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
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.”