Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Web Summit Vol. 5: Women in tech

It’s the elephant in the room, but is tech different to any other industry?

Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 18:08


Last year, the organisers of the Web Summit made a point by announcing female speakers first. It was a positive stunt, even if bringing gender to the fore is impossible to match with actual numbers of women in tech attending. The tech industry is still perceived as a male-dominated one, but the elevation of Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg – especially after the publication of her book Lean In – and Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo!, is placing women in technology up front. But still, the Web Summit falls short, as does the tech industry as a whole, as do most industries. I spoke to some women in tech before the Summit, during and after.

During the course of asking Cindy Gallop (pictured) some questions at Le Cool’s fringe Spiel event in the Stag’s Head, she pointed out that 3% of creative directors of advertising agencies are women. 3%! Kat Gordon founded the 3% conference in reaction to that. There are growing number of conferences, events, organisations and platforms for women in tech, and as far as I can see, the more they grow, the close the industry will get to some form of diversity. It’s interesting how women in tech has got to be such a hot button topic, assisted by Feminism 3.0, the new wave of feminism aided by the internet, and by women who have reached the top making a point of addressing it.

Gallop has spoken a lot about how diversity in tech companies is a good thing. That’s an obvious statement, but it needs to be pointed out. Like the Bechdel test, a lot of the time people don’t even notice the lack of women until someone waves a neon sign around pointing it out. Guys talking to guys about guy stuff to sell to guys in tech, alienates women who are huge consumers of technology. As Gallop says, apart from anything else, it’s bad for business.

Daire Hickey is a co-founder of the Web Summit, “We’re very disappointed that only about 10% of our speakers are women. We do our very best editorially to reflect the best of what’s happening in the world of tech, and we do our best to get some of the top women in tech to speak.” Hickey and his team are conscious of the disparity, giving 50 free tickets to female coders, continuing their Leaders Lunch event for female executives, and visiting female-centric conferences to unearth potential guests. Hickey points out how Ireland is fortunate to have women at the top of several companies, “the head of Facebook in Ireland is a woman, the head of Paypal in Ireland is a woman, the head of Microsoft in Ireland is a woman. We have good female rolemodels with regards to tech.”

Cathriona Hallahan was appointed Managing Director of Microsoft Ireland last February. “I think role models are critically important,” she says, “I know when I went into a senior role myself, I didn’t want to be the token woman, and I think a lot of women feel like that. They want to be identified with the business they deliver, not necessarily that they were the token female.”

Hallahan points to the confidence and aspirations women must have in order to progress, “Really my messaging to employees and female groups is around being willing to push yourself and take opportunities, not be afraid to ask for different jobs you want and to self-promote yourself. People don’t necessarily push themselves and sometimes you get overlooked if you don’t. It is about having that confidence to push yourself and take risks, which I think male colleagues are good at doing.” Hallahan says the IT industry is progressive, and the technology it produces subsequently allows people to have more flexible work environments, be that working from home, flexi-time or job sharing. “Similar to other industries, what we’re seeing is the percentage of women in senior roles is still challenging,” Hallahan says, “At 35, on the second child, is when a woman will make a decision ‘can I afford childcare?’ and take a break and stay at home. That’s when we feel we lose women in the industry. So how do you stay connected with them? How do you get them to come back when they’ve taken a break? How do you look at your policies to help both males and females re-skill, because our industry moves so fast and the skills you require change rapidly? So what are your retraining programmes?”

Jennie McGinn, is the CEO and co-founder of the new e-commerce start-up OPSH. Along with her sisters Sarah and Grace, they’ve already sold their first start-up, the “shoppable online magazine” Prowlster. She says there’s a unity between women who work in the industry.

When the McGinns were going through the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) LaunchPad programme, they developed strong relationships with their peers, mentors and management, “however, the women really did bond together, particularly in adversity,” McGinn says, “Because, really, there is a deep-rooted problem and it’s entrenched at a higher level. It’s unspoken and it’s difficult to address. It’s a certain attitude that exists amongst the gatekeepers, the investors. Middle-aged men still sometimes do not ‘get’ women. We get so much pushback because we’re females workin in fash-tech and because we’re young… Sometimes it’s gentle and harmless, we are a swarm of women bedecked in animal print and gold and heels and we are working on an product initially aimed at a female audience, we can be a little overwhelming, I’m sure. But sometimes, it’s not so gentle, it’s patronising, demeaning and utterly inappropriate. ‘Oh, shoes and handbags is it? Not my thing. Ask my wife! Ha ha.’”

Like Hallahan, McGinn believes education and mentoring are ways create more even representation. “I think it’s vital that there’s more education in schools for women to work in tech. I think young female businesses such as ourselves have a duty to reach out to teenage girls and highlight all the opportunities there are for women. We need to emphasise the unique skill sets that women can bring to business. – listening, empathy, lateral thinking, resourcefulness, patience and explain how these work at a business and tech level.” Interestingly, as far as I could tell, all the young people at the TechSpace.ie area who were interviewing people at the Summit were young women.

Hallahan cites Connecting Women in Technology, which Google, Microsoft, Dell, IBM and others are engaged with as a positive forum, “You don’t have to go the traditional route to get to the top of the career ladder, you work hard, deliver results, be committed, and progress your career in different ways.”

