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Meet the female tech pioneers

Tuesday, 12 July 2011 | By Michelle Hammond
Peruse images of the founders of the world’s leading tech start-ups and you’ll probably notice a few common features – youth, casual attire and, tellingly, male.

 

From Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook to more locally Mark Harbottle at 99designs, the web space remains a sea of testosterone. But is that dominance beginning to change?

 

When it comes to Australian start-ups in all sectors female entrepreneurs are in the lead, with research revealing women launched almost twice as many new firms as men in the past 12 months.

 

Using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics a recent Bankwest report reveals that there were 42,000 more start-ups in 2010 than there were in 2009.

 

Within that statistic the growth rate for women running a business was 4.8%, almost double the growth rate for men.

 

Female bosses are more likely to invest in technology according to a report by Australian software company the Sage Group.

 

Based on responses of more than 600 business owners the survey shows that 62% of female business owners plan to increase their use of online software and services in the next 12 months compared to 51% of male business owners.

 

Tech times are changing

 

So are women having an increasing impact on the tech industry?

 

Kevin Noonan, a research director at technology analyst firm Ovum, says while women are still under-represented in the ICT sector there is a lot of variation across particular ICT professions.

 

“In traditional areas such as ICT support technicians, women only occupy 19% of jobs but in areas that involve more business interaction such as sales, business analysis, security and database administration, women hold around 25% of jobs,” Noonan says.

 

“It is important to note that women are more strongly represented in areas that are likely to continue to have strong growth prospects, as combined business and technical skills are likely to be well regarded over time.”

 

But Noonan says there is still a long way to go before women are even close to attaining equal representation.

 

“The ICT profession has traditionally suffered from a geeky image and this has tended in the past to be a disincentive for women in ICT jobs,” he says.

 

“As the ICT profession grows and matures it appears the representation of women is slowly changing.”

 

Foad Fadaghi, research director of technology market analyst firm Telstye, believes female tech entrepreneurship is on the rise in Australia.

 

“There are often businesses that have joint founders, of which both sexes are represented, as well as many standalone female entrepreneurs,” he says.

 

“It’s a reflection of the greater business community, where females are under-represented.”

 

Familiar barriers

 

There are various organisations attempting to foster female tech entrepreneurship, including Women 2.0 – a global network and social platform for aspiring and current female founders of technology ventures.

 

Women 2.0 spokesperson Azra Panjwani says while the industry continues to be dominated by men it is starting to see more “push-throughs” on the part of female entrepreneurs.

 

“We are seeing more and more women interested in entering the industry and the demand for an organisation like Women 2.0 has increased just in the last three to five years alone,” Panjwani says.

 

“While we are far from having equal representation I do believe that there is an awareness of the situation by both genders and an opportunity to make a difference.”

 

According to Panjwani the challenges faced by female tech entrepreneurs are shared by their counterparts in other industries.

 

“The challenges are basic and probably apply across the board to women in leadership,” she says.

 

“There aren’t a ton of females and role models for our generation – that job will be up to us to fulfil for the generation ahead of us,” she says.

 

“The field is a bit of a boys’ club right now but it’s ripe for change. More and more VCs are aware of how valuable women entrepreneurs can be and while some biases do still exist the number of people who are ‘in the club’ and  willing to help make changes is what’ll ultimately help us make serious breakthroughs.”

 

StartupSmart spoke to three female techies to gauge the health of female tech entrepreneurship and to find out how the industry is changing.

Sonja BernhardtSonja Bernhardt

Founder and CEO of software development company Thoughtware

 

Bernhardt was also founder of Women in Technology and co-founder of Australian Women in IT and Science, both of which encourage women to enter the tech industry.

 

Earlier this year Bernhardt was honoured for her contribution to the industry with a Medal of the Order of Australia and she was also inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in Silicon Valley.

 

What is the state of female tech entrepreneurship here and overseas?


I was just looking at an American slideshow – it says of tech start-ups founded only 4% are female founders even though 40% of small businesses are (run by) females. I imagine Australia is similar.

 

Are more women starting to enter the industry or is it still male dominated?

 

It’s still male dominated.

 

The most significant change I have seen in the past 10-15 years has been a decline in females studying technology and entering what I call “hardcore tech” such as programming.

 

There still seem to be plenty of females in softer areas of project management, change management and training but in the creation and building of technology there has been a definite reduction here in Australia and overseas.

 

Why do you think the tech industry is so heavily associated with males, particularly young techies?

 

I personally think a major factor is females tend towards seeking engaging careers where they feel they can help/assist/work with communities.

 

I believe that the amazing ability of technology to help and assist a wide variety of individuals and communities is not getting through – the intersection of science and technology, the positive impacts technology has and can have on health, wellbeing and life extension are not visible enough.

 

For example a classic I often state is this: You study medicine to become a doctor to help people when they are ill.

 

You study law to become a barrister to help people navigate the law. You study IT to become what, to help who and how?

 

That inability to succinctly state what tech is and how it helps may be a fundamental block we need to get over.

