low. The Women in Technology Panel, part of the Strategy Panels at CeBIT Australia 2017, will share learnings as technology entrepreneurs and leaders.