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?