Meet the female tech pioneers

Sonja Bernhardt

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.