Tech’s next frontier: giving women a stronger voice
Published 03/11/2014 | 06:00
While the world of technology moves at a breakneck speed, one thing remains unchanged: tech is a male-dominated industry.
Recent statistics hint that gender balance, in terms of sheer numbers, is progressing at a glacial pace. According to the US National Centre for Women & Information Technology, there’s been a 64pc decline in the number of undergraduate women interested in pursuing degrees in computer science in the US between 2000 and 2012.
To add to this, the media has become preoccupied with the ‘otherness’ of women in the tech industry. Despite their myriad achievements, leading lights like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have occasionally been reduced to mouthpieces.
Certainly, global enterprise and the sisterhood was thrown into sharp focus last year when Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, made statements about sleeping under her desk, banning telecommuting for her employees and taking only a few weeks’ maternity leave. And while Mayer never claimed to be representative of other women, Forbes promptly ran a damning opinion piece anyway, entitled ‘should you hate Marissa Mayer?’
Elsewhere, Facebook COO Sandberg released a major book (‘Lean In: Women, Work & The Will To Lead’) last year. The book – urging women to crash the glass ceiling while acknowledging the leadership ambition gap between men and women – encouraged women to achieve their professional and personal goals by ‘leaning’ into their ambitions and exchanging ideas and information with other women. Among her more infamous statements were her concerns that so few women stay in business once they have children. Later, she boldly proclaimed that the most important career decision a woman will make is the man she'll marry.
This year, a spate of stories has highlighted double standards and problems in the industry. There was ‘Gamergate’ in August involving a sustained campaign of online harassment that game developer Zoe Quinn was subjected to. There was the ‘Dear Kate’ underwear campaign modelled by female coders. Later, there was the GitHub scandal centering on developer Julie Ann Horvath, who accused the company of permitting an ‘aggressive’ culture (the episode prompted the headline: ‘is sexism part of the Valley’s DNA?’). And more recently, there has been something of a brouhaha surrounding last month’s revelation that Google and Facebook were offering egg freezing as a benefit to female employees.
Julia Hartz, a former MTV executive who co-founded online meetup and event company Eventbrite with her husband Kevin, is largely dismissive of the latter story.
“I thought it was an overhyped headline by the media,” she says. “It’s actually been going on for quite a while and I don’t believe there’s any more to the story than that.”
It seems that when it comes to the business of getting things done, these stories are more of a hindrance than a help. Hartz is one of a growing number of women in the tech industry who are neatly parking the overblown media narrative, preferring instead to concentrate on creating as useful and innovative a product as they possibly can.
Hartz’s passion for the industry is obvious.
“I realised that the tech industry had two qualities I loved and that I think were stronger than the industry I was in,” she says. “One was the velocity of the industry, which is quite shocking if you put it against any other industry. The other was meritocracy. It’s all about what you’ve done or what you know versus who you know. What Kevin and I have done is build a village around us that’s very diverse. It’s people we admire from all walks of life, industry and gender. For us, having a female VP of engineering has been a huge driver of growth for us in terms of getting more female engineers on board.”
Hartz says that she hasn’t experienced sexism in the tech industry first hand.
“Obviously it exists, because people are coming out left and right saying that it does, but those aren’t my experiences,” she says.
Formerly an analyst on Wall Street, Danae Ringelmann co-founded the crowd-funding site Indiegogo in 2008.
“There have been instances when inappropriate things have happened if I’m out in the world, from inappropriate comments to other gestures,” she admits.
“It’s wrong that it happens, but I can’t change that it happens. I can only change my actions so that it doesn’t happen again or happen to others. But I try not think ‘oh, I’m the only woman in the room here’ because you want to focus, keep proving yourself and concentrate on the ideas being shared.”
Similarly to Hartz, Ringelmann hasn’t “gotten caught up in those stereotypes out there”.
“We’ve just done what we want to do and don’t run into that issue,” she says. “Internally, 50pc of the leadership (in Indiegogo) is made up of women; 30pc of the engineering and technical talent are women. It’s the world we wanted to create, somewhere that welcomes everybody.”
Referring to the notion that the venture capitalist (VC) scene is male-dominated, Ringelmann says: “you can speculate that there are biases at play when people are making investments. If there’s not an equal representation and diversity within the investing community, then it’s easy to see why there isn’t a diversity of investments that they’re making.”
Here, appears to be part of the conundrum: by dint of cultural conditioning or the educational system, women have rarely been actively encouraged to take up their place in the tech business. It’s something that each woman is determined, in her own way, to address, acknowledge and change.