 

The age old stereotypical anti-social male nerd image used to be a major issue. It is somewhat fading, but still persistent. TV and the media do not assist because when we do get female technology role models they tend to be “over-geeky”.

 

What would it take to change that situation?

 

To maximise the impact and hope for sustainable change we need to understand what is happening and at what stage of life, and implement changes then.

 

Extensive, statistically valid, longitudinal research shows that girls turn off technology in the middle years of school. Doesn’t that indicate that the education system and style of technology education needs to be reviewed?

 

What is happening then? What is causing the turn-off? Is it the education content, style, accessibility of technology, lack of visibility of female role models at that stage or other social influences?

 

Once someone has been turned off technology as a viable career option it gets harder and harder to convince them of the benefits because they simply are just not interested and do not get it.

 

I believe we ought to be looking at successful viral social media campaigns that promote female tech bloggers. Perhaps a YouTube channel dedicated to female tech entrepreneurs?

 

What challenges are associated with being a woman in tech?

 

I’m an eternal optimist and I believe most challenges can be overcome by individuals through application of rational thinking, having a healthy ego – knowing who you are, why you do what you do and why people react to you the way they do – and determination to keep getting up and moving on.

 

Ultimately it will vary per individual. Generically there are likely to be social isolation issues if a person is expecting a wide variety of female co-workers. How people deal with this is up to corporate cultures and individuals.

 

As a technology entrepreneur you can influence the culture and as an individual you can influence your ability to overcome challenges.

 

What tips would you give to women thinking about entering the tech industry?

 

Technology is a career where your ideas and creations may end up creating a wave of change around the world or having a vast impact on a small community – it takes you, your ideas and passion to make it happen.

 

In any career it is important to be involved in areas that map to who you are, your style, your interests and your philosophy.

 

Take time out to absolutely know yourself, your underlying philosophy in life and map your opportunities and career to that. Then you will love what you do, know why you are doing it and you will be able to proudly celebrate your successes.

Kate KendallKate Kendall

Founder of The Fetch, an online guide to what’s happening in business, digital and creative communities across Sydney and Melbourne.

 

Kendall consults to start-ups and innovative businesses and is actively involved in the Socialmelb, Silicon Beach Melbourne and Women Hack communities.

 

Earlier this year she hosted an event called Founder Friday, aimed at Melbourne-based tech companies. Founder Friday is a networking event initiated by Women 2.0 and held in partnership with Startup Weekend.

 

How are women faring in the tech space?


There are definitely more women starting to enter the industry but it continues to be male dominated.

 

With the advent of social media we’ve seen this beautiful thing during the past few years where more and more women are embracing their geek side.

 

Tech used to be this socially awkward discipline that had nothing to do with communication. Now women are happy to say they love tech and many people who don’t really have a technical side but are interested in the web want to get involved in the industry.

 

Having said that I’m often still the only female at the events I go to and organise, and I know comparatively only a small number of women working on a tech start-up.

 

Why is it so heavily male dominated? 

 

It is largely due to their ability to code, build their own product and lead what is going on in the industry.

I did a calculation the other day and realised I only directly knew one female technical co-founder of a start-up.

 

That was Cathy Edwards – a Melburnian working in San Francisco on mobile application reviewer Chomp. Extra marks to her because she’s raised investment too.

 

While some women have shown interest in programming or know how to already there are still many more men. I saw a statistic recently highlighting the number of women doing computer science degrees hasn’t increased since the 70s.

 

So generally I believe the Zuckerbergs of the world do portray quite a realistic image of the sector but definitely not in the way that others will enjoy the type of success he has.

 

Of course investors craft the image of the sector. Investors tend to follow a certain formula when it comes to investing – they look for patterns.

 

The mindset is that young males with zero responsibilities and sound technical minds have produced good returns and the investors were often those guys first.

 

So it’s not as likely for them to change course and invest in say, a woman in her 40s with two kids and a mortgage.

 

But it’s not all bad news, the industry is changing and studies have shown start-ups with a female co-founder are commercially more viable than those without.

 

What needs to change? 

 

I think women are still hesitant to get into tech because they don’t think they can. Children grow up being fed certain societal norms and I believe that affects the perception of technical fields by women.

 

The common misconception is that females are better communicators and less competent at maths and science, which are required for technical fields.

 

Although I studied science in my undergraduate degree, no one at school ever suggested that I study computer science.

 

The lack of female role models in technology further perpetuates the cycle. I think the perception that tech is about dirty garages with pizza-eating coders working alone at 3am also puts women off.

 

In reality the average workspace is nothing like that and technology is a very collaborative industry. What women also don’t realise is how easy it is to work remotely as a developer, which is fantastic for mothers.

 

I believe things will change when women feel empowered to enter technical fields and understand the pathways to tech entrepreneurship more. The perception of tech needs to change and women doing great things in the field should be celebrated.

 

What challenges have you had to overcome?


The biggest challenge I’ve found is it’s harder to be listened to. Good is not good enough, you really need to be exceptional and persistent.

