In the wake of a very public sexual harassment scandal involving Tinder’s cofounder Justin Mateen, many are questioning a culture of gender bias in the startup scene — and in particular, the tech startup scene. This year, Google revealed that 70 percent of its workforce is male and 61 percent are white, while Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn followed suit with their own transparency reports, to a strinkinglysimilar end. There are moves being made to get more girls into coding from an early age, which many believe will help tip that balance. But as Louise O’Sullivan, CEO of Anam Technologies, writes, the lack of female entrepreneurs in the sector is a problem we need to address now. We cannot wait any longer.
Following the very well-publicised case recently of a female Silicon Valley entrepreneur allegedly being stripped of her cofounder title as it was deemed to devalue the company, it offers a perfect example of women’s place and perception in the technology and communications industry.
Within my working life, I would rarely view myself in terms of my gender. I focus on my ability to do my job better than anyone else. However, as a female CEO of a startup company, it is abundantly apparent that I am in a minority in my sector.
The reality is that women are still not perceived as leaders or creators of technology, sometimes even by themselves. Whilst this has ramifications for the tech industry as a whole, it is also deeply reflective of the investment houses of the Silicon Valley scene; women don’t get the same level of funding as men.
THE LACK OF FEMALE ROLE MODELS
There are many reasons why, but the two major issues are the lack of representation in seeking funding in the first place and the fact that the funding stage of a business is high risk. VC firms are generally risk averse and tend to invest within familiar networks and businesses, and as there are not enough case studies of successful female-led successful startups, they are seen to be a much higher risk than male-led companies.
On top of this, there are simply less women who even get to the investment stage than men. In the UK, women only account for just under a third of those in self-employment and part of the problem is that women often don’t perceive themselves as suitable candidates to set up and run a company. As an RBS Group study into businesses found, women are much less likely attribute the closure of their company to “business failure” and more likely to cite “personal reasons” than men.
It is evident that where initiatives are undertaken to specifically encourage women into entrepreneurship, the result is highly positive and shows marked increase and progress in terms of increasing numbers of female run businesses. According to the Office of National Statistics, between 2008 and 2011 women accounted for 80 percent of the newly self-employed. We need to see this kind of representation in technology and telecoms.
THE GENDER GAP IS A LANGUAGE PROBLEM
The problem is far more deep routed than just in the minority of sexist and misogynistic individuals however. If men were to visibly recoil when a woman showed up, or were often making overtly sexist comments, then we’d be able to change things very quickly with current legislature. But the way in which women are disbarred isn’t in the moment of the pitch with VCs. It’s in the whole construction of how we expect women to relate to men in conversation, such as through deference. That’s because we are socialised from a very early age to interact in those ways and it therefore feels natural or normal. An excellent example of how this manifests itself in tech companies was encapsulated by American cartoonist and television writer Ariel Schrag in The Ping-Pong Theory of Tech Sexism: A true (illustrated) story.
We are socialised to interpret male gestures and styles of conversation as authoritative and convincing, so even though men and women who are on paper “the same” in terms of qualifications, experience and aptitude, in person, it will seem to you like the man is the better person for the job because of socialised standards of authority. I am passionate about encouraging more women to put themselves forward. Why? Because we need more balance. This is not about having an industry run by women, this is about having a balance of representation and more role models for the next generation coming through.
Numerous studies by organisations such as McKinsey, Thomson Reuters, and Leeds University have shown that companies with the most women on their boards of directors significantly and consistently outperform those businesses with no female representation.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
I have been to a number of events on encouraging women in industry and often the one area that is danced around is that of combining a family with a leadership role. This is invariably at the forefront of a woman’s mind when pushing forward for her personal success. This is an area that hampers women putting themselves forward and slows men in encouraging women forward.
I have ample personal experience from both men and women who suggest I compromise my family by working to the level of ambition that I do. But I have three sons and a daughter. I want them all to know that irrespective of gender, everyone takes there place in the world shoulder to shoulder and I can’t demonstrate that theoretically. I have to lead by example.