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Breaking the digital glass ceiling: What we need to do to see more women in tech

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As society globally evolves at an increasingly rapid rate, it’s the nation’s entrepreneurs that will drive Australian innovation to keep pace and remain relevant.

But there is still a lot of work to be done to bring down the digital glass ceiling that holds female entrepreneurs, and therefore the nation, back.

While the number of female tech entrepreneurs in Australia is steadily increasing, we’re really grasping at positivity straws if we hold a 3 per cent increase over two years as a major achievement, especially when you consider the total number is approximately 228.

Reflecting on my experience as a female tech entrepreneur in Australia, I believe we need a combination of personal, private and public strategies to make a significant difference to other women coming through and break down the barriers that hold women in tech back.

Why are there so few women in tech?

Sydney-based development company Terem Technologies recently surveyed women leading Australian tech start-ups about their experiences and asked for their views on why there are so few female tech entrepreneurs.

Summarised in their report, Against All Odds: The Unexpected Paths of Female Tech Entrepreneurs, Terem found that 34 per cent named a perceived lack of expertise and 30 per cent a lack of confidence as factors preventing women from embarking on a tech startup while 27 per cent pointed to a lack of supportive networks.

As a female tech entrepreneur sans tech expertise, I’ve often felt my lack of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education has been a handicap in the funding arena, particularly during the early stage raises because angel investors are always looking for technical people on the founding team and many don’t invest if there isn’t one.

When it comes to a lack of confidence, women are typically more humble and less likely to put on the bravado that male founders do which works against women-led businesses in securing the attention it needs to grow.

And the corporate “boys’ club” can keep the networks that are often crucial to securing funding and corporate deals at arms length for female entrepreneurs while their male peers are welcomed with open arms.

The solution lies mainly in what we teach our girls

I believe the education sector has one of the largest roles to play in combatting these challenges.

Terem’s survey found that female tech entrepreneurs are not allowing a lack of STEM training to get in their way with only 19 per cent of female entrepreneurs surveyed having a STEM background and of these only 4 per cent had a computer science background.

And while this is encouraging, in order to see significant growth in the number of female techpreneurs, we need to demystify STEM career paths, break down the “boys only” stigma that’s associated with computer programming and other STEM fields and introduce the language of coding in early education because while a STEM education may not be a requirement, it’s vital to be tech literate.

I also believe we need to encourage more co-education schools and programs to increase the opportunities for boys’ and girls’ to learn to work together in order to lay the groundwork for increased collaboration when they get into the working world.

Simultaneously, schools need to combat gender roles and increase confidence by encouraging girls and young women to ask for what they want and take public pride of their accomplishments.

Higher education needs to examine the role of women entrepreneurs in academia and invite them on staff as faculty members, advisors and Entrepreneurs-in-Residence to share their insights, advise students and serve as role models not only to inspire female students but demonstrate the value of and encourage respect for female leadership to male students.

The private sector has big role to play too

Where education has the opportunity to lay the groundwork to break down barriers holding female techpreneurs back, the private sector has to pick up the baton by bringing them into the networks that will provide them with the connections needed to tap into sources of funding, large corporate customers and mentorships.

Unsurprising but unacceptable nonetheless, a US study by Women Who Tech found that only 7 per cent of investor money goes to women-led startups and that 86 per cent of venture-funded businesses had no women in the management team at all.

Research on unconscious bias indicates that during traditional venture capital pitches, when men and women present the same content, the women are often viewed as less competent and are considered to have less innovative or viable concepts.

Yet, a study led by Vivek Wadhwa of 500 women in the tech sector around the world found that women-led private technology companies are more capital-efficient, achieve 35 per cent higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, bring in 12 per cent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies.

We all need to wake up to the facts

Awareness is the first step. Studies, particularly ones like Terem Technologies’ that is based on Australian research, help make more investors and entrepreneurs aware of the challenges women in tech face and the enormous untapped investment opportunity for angels and venture capitalists to fund women entrepreneurs.

The more we are aware, the more we can talk about the issues openly and then do something to overcome it.

It’s encouraging that in recent years, awareness is increasing thanks in part to a significant number of non-profit organisations emerging with the mission of supporting, training, and celebrating women entrepreneurs.

But I worry that it’s fragmented, and therefore less effective because if companies and non-profits work independently and compete for attention and members rather than combining forces and collaborating, their efforts will never add up to more than the sum of the parts.

So, I encourage these groups to look for ways to work together rather than further fracture the movement.

Changes in the education and private sectors certainly won’t happen overnight, therefore, the role of non-profits and female entrepreneurs themselves to spur on the conversation is crucial.

I believe as a woman in tech that we have a responsibility to support one another by sharing our stories, warts and all, in order to inspire others.

It’s easy for women to question and dismiss that the tech world and entrepreneurship is a good path for them until they find out about the varied and successful paths other women have taken whether it was starting a business at 20 years old or 50, pivoting, failing or making mistakes, wanting to give up just before catching a big break, raising money while pregnant or just after having twins — it’s these stories that open the door and demonstrate it can be done.

Perhaps most importantly, I strongly believe it’s our obligation to pay it forward to not only mentor but reinvest our success into the next class of female entrepreneurs whether by partnering, connecting, contributing, subscribing, advocating or investing.

While the above is by no means is a comprehensive list, it would be a great start.

Alli Baker is the Co-Founder and CEO of Workible, a mobile recruitment platform and smartphone app targeted for use by service-based industries. The Terem Technologies report Against All Odds: The Unexpected Paths of Female Tech Entrepreneurs is available here.

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