It is always your turn in digital

As a senior female leader in the digital world it’s difficult to avoid thinking about gender politics, even when you don’t want to. We like to believe the world has changed for women and it has most definitely. I could tell you some stories from early in my career that would probably draw a gasp. This would be cathartic for me but not entirely relevant!

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However, having worked in digital and technology during most of the past decade, it’s clear that in this part of the commercial world there is more to be done not just because we want women to succeed but because digital is so fundamentally changing our business models that I can’t think of a better place for women (and men) to be shaping the future. We know diversity leads to better business outcomes, (increased return on investment, lower turnover, greater innovation to name a few) so why wouldn’t that be important in digital? I’m encouraged by how rapidly things are changing but I still find there are very few women speaking in the sector on the conference circuit and see very few women in the start-ups community in digital/tech innovation. I’ve started to look into the issue to see what’s going on.

"Reassurance? It’s not here and it wouldn’t do you any good if it were."
Seth Godin, Author

Let me say upfront, in writing on this topic I will most likely offend somebody – it’s called gender politics for a reason! In drawing attention to the relatively lower rates of diversity, my intention is to contribute to accelerating the pace of change and to inspire more women to get into this most exciting sector.

Visek Wahdwa, Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, is one of the key voices on this topic and called out (surprisingly recently) the need for change in Silicon Valley which in his observation has been powered by a predominantly white, male workforce largely established from college networks. Kay Koplovitz, Founder of Springboard Enterprises, entrepreneur and advocate is even more outspoken about Silicon Valley, “Here’s more big trouble: this start-up land leaves no room for bright, innovative women. Is it any wonder that women in science and technology are not attracted to the young buck environment?” I decided to check out some of the context in Australia to see if we are doing any better. Here’s what I found. 

Like the US, digital and technology are growing sectors for us. Deloitte named ICT (information and communication technology) in the top 25 sectors that will outpace GDP growth for the next 20 years in Australia, calling it ‘gateway to the future’, and of course ICT is integral to the success of all the top 25 sectors. Studies have shown female entrepreneurs are less likely to experience failure (UNCTAD 2010) and use capital more efficiently (Illuminate Ventures). Couple that with the revenue opportunity that is significantly greater when pursuing a disruptive course, I feel we shouldn’t be seeing male-led start-ups dominating at our innovation fairs, labs and awards.  Are our women not getting selected, fishing in other ponds, or discouraged from going into the industry?  

Ten per cent of women lead the US venture capital (VC) market and women-led companies cite access to capital as one of the most significant barriers to growth. It’s well documented the equivalent of recruitment biases in the corporate sector exists in the funding market. Australia’s VC market is much smaller so statistically significant figures here are probably not possible but looking at our VC firms the information suggests gender balance is still not where it should be.

On top of that, we are exactly the same as the US in that fewer women are studying the primary pathway courses for digital. 2013 stats showed there are still far more men studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) than women. Science is more balanced but technology (M6:F1 ratio), engineering (M7:F1) and maths (M3:F1) still indicate we have and will continue to have pipeline issues.

So what do we do with all this not so good news? There are at least four things that we might explore in response:

  • What role are we playing in encouraging young women to pursue STEM and ICT qualifications and careers?
  • What role can we play to ensure a level playing field and access to capital for female led Digital start-ups? 
  • What role are we playing encouraging women and men into this exciting and rapidly growing industry? 
  • How can we mentor women and men to be bolder in pursuing their passion for changing the world through digital?

Here are some thoughts to ‘go’ with:

  1. Look for places to play where no-one else is playing and don’t let gender stereotypes shape your thinking. When anything is changing there is an opportunity to differentiate and if you are passionate about it, others will be too.
  2. Disrupt the stereotypes such as the image of tech and digital being for men and we especially need to kill the one that says it’s for nerds only! One female ICT student told me that once her social community took a while to get used to her as a female choosing this field, but then they progressed to worrying that she wouldn’t have a social life!
  3. Trust that all your abilities are relevant – don’t become a female version of the stereotype. Analytical skills and creative skills are critical in digital and both will be leveraged. Sometimes the debate seems to stop at ‘girls need to code’. Coding is only a part, albeit very important part, of what brings digital to market. On top of that, coding is only of value if what it builds is valued by customers, staff and community. Doing that well requires much more than coding skills.
  4. Collaboration, diversity of thinking and cross-functional teams are fast becoming the signature skills of out-performing digital teams and neither gender can do this on its own. 
  5. If you’ve got something to contribute to the discussion – speak up, accept that invite, ask that challenging question. Don’t look for permission.
  6. Don’t expect it to be easy – you are changing things and that will require perseverance and resilience.

Seth Godin in his book ‘What to do when it’s your turn’ says “Reassurance? It’s not here and it wouldn’t do you any good if it were. Opportunity? It’s everywhere. You’ve been given a turn, will you take it? If you are thirsty enough this world is ready for you, more than ever before. Go.”

After thinking about this more deeply, I have been personally challenged to play a more active role in encouraging women in and into the commercial world of digital. For change to happen, we need to recognise there is a problem and take action. Silicon Valley has started on that journey with the big digital firms now disclosing their diversity ratios and working to make improvements.

This won’t necessarily be our path as many Australian companies are not solely digital companies and already regularly do this. But there are things we can do. Business leaders sponsoring start-up meets and innovation labs can and should put in place approaches to encourage diverse participation.

Corporates can and should encourage women in their organisations to become the industry experts/spokespeople for digital (as ANZ is doing through the Notable Women program). Organisers of digital industry conferences should be thinking more deeply about who to ask to ensure diversity of perspectives.

Actively encouraging women to pursue roles in technology and digital as part of career planning is also a simple action we can all take. There are also lots of ideas to draw from the Male Champions of Change material. Be it mentoring grads, advising start-ups, speaking for the industry or ensuring diversity in digital teams, it’s always my (your) turn. 

Claire Rogers is Head of Digital Strategy and Innovation in ANZ and a mentor for Springboard Enterprises Australia (an organisation encouraging women science and tech entrepreneurs).

Photo: The German physicist Albert Einstein sitting with some colleagues of the fifth Solvay Conference, Brussels, October 1927 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images).

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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