“Math was my favourite subject, and I never thought of it as weird until I got to college and finished my maths and science prerequisites,” recalls Ringelmann. “Instead of saying ‘why don’t you try something like physics?’, they were like, ‘well, what else do you want to learn about?”
Closer to home, Cathriona Hallahan rose up the ranks - via accounts, operations and global projects - to become the managing director of Microsoft Ireland. She currently heads up a team of 1,200 staff.
“Though I had very few female role models early on, I’ve had some great male mentors,” she recalls. “My first boss at Microsoft encouraged me to go back to college and saw a capability in me that I didn’t think I had at the time.”
Still, it hasn’t always been plain sailing on her way to the top: “I always tell people not to be afraid to share their ambition,” Hallahan says. “I assumed that if I worked hard, promotion would be the obvious next step, but that wasn’t the case. Some of my male colleagues were very articulate about their ambitions and what they wanted to do next in the company. In one case, my boss hired someone else to replace himself and when I asked why I hadn’t been considered for the job, he replied, ‘well, you never told me you wanted it’.”
On another occasion, one of Hallahan’s American bosses criticised her management style. ‘When he said I wasn’t assertive enough what he meant was, I wasn’t aggressive enough for him. I took a big risk and told him, ‘I want to be true to myself and remain authentic’. Years later, when I’d moved up the ladder, I met the same gentleman and he admitted that the conversation gave him pause for reflection and he went through a lot of changes as a result.”
Far from having a background in engineering, other tech entrepreneurs dive into the industry with a vision, a desire to change business for the better and a canny knack for dealing with challenges. Dubliner Grainne Barron founded Viddyad, a San Francisco-based company that enables small companies to make video ads. Like Hartz, she made the move into tech from TV. It proved a fortuitous move as she won an award for ‘most innovative startup’ from PricewaterhouseCoopers as well as last year’s Web Summit ‘Spark Of Genius’ award for best European technology startup.
“3pc of founders of tech companies in the world are female, and of the 3pc, 0.25pc are not engineers,” she says. ‘I’m one of that 0.25pc. I didn’t even know I wanted to be in the tech industry at all, but I knew I wanted to solve problems and I liked challenges.”
In Ireland, there have been some encouraging changes in the upper echelons of the technology industry. Louise Phelan now runs the Irish arm of Paypal as VP of Global Operations, Regina Moran is CEO of Fujitsu Ireland, Ann Kelleher is VP at Intel, Brenda O’Connell has been hired at Twitter’s European head of development and Anne O’Leary is CEO of Vodafone Ireland. As VP of European operations at Apple, Cathy Kearney hit the headlines in 2011 for making Apple $22bn almost single-handedly with her business-savvy direction as the driving force.
For women curious about a career in tech, and standing uncertainly at the precipice, Danae Ringelmann offers some advice.
“Stay true to your heart and what you want to achieve,” she says. “Ignore the hype around the tech industry and stay focused on your idea. You’ll open up your own doors and then you don’t have to worry about any of the other stuff.”
IN HER ELEMENT
Dorothy Creaven, who founded the Galway-based start-up Element Wave (a company that gives other companies a detailed view of how others are using their apps), says that she never had a problem with being deterred from maths or physics. Her father owned a tech company and had a background in physics. By the time she was 8 or 9 years old, she was coding.
“There was a good split between girls and boys in my honours maths class at school, but when I did electronic engineering in NUI Galway, there were two other girls in my class of 42,” she says. “It was hard not to be aware of it, but we were so exposed to this stuff at such an early age, I wasn’t in any way phased by it. I think having the right teachers early on really set you up on the right path.”
In many ways, says Creaven, technology is the perfect industry for gender equality. “With maths and physics, it’s very black and white with no grey area,” she says. “The circuit either works or it doesn’t. It’s not something girls can or can’t do.”
The female heavy-hitters in tech
1 Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO - Estimated net worth: €850m
2. Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard CEO - Estimated net worth: €1.4bn
3. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO - Estimated net worth, €250m
4. Ariana Huffington, Huffington Post founder - Estimated net worth: $50m
5. Virginia Rometty, CEO IBM - Estimated net worth €35m
Top 5 richest men in tech
1. Microsoft boss Bill Gates – Estimated Net Worth $67bn
2. Oracle boss Larry Ellison – Estimated net Worth $43bn
3. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – Estimated Net Worth $25.2bn
4. Google’s Larry Page – Estimated Net Worth $23bn
5. Google founder Sergey Brin – Estimated Net Worth $22.8bn