Laura Martinez Celada is a co-founder of Knok, a home-swapping community, “I don’t feel there are enough role models for successful women with a background in tech, or in science, or in business,” she said over email, “If we are 50% of the population, we should have 50% of examples of women taking relevant roles in our businesses. As we are all in the tech space we should aim to offer this role models for our younger generations, to inspire them to think by themselves, independently. It is just a matter of showing examples and creating opportunities.”

Sheera Gendzel is also with Knok, “I think the landscape for women in tech is improving because, to some extent, I feel the power to change it is in my hands. There are also so many more resources and tools now. We tend to doubt the value of our contribution or think twice before speaking up. That’s true for me working in a language that’s not my own sometimes, but I have a big streak of fearlessness in me. Being fearless is the key to my success. I am not afriad to move across the globe, to work in a male industry, to try something I might not have experience with.”

I spoke to one woman during the Summit who said that while the Leader’s Lunch is a good idea, she said that last year, it felt strange to be in a room with all women when there was an event that appeared by default to be full of men in the next room. She wondered if maybe they should be in there with the guys too. I see where she’s coming from, because while all-women events are important for women to share experiences and identify role models and seek and share advice, there is a risk of ghettoizing women in tech if events designed to encourage female participation end up being exclusively women and thus preaching to the converted. Men are part of the solution too, and considering they still overwhelming hold most of the positions of power in the tech world, should be at the forefront of increasing gender diversity and changing the radio, and listening to the concerns now being raised louder and louder by women in the industry.

Daire Hickey again, “I was at a conference earlier this year called Women in the World run by Tina Brown, and it was like a recon mission to find those stories, find a diamond in the rough, someone you haven’t seen before to bring back here. But, ironically, I felt quite isolated in that room because I was one of a dozen men in a room of 1,000 women. So being a woman in an all-male environment is intimidating. We have to do our very best to be inviting, accomodating.” I get where Hickey is coming from. Although there were a lot of women at the Summit, there were points where you were completely surrounded by men. If you’re going into a room where it’s men talking on a panel (and the position of women on panel’s seemed to often be more about women chairing or moderating rather than being the main subjects), then it automatically doesn’t feel like your space. But it’s probably really good learning for men to attend conferences aimed at women. It will challenge men’s ideas and perceptions, and also offer an insight to how women feel in a male-dominated industry.

Another thing I noticed was the difference in personalities and presentation of women at the Summit in comparison to men. There were a lot of irreverent chats from men complete with swearing and hoodies and chilled hipsterness, but by and large (and this is a generalisation), the high profile women were all powerhouses of seriousness and formidable and almost intimidatingly smart. The tech industry values its coolness, but I still can’t imagine a women getting up in a hoodie with just-out-of-bed hair going “what’s up dudes?” Obviously women have to work harder to get ahead in the tech industry, and so tend to be more impressive than their male counterparts, and probably reluctant to take the trademark chill approach of their male peers for fear of not being taken seriously. I’m just assuming that, but I don’t work in tech, so would welcome opinions of women who do.

We all know this is not a problem isolated to the tech industry, and in several areas, there are growing measures being taken to redress the balance, such as the much needed gender quotas here, and campaigns such as 50/50. Even having the conversation and repeating the conversation and following up on the conversation is a positive step, even if it sometimes feels a bit echo chamber-y.

I also noticed differences in how men pitched their start-ups and how women pitched. I lost count of the number of times people pitched ideas, apps and companies to me over the two days, and had plenty of excellent interactions with men in this regard. But by and large, women pitching were exclusively polite, courteous and personable. Many men were too, but others were also chugging quite aggressively, fooling around and acting the goofball as a way to get attention, and sometimes insistent to the point of being downright annoying. Men pitching could learn a lot from how women do it.

As an aside, I wonder what the experiences of gay women in the tech industry are versus heterosexual women. The Lesbian Wage Premium – which is still under-researched – indicates that lesbians earn more than heterosexual women, so what can women in tech learn from the greater earning power of gay women? Anecdotally, one could suggest that lesbians earn more because they are less likely to have children (although that is changing a lot) than heterosexual women and therefore less likely to have to leave the workplace at some point in their lives, so don’t face the economic challenge of paying for childcare, or the professional challenge of taking time off work and the further challenge of then reentering the workplace and sustaining an upward career trajectory. Perhaps when lesbian couples do have kids, shared childcare responsibilities are more common, or does there always have to be a traditional ‘bread-winner’?

There’s another interesting take on that here, when you bring lesbian parenting into the mix. Here’s a paper on motherhood and the lesbian wage premium. Overall the learning of lesbians in the workplace is probably based on a lot of nuances as well, but it remains an untapped area. If lesbians are earning more, then what can straight women learn from them? That goes for the tech industry as well as every other.

For now though, it’s about numbers. More women in tech, and more women represented at a conference level in terms of presence. Is there an argument as well for affirmative action at tech conferences? A women-first attitude to bump up numbers? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comment section.

And finally I wrote my column today about issues arising from the Summit, which you can read here.

Previously at the Web Summit:
Notes from Day 1.
The genius of Leonard Kleinrock.
Notes from Day 2: The heart of the matter.
- The report card.