 

There’s a certain subconscious “bro culture” in the tech industry. I was at a meet-up last year when a guy said ‘Wow, you know what you’re talking about!’ as if it was a complete surprise to him.

 

So you really need to prove yourself over and over again. You need to find a way to get invited to those invite-only dinners and become a part of the conversation because a lot of what goes on is between “mates”.

 

I’ve also learnt to argue my point in the workplace more – you really need to sell your ideas or they’ll not get implemented. It’s tiring and frustrating when a new male comes along and is accepted straight away.

 

I believe the problems will be overcome when the ratio of men to women changes. When you’re different you’re riskier. When the balance is tipped the culture will change.

 

Do you think women are more inclined to start up in order to set their own rules?

 

I think women have been less inclined to start up so far. Quitting your job to work on a start-up can be risky and if you don’t have the finances, energy or freedom to do so it can be difficult.

 

More women tend to bootstrap projects in their spare time and see how it goes. Some women do pursue an entrepreneurship path though – many for the flexibility and to create their own environments.

 

What tips would you give women starting in the tech industry? 

 

Get out there and get among it. Start reading TechCrunch, Y Combinator’s Hacker News, Paul Graham’s essays and other tech sources. Follow successful entrepreneurs on Twitter and enmesh yourself in their worlds.

 

Head to some events and start meeting tech entrepreneurs in your area. If you’re in Melbourne or Sydney come along to Silicon Beach Drinks – an open social gathering of tech entrepreneurs.

 

Tinker with front-end programming languages like HTML and CSS and watch tutorials online.

 

Head to a co-working space, Startup Weekends or developer meet-ups to get a taste and be involved. Ask questions – many of the people there will find it refreshing and will take it as a compliment.

 

Build a support group of like-minded entrepreneurs and bounce ideas off them. If you’re serious about building a start-up try to find a co-founder to journey with you.

 

Check out the beginnings of the Women Hack community too. Most importantly, just start.

Magda WalczakMagda Walczak

Director of demand generation at Atlassian, an Australian software company with offices in Sydney, San Francisco and Amsterdam.

 

Founded by Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, Atlassian makes software collaboration and development tools to help teams deliver products faster and cleaner. Walczak is working on an Atlassian marketing campaign for women in tech.

 

How does female tech entrepreneurship here compare with overseas?


There are definitely more women entrepreneurs now than there were a few years back but there’s still a lot of room to grow.

 

Women 2.0 is a great site that features the latest on female entrepreneurs and it is quite inspiring for me to check out what great companies women are starting.

 

Just this morning I saw a news segment with Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, one of the partners at venture capital firm Accel Partners, which quoted some encouraging statistics:

  • One in four employees in the tech sector in Silicon Valley are female.
  • 15% of angel investors are female.
  • 20% of people seeking venture capital in the past year were female.

It’s a wonderful trend that I hope will continue to grow. Frankly I think it will because women can have an edge on men when it comes to coming up with interesting businesses.

 

For example women may see opportunities for targeting female-specific products and services when men may have missed them.

 

Women make most purchasing decisions for the family so there are heaps of opportunities for targeting them creatively as consumers. And guess who’s best at figuring out what those opportunities are? Women!

 

What about in Australia?


This isn’t as visible in Australia but there are definitely more women in tech in Silicon Valley than even a year ago.

 

Despite the encouraging statistics I feel like the women aren’t really visible as yet. If you go to a networking event for entrepreneurs or a conference it feels like out of a random 100 people probably only five or so are female.

 

The more we hear about stories of women in tech the more other women will be encouraged to enter the tech industry.

 

There’s definitely a positive trend with more women in tech. A lot of it is to do with a general increase in entrepreneurship in the past 10 years.

 

A larger percentage of people are taking on entrepreneurial jobs as opposed to traditional corporate jobs and many of those individuals are women.

 

In your company do you aim to employ a certain percentage of women?

 

We hire the best person for the job regardless of gender. Most job applications we receive are from men so we haven’t had as many opportunities as we would have liked to hire more women.

 

We’d love to get more female applicants and to do that we’ve got some plans for reaching out to the female tech community to let them know that Atlassian is a very inclusive, friendly company to work for.

 

Companies and countries with generous family leave policies can attract more working women. I realize that not all women who work in tech want to become mothers, but those who do need a generous policy to help them to balance work and family lives.

 

In Silicon Valley most companies still have pitifully bad maternity leave policies. Atlassian has slightly better than average. Google has an incredible policy.

 

What advice would you give to a budding female tech entrepreneur?


The tech sector is amazing. It’s dynamic, exciting and challenging.

 

If you’re a bit of a geek at heart and have an entrepreneurial spirit you should definitely consider it as a career. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that it’s still predominantly male.

 

Females are making an impact and their influence has only one direction to go – up. If you’re thinking about it and need a confidence boost seek out local networks for women in tech – Meetup.com is always a good place to start.

 

Women are definitely carving out a progressively large chunk in the tech industry. For me this is a very exciting time to be a woman in tech and to be part of that change.