Women in tech: not drowning, waving
"Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of a female profile in the sector is that men have a blind spot", argues Sandy Plunkett. Photo: iStock
Conversations with movers and shakers in the Australian technology and start-up ecosystem often reference the scarcity of women leaders and entrepreneurs. The issue is often raised by men and it goes something like this: "Why aren't women starting tech businesses?" "We don't see woman founders applying for our pitch events. Where are they?"
Men raise the issue of female scarcity in the sector as if they have scoured Australia from coast to coast and are exhausted by their pioneering.
Sandy Plunkett, industry fellow, entrepreneurship at UTS Business School.
It is true that women are thinly represented in key categories in the digital economy – from founders to coders and engineers to venture capitalists. This is true internationally. The statistics have been discussed at some length and highlight a myriad of hurdles for women to overcome. But even in Australia, women are there in bigger numbers – and greater quality – than the relative lack of exposure suggests.
If it is true that a rising tide of diversity helps raise all boats in the choppy sea of free-market entrepreneurialism – and that women are there not drowning, but waving – perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of a female profile in the sector is that men have a blind spot.
“It's a type of cognitive dissonance,” says Wendy Simpson, chairman of women-focused venture catalyst, Springboard Enterprises Australia. Springboard last month announced its class of eight female tech start-ups selected from more than 100 applicants.
“I am reminded of that experiment which has several people on a stage throwing a ball to each other. Every now and then, someone dressed as a bear enters the group and moonwalks between them. But when asked, very few in the audience see the bear. They only see the ball throwers.”
A recent illustration of the cognitive dissonance theory is the Always-On conference in Sydney in April. A popular Silicon Valley event founded by industry veteran Tony Perkins, the inaugural Australian version is co-organised by the NSW Government. Based on the speaker line-up so far for Always-On, it appears women are, well, Always-Off.
To be fair, speaker slots listed on the website are still incomplete. It may be studded with women by April. But there are signs that won't be the case.
For instance, the 14-strong membership of the Always-On Australia Editorial Advisory Board has one woman; of seven key promoted speakers, all are men; and with 38 speaking slots, so far there are only two women.
Contrast that with the turnout at recent industry events such as the NICTA-sponsored TechFest in Canberra. Kicking off the event was an all-women panel of VCs, entrepreneurs and industry veterans (including the author of this column). When the panelists surveyed the audience for a quick measure of who were founders, computer scientists and engineers, the showing of hands in each category surprised even the panelists. And this was in Canberra, which is a long way from any hub of tech entrepreneurship.
If the likes of Springboard and NICTA can find women tech entrepreneurs and active industry participants, why can't Always-On, the NSW Government and the industry's male-dominated establishment?
One reason, according to various research data including the McKinsey series, "Women Matter", is that women don't promote themselves. Another could be that men haven't felt the competitive need to seek them out.
“I am unashamedly in this business first to make money for my shareholders,” says venture capitalist, Mark Carnegie. “And I'm yet to be criticised by my shareholders for not making money from women-led businesses.”
That said, Carnegie sponsored a Springboard cocktail event in Sydney recently, which coincided with the group's announcement of its start-up class. It included among its guests Springboard's US-founder, Kay Koplovitz, as well as several successful female US-based tech entrepreneurs. Springboard has raised $US5.6 billion ($5.45 billion) for women entrepreneurs and achieved 10 initial public offerings since 2000.
Many women thought it surprising that Carnegie sponsored the Springboard cocktail soiree. Carnegie admits he has not been at the forefront of advocacy for women entrepreneurs. But he is a consummate networker and is always on the hunt for good "deal flow".
“It's not like the data is in that women-led businesses perform better, or that mandating a certain percentage of women on boards makes for better decision-making,” he says. “But I am very interested in the trends that affect my businesses and I try to stay on top of the research.”
Carnegie, who describes himself as a "failed scientist", is also keen to see policies and initiatives that foster a greater number of students in maths, science and technology subjects and degrees. Australia has a shortage of these graduates and, in particular, women.
Even World Wide Web inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, raised the issue of a lack of women in Australia's science and engineering degrees as one of the reasons that pulled Australia's ranking down in his inaugural global Web Index. The Web Index measures the web-savvy of more than 60 countries.
“I was surprised by the relative lack of women pursuing science and engineering-based degrees in Australia,” Berners-Lee told me. “There is also a comparative lack of imagination by Australian businesses to exploit the internet for productivity and efficiency reasons. Those things negatively affect the total score.”(Australia is ranked 8, behind New Zealand.)
We are collectively guilty of a lack of imagination regarding technology and entrepreneurship in Australia. This doesn't only apply to supporting women-led businesses, but also the industry's ability to articulate micro and macro issues inhibiting the sector's domestic economic relevance and global potential (See Dyson's opinion piece in IT Pro this week).
These issues range from fostering a diverse and more tech-educated investor and entrepreneurial class, and the tax treatment of employee share options for start-ups, to building the internet-savvy of our large corporations and governments.
I, for one, would like to see more conferences and industry forums aim a little higher to engage a broader cross-section of participants to rigorously debate these issues.
Sandy Plunkett is an industry fellow, entrepreneurship at UTS Business School. She has worked in venture capital and with a publicly listed start-up in Silicon Valley.
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