Where are all the tech women?

Only one in eight of the speakers at Dublin’s upcoming Web Summit is female. The dearth of women in tech companies is a global issue, but Ireland is ‘at the bottom of the heap’ in tackling it

Sexual divide: of the 200-plus speakers at the Web Summit, above, only 26 are women. Photographs: Websummit.net. Montage: Michael Ruane, Irish Times Premedia

Sexual divide: of the 200-plus speakers at the Web Summit, above, only 26 are women. Photographs: Websummit.net. Montage: Michael Ruane, Irish Times Premedia


Ten days from now, hundreds of leaders of the technology industry from around the world will convene in Dublin, joining 10,000 other people at the city’s annual Web Summit. The 200-plus speakers already announced on the summit’s website this week are founders, chief executives, chief technology officers, editors and directors, people who have forged paths in technology and are there to pass on their knowledge about how to make a success in the business. Just 26 of them – only about one in eight – are women.

It’s a ratio the organisers are uncomfortable with, according to Daire Hickey, one of the summit’s founders. “The number of female speakers is not something we’re particularly happy with,” he says. “We’ve consciously made an effort to get more female speakers.”

Hickey says he and his fellow organisers scoured lists, and asked for suggestions over Twitter, but ultimately struggled to find qualified women to shift the balance.

Earlier this year the summit appeared to be playing up this imbalance with an online ad for the event that read:

“Women: There won’t be many of these.*

“Whiskey: There will be lots of these.

“*Explanation: This is a tech conference.”

The Web Summit was quick to retract the advertisement, and apologised for its being “stupid” and “insulting”.

Hickey points out that they launched a Change the Ratio campaign last year and this year will be giving 50 free tickets to female coders to help boost the number of women at the summit. When it comes to speakers, Hickey says, they’ve reached out to numerous women who could not attend, and ultimately the organisers are hampered “by what’s there in the industry”.

In other words, there aren’t enough women in the upper levels of technology to choose from.

The figures appear to back this up. In 2012, 40 per cent of degrees in science, mathematics and computing in Ireland went to women. Within that, only 20 per cent of computer-science graduates were women. And the proportion of women employed in science, research, engineering and technology hovers at less than 25 per cent, according to the Central Statistics Office. The percentage of those who reach the top – founders, chief executives and chief technology officers – is lower again.

The good, or bad, news is that it’s not just an Irish problem. In Silicon Valley, the cradle of the tech industry, debate has long raged about the under-representation of women. It cranked up a notch earlier this month when Twitter, filing papers for its stock-market flotation, announced an all-male board. In the New York Times, Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford University’s Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, who is writing a book about women in technology, was scathing about the move, calling it “male chauvinistic thinking”.

Wadhwa scoffs at the defence that the issue is one of supply. “That’s false,” he tells The Irish Times. “So Twitter says they can’t find enough women? I went through my Rolodex and found 16 women for them. All of them are qualified to be on that board.”

Not everyone agrees. Sarah Lacy, the founder of PandoDaily, a website about Silicon Valley start-ups, defends the decision by Twitter’s chief executive. “The board is a carefully picked group that CEO Dick Costolo felt he could trust when he accepted the challenge of fixing a valuable but highly dysfunctional company,” she writes on her site.

And although survey upon survey indicates that women are still under-represented in the industry – just 10 per cent of chief information officers in the US are women, and the percentage of women founding technology start-ups is half that – Lacy, one of the 26 women who’ll be speaking at the Web Summit, sees reasons for optimism, writing: “There are many signs things are starting to change in the startup world.”

She and Wadhwa at least agree that prospects are looking up for Silicon Valley’s women. “Things are definitely getting better,” says Wadhwa. “You can see the momentum.”

But he stresses that the situation will improve only if aggressive action is taken to address the imbalance. It’s a global problem, he acknowledges, but he adds that “Ireland is at the bottom of the heap of countries that are doing something about it.”

For Wadhwa, more women makes business sense. “When you have more women, financial performance is better, you get more innovation, less failure, and you don’t do stupid things like Twitter going public with an all-male cast,” he says.

In contrast to Twitter’s announcement, Apple revealed this week it has poached the chief executive of Burberry, Angela Ahrendts, to oversee its global retail division. Ahrendts, who is widely credited with transforming the fashion brand, will be the only woman on Apple’s executive team when she starts her new role, next year.

It may be a smart move by Apple. The business coach Mary Carroll, of Women in Technology and Science, says changing the ratio in the tech industry can only bring dividends. She says a study of Fortune 500 companies revealed that the businesses with the most women in their top management saw a 35 per cent bigger return on equity than their counterparts with all-male management teams. It seems that more women are better for a business’s bottom line.

She also points out that “80 per cent of consumer buying decisions are made by women, and women control $20 trillion of spending globally. So if your product-development teams are not representative of a large sector of your market, then you’re probably missing some pretty golden opportunities.”

Jane Ruffino of GetBulb, an Irish start-up, agrees that diversity pays dividends. “It’s not easy to make time for diversity, but you will end up with a better product,” she says.

But although Ruffino works at a company where three of the four employees are women, she knows that being in the majority is not an industry standard.

