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Female force in tech start-ups

The women-in-IT cause may not have progressed much since the 1980s but a new generation of technology company leaders is putting women, technical and non-technical, at the forefront of industry decision making.

The University of Wollongong's overall student population is half female but only 5 per cent of those studying computer science are women, says Elizabeth Eastland, the university's director of technology transfer and research.

Elizabeth Eastland, University of Wollongong's director of technology transfer and research.
Elizabeth Eastland, University of Wollongong's director of technology transfer and research. 

This lags courses such as maths, where a third of students are women, and engineering.

"It's made very little progress since the time I went into computer science, which was in the '80s," Eastland says. "It's a problem at the University of Waterloo [Canada], at MIT [United States], and here it's a problem.

"One of the issues is it's off the table – people aren't trying to promote it as something that's important.

"The competency is there and they're certainly attracted [to study] in other areas. Why aren't they attracted to computer science?

The dilema has been highlighted in the United States as well where a White House report on the state of women's employment in the US, released in April, found that women comprise only 25 per cent of all STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

"It's in the high school arena that the most change needs to take place," says Eastland who is trying to change the status-quo at the University of Wollongong.

Deborah Hadwen, CEO, Tata Consultancy Services, Australia and New Zealand.
Deborah Hadwen, CEO, Tata Consultancy Services, Australia and New Zealand. Photo: Blue Murder Studios

A number of Australian start-up companies founded by women have emerged from the university. Jenna Tregarthen won a scholarship from Stanford University after developing the eating disorder app Recovery Record.

Eastland has even organised entrepreneur childcare so working mothers can participate in the start-up industry.

Other notable successes are Sydney start-up Posse and 99dresses, a celebrated start-up in the Y-combinator accelerator program. Additionally women founded three of the eight companies that were accepted into the most recent Startmate accelerator program.

A driving factor is that the best chief executives and start-up founders aren't from a pure tech background. Instead their knowledge of other disciplines and IT is applied in concert, Eastland says, a view that was validated by the recent Startup Genome report.

"People management, inspiration, dedication, mobilising teams to achieve fast growth in the wake of uncertainty, that kind of skill set is nothing to do with technology," Eastland says.

"That's kind of so obvious it's motherhood now – that if it's just totally tech it won't get anywhere."

Opportunities are on offer for women where cross-disciplinary knowledge and technology intersect, Eastland says (she is a PhD candidate at the Sydney College of the Arts).

One example of this thinking is Posse, which markets an application for small businesses to reward loyal customers, founded by the former music promoter Rebekah Campbell.

Tech knowledge is a double-edged sword, Campbell says, and while a grounding is necessary to ensure efficient product development, too much of it and the ability to focus on the customer and business becomes limited.

"It helps and it hinders," Campbell says. "All businesses are built around an idea the founder would genuinely love to use themselves. The rest of it comes from that."

There are no barriers to women being involved in technology and they just need to take the plunge, but it's important to recruit the right talent, Campbell says.

Investors piled more than $3 million into Posse as they were convinced by Campbell's vision. She also lured high-profile tech talent in the Facebook executive and Google Maps founder Lars Rasmussen (a board member) and the former Google Wave developer Alex North (technical co-founder).

At the pointy edge of the industry, women have stepped up as chief executives of several large companies locally and globally.

The Tata Consultancy Services country manager Australia and New Zealand, Deborah Hadwen, says 30 per cent of the company's workforce are women, which she claims is above the industry average.

Her first job was as a mainframe developer, and given her university education in arts, law and business management, she admits it was a surprising choice.

But this broad skill set is the foundation of her management style, influenced by the "renaissance prince" theory – to understand your environment before picking a specialisation.

"When we go and support our customers, you're talking about how they support their customers and that's the general public," she says alluding to the need to think beyond a company's immediate horizon

"If you don't understand that, your context is missing."

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