Pounding Against The High-Tech Glass Ceiling
For as much as the tech world values forward-thinking, disrupting tradition and general rule breaking – it’s still very much stuck in the past where gender is concerned but the cracks in the ceiling are starting to appear.
When referring to tech entrepreneurs, more often than not it’s the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman that come to mind – not Julia Hartz, of EventBrite, or Rashmi Sinha, of Slideshare.
Celebrity status aside, this is indicative of the overarching issue that women in technology face sizeable obstacles in their path to success.
While the number of female tech entrepreneurs in Australia is steadily increasing, forgive me if I’m not overly excited about a 3 per cent increase in two years. And it’s downright shameful that only 7 per cent of investor money goes to those women-led start-ups, as reported in a US study by Women Who Tech.
The reasons why are many – there are fewer women in computer science, fewer women pitching for investment, fewer female investors, both conscious and subconscious gender discrimination, deeply ingrained gender roles – take your pick.
Sydney-based development company Terem Technologies 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 its report, Against All Odds: The Unexpected Paths of Female Tech Entrepreneurs, Terem found that while only 19 per cent of the female tech entrepreneurs surveyed had any form of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and, of those, only 4 per cent had studied computer science, 41 per cent had a degree in business, commerce or economics. These statistics stood out to me because it lends support to the growing research demonstrating that female-led tech ventures outperform their male counterparts. It’s this business knowledge and expertise that I believe puts female-led ventures in a better position to outperform their male counterparts who are more likely have STEM backgrounds.
In the early days of raising early-stage capital for our tech business, Workible, my fellow female co-founder and I were consistently passed over for start-ups that had technical (typically male) founders but our stance was always: “We are business people solving a problem we share with a substantial market and we need the capital to hire the tech talent to help us execute.”
Now four years on, many of those same businesses no longer exist but Workible continues to go from strength to strength.
A study led by Vivek Wadhwa of 500 women in the tech sector around the world finds 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. So, while the angel investor may “save” in terms of number of salaries on the payroll, having a business brain and the ability to commercialise ideas to meet milestones is not something the “brogrammers” can necessarily deliver.
US Shark Tank shark Kevin O’Leary recently voiced his opinion that women make the best CEOs, saying: “All things being equal, given the choice between a woman and a man, I would pick the woman every time.” He went on to say that of the businesses he’s invested in, he credits the women-led businesses with giving him “higher returns and faster exits”.
Studies such as Shattering Stereotypes: Women in Entrepreneurship speculate that the superior performance of female-led tech ventures is due to the fact that women are better calculated risk takers, who are less prone to overconfidence and more restrained in their estimation of business performance.
And, yet, it’s confidence, or lack thereof, that the women involved in Terem’s survey listed as one of the top challenges holding back female tech entrepreneurs.
We see it and experience this ourselves, all the time. Women are typically more humble and less likely to put on the bravado that male founders do, which works against a women-led business in securing the attention it needs to grow.
I believe the best way to ensure the cracks in the glass ceiling, holding women in tech back, continue to spread are to not only to keep the dialogue alive but to fuel it so it grows. To tell the stories of successful female founders such as Julia and Rashmi so they become just as well known as their male counterparts. For more high-profile people such as Kevin O’Leary to publicly participate in the conversation. To demystify STEM career paths and combat gender roles at home and in school by encouraging girls and young women to ask for what they want and take public pride in their accomplishments. By more female founders sharing their stories – warts and all – to inspire others.
As a female founder of a tech business, I’m proud to be part of several groups dedicated to bringing down that ceiling such as Heads over Heels, a non-profit focused on increasing the representation of women entrepreneurs leading high- growth businesses by fostering game-changing connections; and Forming Circles Global, an angel investment and mentoring organisation dedicated to building a “Founders Circle” of successful women entrepreneurs whose success will ripple out to help the next class of female founders to follow.
Alli Baker is the Co-Founder and CEO of Workible, a mobile recruitment platform and smartphone app for use in service industries.