Nearly a century before the first computer was built, the “mother of computer programming,” Lady Ada Lovelace, “envisaged a day when a single machine would be capable of a myriad of tasks, limited only by the creativity of its programmer”. Ada Lovelace Day, the second Tuesday in October, celebrates women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. There is a twitter hashtag (#AdaLovelaceDay), and a Google doodle in her honour.
Two hundred years after Ada Lovelace was born, we got together a Moxie Session in San Francisco to discuss why we still see so few female tech founders or CEOs, and what we can do about it.
With long experience in the legal profession, Sacha Judd, managing director of Hoku Group and organiser of tech networking event Refactor, has seen a male dominated, slow-moving, old boys’ club struggle to improve the position of women. She’s more optimistic about the adaptability of the tech industry: “it’s young, and people want to change the world, so they are more likely to adjust when alternative behaviour is pointed out to them.”
But the challenges facing the tech industry are no less real. Young women give up technical subjects at high school early – if they even took them in the first place – and make up a tiny proportion of STEM classes at university. Guys have a leg up in computer science, because they tend to start coding earlier.
Hiring practices and culture in tech are a problem, too. People tend to recruit others like themselves. In the case of tech founders, that means hires are overwhelmingly young, white and male – or as one attendee put it, “people who like craft beer and table football.”
It could easily seem an insurmountable problem but Sacha reckons consistently doing small things all of the time can make a difference: “Call out crappy behaviour. Don’t be on panels that don’t have any women on them. Only go to events with diverse speakers.”
Nic Kennedy is on the executive team at Vend, an Auckland-based software startup. She’s all for reframing, rather than getting hung up on how it can be hard for women in tech. “Often, other women can inspire and help out and point out a new windstream. There’s such an exciting groundswell of amazing women running companies, running teams, working in teams and supporting each other. If we help each other, we’re unstoppable.”
Nic relied on “mentors who gave a push at the right time, a pat on the back, or a kick up the bum.” She’s conscious of being a leader on these issues and a role model to her daughters. “The best way to teach them is to show them. Work very hard. See and hear me caring about people I work with and others that I can help. See me spend time with inspirational people.”
People like Bonnie Howland, a 19-year old who put her university studies on hold to start a social enterprise called Indigo and Iris, an organic beauty company with the mission to eliminate treatment blindness in the South Pacific.
Bonnie sees the position of women in tech as part of a bigger challenge. “We see a general bias against women in leadership, and organisational and decision-making structures that make it hard for women to participate. A US study showed that there are fewer women running big companies than there are men called John.”
While she has often found herself the only woman in meetings, Bonnie views tech as a unique source of ideas, innovation and culture. “The book Half the Sky describes how in rural India, tech and television showing women leaving the house and having jobs made more difference than UN or NGO programmes because it made people realise it was normal.”
That doesn’t mean equality is just a generational issue and problems will die out by themselves. “Tech is an equaliser by design. It needs to be the same for those within the industry as it is for those using the technology. We need to be proactive in adopting strategies, policies and structures in which all women are represented and made welcome and able to participate.”
And of course, as well as making things better, tech can sometimes make things worse. We are all witness to the trolling and casual hostility of online commentary, and the way that it can amplify negative or discriminatory behaviour. Compare the endless Hillary Clinton pant-suit stories with the experience of Karl Stephanovic, the TV news presenter who wore the same suit for a year to see if anyone would notice (spoiler: no one did).
We have a problem at the system level but change has to happen at the individual level and through interactions between people in daily work life. We can see increasing evidence that more diverse teams do better in terms of financial performance, but also that the work to create more diverse teams is not easy.
Bottom line: We’ll need a range of different strategies to increase the numbers of female founders and CEOs. Longer-term actions include promoting STEM for kids, making science and technology cooler (à la Nanogirl), and making sure our daughters see strong tech role models. At a small scale, we can all play a role just by consistently pushing back on unhelpful behaviours and attitudes. We will check back in next Ada Lovelace Day and see how things are coming along.
Julie Fry (@juliemfry on Twitter) is a consulting economist based in Motueka and New York.
Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its competitiveness. For more, see http://themoxiesessions.co.nz. In August, the Moxie Sessions returned to the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco, home for New Zealand startups, to talk about women in tech, connecting together people based in San Francisco with speakers back in New Zealand. Check out the videos of the speakers for yourself at here.
Thanks to Sian Simpson and the Kiwi Landing Pad for having us, and to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for the generous sponsorship that helps to make the Moxie Sessions possible.