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Women in business: bridging digital’s gender divide

The digital economy is growing at twice the rate of the wider economy. Yet in such a huge sector, men often outnumber women three to one. Here, three female tech insiders offer their perspectives on the industry.

Last updated: 25 Jun 2019 6 min read

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The most recent Tech Nation survey from the sector growth group Tech City UK, now rebranded as Tech Nation, made welcome reading to those who see digital as the future UK economic driver.

The report states that the digital sector is growing at twice the rate of the wider economy and contributes around £97bn a year.

However, it also reveals a sector that is comprised of an overwhelmingly male workforce; in 53% of organisations, men are outnumbering women by at least three to one. Coupled with previous data suggesting that just 9% of investment for UK start-ups goes to female founders, it raises serious questions about whether the digital revolution is leaving women behind.

STEM education

Tech City UK said work was under way to redress this by encouraging female uptake of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at GCSE, A-level and university. It also advocated reskilling women with digital tech skills through programmes such as the free coding academy Founders & Coders. In addition, it said that the government-supported Tech Talent Charter, where organisations commit to a set of undertakings to deliver greater diversity in the tech workforce, should be built upon.

Overlooked by investors

Doniya Soni, formerly policy manager for skills, talent and diversity at techUK, provides more statistics on the imbalance. She says that fewer than 6% of working-age women are engaged in early-stage entrepreneurial activity, compared with more than 11% of men. “More worryingly, a recent survey [by AllBright] showed that 22% of female tech founders are overlooked by male investors,” she says. “We must do more. With industry and government collaboration, we can make a concerted effort to increase these numbers and unlock the potential. Not only will this lead to greater productivity, but more job creation and economic growth.”

Rosie Bennett, centre director at SETsquared, a tech business incubator based in the University of Bath’s Innovation Centre, has her own damning statistics. She says that in 2015/16, the incubator had on average only 10% female founders or co-founders. She says that a lack of women with STEM qualifications is limiting the number of female-led tech start-ups. Word-of-mouth referrals – one of the keys behind applications to SETsquared incubators – are also ‘self-limiting’ in driving more female interest.

Bennett says the organisation is doing more to actively engage with groups such as Girls Who Code and WISE. More targeted recruitment is also seen as a positive move, and SETsquared has found that incubators with better gender-balanced management teams, mentors and advisers also attract more female candidates.

“When we run entrepreneurship courses in areas like edtech, medtech and ‘tech for good’, there is no shortage of applications from women”Rosie Bennett, centre director, SETsquared

The strategy appears to be working, with an increase in the number of applications from women from 5% to 11% in the last 12 months at the Bristol SETsquared centre alone.

“You need to respond to the differentiators,” Bennett says. “The Tech Nation figures are interesting as the statistics differ across sectors. At SETsquared we find that when we run entrepreneurship courses in areas like edtech, medtech and ‘tech for good’, there is no shortage of applications from women.”

Social purpose

Bennett suggests that low numbers of female-led start-ups may be less about a lack of talent or ambition, and more to do with motivation and purpose.

“It is an awareness that women may be motivated to start tech businesses for different reasons such as societal impact. Fostering closer ties with social enterprises is another way we can help support that,” she adds.

The need for more female input in UK digital is very clear. “We are 50% of the workforce and 50% of the users of tech products. It’s a no-brainer,” she says.

Bennett is herself a tech entrepreneur. She was a co-founder of the online directory for self-storage Storenextdoor. “I didn’t find any hurdles in place because I was a woman,” she says. “The hurdles were more to do with monetising a hyper-local peer-to-peer network. People tend to do cash deals once they meet each other.”

A new approach

Another female co-founder is Tania Boler of connected-health company Elvie. Boler has created a device – the Elvie trainer – to help women strengthen and develop pelvic floor muscles.

“I’ve always worked in women’s health and, after studying at the University of Oxford and Stanford, I realised there was a real need for something like Elvie when I had my first baby and was told to do pelvic floor exercises. I struggled to know if I was doing them right and if they were making a difference. As I researched the area, I realised that women were buying lots of different products to rebuild their pelvic floor strength with little evidence that they are effective. The one thing shown to work is giving women real-time biofeedback.”

In total, Elvie has secured more than £8m in funding, including from Google Maps co-creator Lars Rasmussen.

“Our product is aimed specifically at women and addresses a very intimate issue, so there have been occasions when the men I’ve been pitching to have felt the need to ask their wives or even pull in a female receptionist to check that pelvic floor weakness is an issue,” she says. “But it’s important not to be deterred by this kind of thing because good investors look at the same important factors in a company regardless of it being female-led or not. You need to have a world-class senior team, a strong product vision and evidence of successful execution or market traction.”

Elvie became profitable six months after launch and its customer base is growing by 50% each quarter.

Networking

What would Boler do to encourage more female tech success?

“Part of the problem is that girls learn early on that tech is for boys, which is clearly a ridiculous stereotype. It’s important to offer opportunities to everyone to get into the STEM subjects,” she says.

“Also, if women do want to found their own tech start-up, it can be daunting to do something that you haven’t seen another female friend or leader do. But there is a growing network of female founders and it’s important to have that support from women facing the same challenges as you.”

The digital doors are opening, it seems. Women just need to find the codes to break them down.

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