Women in Tech: Grassroots Funding for Improved Gender Balance?

Women in Tech: Grassroots Funding for Improved Gender Balance?

A post featured on MenaEntrepreneur.org back in February asked whether 2017 could be the year of the women-led startups, after news reports had emerged claiming that female entrepreneurship was on the rise in the tech industry.

The piece found numerous reasons to be optimistic, not least a subtle shift in customer expectations noted by many companies in recent years: as was noted, there’s growing support for the idea that exemplary service in 2017 typically relies on ‘skills that, broadly speaking, are still predominantly seen as being better delivered by women than men’.

However, a recent infographic exploring the gender makeup of tech board rooms suggests a pretty incredible shake-up would have to take place in the remaining six months of 2017 for us to see a shock turnaround of the status quo before the year is out.

Using a range of sources – starting, in many cases, with the companies’ own published data – the graphic reveals a depressingly predictable imbalance in the gender of senior-level representatives across a range of large tech corporations. Apple’s 15 male executives, for example, claim 84% of the seats at that level, with just three females in the mix. The bias is even more pronounced at IMB and Qualcomm (both 85% male), while Microsoft, Intel and Hewlett-Packard fare little better. Samsung’s 9-member board of directors is represented exclusively by men.

Of course, this isn’t a new issue: in fact, when it comes to advancing women in the workplace, the tech world has for many years lagged significantly behind industries often thought of as inherently more old-school and traditional. It’s been well documented that females typically outperform males in STEM subjects at high school level, and that 57% of US graduates in all subjects are women, but that graduates receiving computer science degrees at university level are typically around 80% male.

Even more gallingly, this figure has stagnated for the last decade or more – even though, year on year, the supply of graduate employees with up-to-date programming skills is still consistently outstripped by demand. In short, there’s a huge talent gap, and women have the talent to fill it; they just aren’t doing so currently.

We’ve all heard various suggestions put forward as to why such a relatively tiny percentage of women are graduating and finding careers in tech. The most commonly cited view is that it’s a largely self-perpetuating cycle, wherein a traditionally male-biased industry keeps hiring new men to replace old ones. This leads to a working environment that looks inherently unfulfilling (and at times actively hostile) to women, resulting in a lack of female tech role models to inspire younger generations, and subsequently fewer women sticking with computer sciences as the higher education funnel gradually narrows our studies down to one specialism.

Equally, there are dozens of good suggestions out there for how the industry might go about fixing this problem – common wishlist items include teaching girls to code in middle school, and helping to combat negative industry stereotypes by championing more positive narratives. Others see the onus as lying very much with the existing industry. As Megan Smith, former Chief Technology Officer of the United States, said on the Tech Jobs Tour circuit last week, “the best way to get women into tech is to hire them”.

She’s right. Surprisingly, the best evidence to support this idea might be found in places like Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia – former Eastern Bloc nations where they enjoy a far superior balance of females in successful STEM careers. As a feature on ZDNet.com detailed earlier this month, the harsh realities of life under the communist regime saw many women actively steered into what had traditionally been ‘male jobs’ in order to make a more direct contribution to the faltering economy. Wringing as much as possible from the existing talent pool offered a potential way out of poverty for both individual and state alike.

Techcrunch.com also noted this month that a similar success story is beginning to emerge in Lebanon, albeit for very different reasons. The focus there has been on bolstering the domestic industries to cope with the ‘brain drain’ effect of war, but the net result has been similar: significant amounts of money have been channelled directly into accelerator programs, women-led startup seed funds and collaborative co-working spaces in an effort reinvigorate the economy from the roots up, making far better use of its valuable human resources.

Directly comparing the 2017 tech hiring situation in the UK and US to circumstances under the crumbling Warsaw Pact or the Syrian occupation of Lebanon is of course ludicrous; nobody’s doing that. However, our modern domestic industries are effectively facing a crisis of their own by failing to deal with the talent gap and elevating women in tech roles. Increased focus on funding may also be their best hope of turning the situation around. Melinda Gates certainly seems to think so, having recently ‘launched a personal crusade to bring more women into computer science’ in which she’s ‘considering her own venture-capital fund for female entrepreneurs’.

And, as a newly published Forbes piece observes, the diversity of the backers themselves has a key role to play in achieving better diversity across the industry as a whole: ‘One often ignored tactic for encouraging diversity among tech founders and employees is to encourage diversity among the investors’, argues tech writer Matt Hunkler. ‘When investors from diverse backgrounds see high returns, they’ll likely go on to fund more startups with nontraditional founders, creating a virtuous cycle… As tech investors become more diverse, the number of funded entrepreneurs who don’t fit the traditional stereotypes will rise, adding to the diversity of the whole industry.’

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