Let’s make it Win/Win for all: Rethinking female tech startups

female-hand-keyboardOne of the weakest areas for high potential female entrepreneurship development are the low levels of female startups in the tech sector . In our 17 country Gender-GEDI pilot study sponsored by Dell, the average percentage of female startups in most countries 1 – 3% or less!!

In a recent report on the 25 top high growth technology startup hubs, the percentage of female startups is very low, in most cases 10% or less of ALL startups!! 10% in Silicon Valley but only 3% of startups in the European high tech hub city of Berlin are female!! Why is it that we are missing out on the innovative potential of women entrepreneurs even in the world’s main startup ecosystems!

To be sure, high growth wildly successful female entrepreneurs can emerge from any sector! Sara Blakely is a perfect example of this – At age 42, she became the youngest self made female billionaire with Spanx – shapeware that makes women look slimmer and feel sexier. Absolutely nothing to do with high tech. In sum any sector has potential for high growth female entrepreneurs.

Yet the lack of female tech start-ups should be seen as a red flag – Are countries doing enough to remove the barriers for women in this sector?

As is often the case with dominated male business sectors, women are more prone to both external social norms as well as internalized beliefs of not ‘being good enough’ or not ‘fitting in’ which is very typical of any minority group trying to ‘fit in’ with the majority group’s norms and values. In most cases, only a few will do it successfully, other will try and give up or not try at all.

A fabulous new initiative by Maria Klawe president of Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering school in Southern California may provide insights into what changes need to take place on a broader scale for women’s tech sector entrepreneurs. Singlehandedly, she was able to help female students excel in computer science programs. Currently at Mudd, about 40% of computer science majors are women.

Some of the core strategies at Mudd include:

• Not subscribe to ‘weed-out’ classes (like other universities do) so that students without an extensive background in computer science can still have a chance to make it through to the next level;
• Reduce intimidation in the classroom cultivating and encouraging students to learn and share as opposed to a few ‘know it alls’ dominating classroom discussions;
• Creating projects and exercises that students can relate to, are relevant and fun;
• First-year students are encouraged to attend a giant conference for women in computing which provides positive role models, networking opportunities for female students.
• Attracting high quality female instructors to teach computer science subjects.
• Providing students with research opportunities and coursework that involve solving real problems for major companies.

An interesting outcome of Mudd’s approach has been the positive classroom synergies that develop when more equal ratios of female and male students are present. It has lead to more creative problems solving with a positive effect for both sexes.

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3 Responses to Let’s make it Win/Win for all: Rethinking female tech startups

  1. Joni Simpson says:

    Food for thought…

    In the MENA region, although female employment rates and entrepreneurship rates are the lowest by far across all regions, it seems that high-tech is generating female tech-entrepreneurs at higher rates than elsewhere.

    As you have rightly pointed out, education is crucial. It seems that women in MENA have been taking up IT in education. Now translating this into jobs is another thing for sure – but if their rates of tech-entrepreneurs are higher (and it seems they may be higher than the actual entrepreneurial rates of females in MENA), this could be promising.

    Building a policy and programme strategy mix for the promotion of women’s entrepreneurship that is adapted to the local context is key. At the ILO, we do WED Assessments that come out with key recommendations to improving WED in a particular country. On some levels, it is like a diagnostic. One of the new parts of our new framework on WED is ICTs (through a collaboration with UNCTAD information economy unit).

    Joni Simpson

    • Ruta says:

      Thanks Joni for your comment and letting us know more about the initiatives that the ILO is undertaking to create an more ‘enabling environment’ for female entrepreneurs. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses regarding female entrepreneurship development of a given country context are key for designing successful programs.

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