Many people believe that the barriers to women entering technology begin with early socialisation, when young girls are steered away, consciously or otherwise, from “unfeminine” subjects such as maths and science.

Nerd and geek
Cindy Gallop, the founder of the website MakeLoveNotPorn, who is a regular speaker at the summit, says that as girls hit puberty they are further discouraged from pursuing these subjects because of a perception that “if you are brilliant at maths and engineering and science, then by definition you’re a nerd and a geek and not attractive” – and being attractive is prized above academic accomplishment.

Even if you make it through the school system and into third-level classes in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, you are likely to find yourself surrounded by male classmates and lecturers. “Women can have a tough time,” says Gallop. “So much so that they’re put off progressing in the industry.”

And beginning a career in technology doesn’t mean you’ll stay there. Only 27 per cent of woman science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates work in the sector they qualified in, compared with 52 per cent of male graduates, according to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Technology is not the only industry with a gender imbalance. When it comes to the caring professions, women are still in the majority. Why aren’t men clamouring to address this issue?

“The reason health, education and other caring professions are dominated by women is because they are low-status and low-paid,” says Gallop. And even in some of these professions, men are more likely to rise to senior positions. In education in Ireland, men still greatly outnumber women in senior positions within the school system, although more than 75 per cent of students entering the two main primary-teacher colleges are women.

The technology industry, by contrast, offers much greater financial rewards. “Technology is the future,” says Gallop. “We’ve already seen how massively influential ventures like Google, Facebook and Amazon have become. Ventures that are set up by all-male founders, built by all-male tech teams, funded by all-male venture capitalists and advised by all-male boards are conceiving, building and operating from one world view: male.”

Why is this happening? Are too few women entering technology to begin with? Is it that they step back when family commitments or work-life balance becomes an issue? Do they not put themselves forward for promotion aggressively enough – and, if they do promote themselves, do they then have to grapple harder with the “likeability” issue? Or is it that the industry has different standards for women and men, and that these work against women’s advancement?

Ruffino says some of the reasons for the gender disparity lie in the sector itself. “It’s a very macho industry,” she says, pointing to 24/7 work expectations, the so-called brogrammer culture and the pressure to go drinking with colleagues.

This is, after all, the industry that produced an app called Titstare – showcased at last month’s annual TechCrunch Disrupt conference – and spawned the Stop Tech Feminism tumblr, which claims that “feminism should be treated in the workplace the same way other hate speech and hateful ideologies are, through outright rejection”.

Going to extremes
It’s not just women who take issue with what Ruffino describes as “a culture of going to extremes” that has become synonymous with the start-up world. “I know a lot of men feel they can’t live up to it too,” she says. What’s required, according to Ruffino, is a change in how the industry operates, to encourage more diversity.

“The ethos and the approach is dominated by guys in their 20s that don’t have anything to worry about. And in order to make the industry more diverse we have to make it okay for someone who might have things to worry about to get involved.”

Gallop agrees. “The entire corporate system has built up over centuries around the presumption that it would be always men who went to work and women would stay at home and take care of everything else,” she says.

And it’s not just a tech problem. “We all look at the leadership ranks of the big holding companies in our industries, and any sensible woman goes, ‘Who the f**k would want to work like that?’ ”

But Gallop stresses that the brogrammer culture is not a permanent fixture. “It’s entirely mutable. That is how the current work culture has grown up, but that can change, and that can change when women change it,” she says.

Women “do business differently from men, and the ideal business environment is a blend of both. The best of all possible worlds is one that we build together, 50-50.”

So what will bring that about? Gallop suggests a three-pronged approach: use a sense of female solidarity to help with networking and cross-promotion, and to help other women get ahead; encourage men to get involved in addressing the imbalance; and deal with the issues as they arise, calling people out on sexism and unconscious bias.

Top-down solution
Wadhwa recommends a top-down solution. “Once you start getting women in senior roles it’s easier for women to join these companies,” he says. “You have to get women in executive positions. You’ve got to start from the top.”

The first step is to recognise the issue. “Ireland needs to admit there’s a problem, and then require that boards are filled by women as well as men,” he says. “You have to start by holding companies accountable for being male-dominated. I don’t like quotas, but accountability is necessary.”

The same might be said for conferences. Gallop expresses admiration for the organisers of the Dublin Web Summit, and although she regards the ratio of male to female speakers as a problem, she has “some empathy for where the summit still finds itself in 2013”.

“What the team are doing is building an event that will attract the largest possible audience. In order to do that, they have to field the largest number possible of tech-world luminaries,” she says. “It’s a numbers game.” But if they’re serious about wanting a gender-equal line-up, they have to “meet women more than halfway”, she says.

Shifting the balance “requires you to want to field and turn into celebrities women who are not yet celebrities in their own right.” Conference organisers, she says, have to think beyond the obvious candidates. “We adore Arianna [Huffington], Marissa [Mayer] and Sheryl [Sandberg], but for God’s sake give other women the chance. You can absolutely find women if you want to.”

Still, she hopes that concerns about the male-dominated line-up won’t discourage women from attending the summit. “No matter what women may feel about the ratio, I exhort them all to come,” she says. “Show up in large quantities. Because that’s also how you move the needle on this. Be there.”

Dublin Web Summit takes place on October 30th-31st, at the RDS

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