Is our new tech revolution still a man's world?
Twitter's Irish office - like so many tech giants here - is set to be headed by a woman, but why is the industry still so male dominated? John Meagher reports
What a difference 12 months makes. Last year, tech entrepreneurs Tanya Grimson and Agata Stoinska attended the Web Summit in Dublin and were struck by how few women were there.
"We really stood out," Grimson says. "We almost felt like we were a source of curiosity." But this year, in Lisbon, females made up a large chunk of the attendance.
"It could hardly have been more different."
But then, she points out, they were in receipt of complimentary tickets as Web Summit organisers sought to boost the proportion of women attending.
Grimson and Stoinska - respectively an in-demand fashion stylist originally from Tipperary and an acclaimed photographer from Poland - run a start-up called Maven 46, which is all about shoppable fashion. Their online magazine is aimed at fashion-forward, creative women in their 20s and 30s, and every single piece of clothing and accessory featured can be clicked on and bought.
Stoinska says they had done their homework before attending the Web Summit last month and, consequently are hopeful to secure investment from contacts they made there.
The two are typical of the new breed of tech entrepreneur - a far cry from the geeky, basement dwelling young men of popular imagination. They are passionate about data and are proving that when it comes to Irish start-ups, female entrepreneurs are increasingly getting the investors to open their chequebooks.
This week, the changing face of tech in Ireland was thrown into sharp relief when Cork woman Sinéad McSweeney was appointed head of Twitter in Ireland, replacing the departed Mark Little. She is the latest woman to front a major tech firm in Ireland and the roll-call is quite something.
Earlier this year, Google appointed its first female head of site, Fionnuala Meehan, at the Dublin-based office facility, which employs over 5,000 people. Dell's country manager for Ireland is Niamh Townsend, while LinkedIn's overall Irish boss is Sharon McCooey.
IT giant Microsoft is managed by Cathriona Hallahan in this country, while Lenovo has had a female country manager, Fiona O'Brien, for a decade. Not to be outdone, PayPal also has a female Irish director, Louise Phelan.
It's a similar picture globally. Amy Hood is the chief financial officer of Microsoft, while Ruth Porat holds the same position in Alphabet, the holding company behind Google. The pair represent two of the three most valuable companies on earth (the other is Apple), with a joint market value of almost €1 trillion.
Other tech giants managed by women include Hewlett Packard (Catherine Lesiak), Cisco (Kelly Kramer) and Xerox (Kathryn Mikells). Meanwhile, Square, the credit-card-processing company founded by Twitter's Jack Dorsey, is run by Tyrone-born Sarah Friar. Its annual revenue is in the region of €1.5bn.
Despite such high-profile appointments, women are poorly represented in managerial roles in the vast majority of tech firms based here. According to research conducted by Irish Independent technology editor Adrian Weckler into 88 Irish tech firms earlier this year, less than 3pc of tech venture capital in Ireland goes to companies led by women, with the average individual investment amounting to 10 times less than for male-run firms.
"While almost one in eight VC-funded tech firms here has a female co-founder," Weckler notes, "only one in 20 has a female chief executive. Furthermore, the average investment for a VC-funded tech firm with a female founder last year was €911,000, while the average for a company with a female chief executive was €591,000."
Elaine Burke is managing editor of leading Irish tech news website Silicon Republic, and well-placed to sense the industry's changing gender make-up. "For the most part, the major tech companies have at least shown themselves willing to hold up a mirror to themselves and acknowledge their overly white and manly looks," she says.
"Action and change, though, still proves incremental. Yes, women are more visible. Yes, the numbers are rising, but not by massive leaps and bounds. There are glass ceilings, glass cliffs and glass mazes to navigate, too.
"I'm not so much encouraged by the changing numbers - that still depresses me - but I am encouraged by the changing conversation. People - men and women - are calling out gender bias as they see it, and that is having an important ripple effect."
A gender pay gap exists in tech, but it's not as wide as in areas such as financial services. "[Last month's] Morgan McKinley study put the gender pay gap in technology and telecoms at 7pc," Burke says. "Then there was a disciplinary breakdown with sales at the top [23pc], and IT and software development, R&D and engineering all falling close to the 20pc average.
"Big data had the smallest gender pay gap by discipline at 3pc, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's because of the skills shortage in this area. The data scientist role is quite new for most companies and there's a limited pool of qualified candidates creating an incredibly high demand.
"So, I'd imagine that as long as you are a qualified data scientist, you will be gainfully employed whatever your gender. In a sad way, skill shortages may be the reason why we end up fixing the gender and pay imbalances in science and technology."
Ruth Buckley longs for the day when tech is no longer so male-dominated. Head of ICT at Cork City Council, she is one of the founders of iWish, an organisation that seeks to promote STEM - science, technology, engineering and maths - among school girls.
"We need a cultural shift," she says. "For too long, girls have not been engaged enough these fields. They're perceived to be very male-dominated, and some just don't want to work in that sort of environment." Buckley has worked in the industry for 30 years, and while she feels more females are motivated to pursue careers in tech now than at any time in the past, she says old habits still die hard.
"I remember my mother would help me with my homework - everything, except maths. When we got to that, she'd say 'wait until your father comes home'. I think many Irish households are still having that conversation." She believes that the fact that girls largely outperform boys in the Irish school curriculum makes a mockery about why cultural mores still hold sway.
For engineer and scientist Dr Niamh Shaw, it is imperative that science is taught in a far more engaging way in our school system. "If you only focused on grammar in English class it would be very dull," she says. "Too often there isn't enough creativity employed to make science subjects more compelling.
"There is a gender imbalance in tech and related sectors now and that can't be changed overnight, but if there's a concerted effort to reach out to girls from a young age, change can happen. Role models really help with that and when girls see that women head companies like Twitter here, that's a great thing."
And yet, the new tech entrepreneurs often have no STEM qualifications. Dubliner Katie Tsouros has an art background. "I opened my own gallery in Dublin in 2010," she says.
"It was around that time that we started to see moves for the art industry towards technology. It's one of the slowest industries to move online and I began to see the vast opportunities that lay in that sector."
Tsouros's e-commerce start-up, Artfetch, was a hit from the off and last year was acquired by UK firm Rise Art. Tsouros is its brand marketing manager.
"I can't say that my gender has helped or hindered my progress," she says. "I think I succeeded and did well in the areas that I had a capacity and skill set for, or an aptitude for learning, and that was nothing to do with my gender.
"There are definitely opportunities out there that are only open to women, and we should take advantage of those, but they are also necessary in order to increase female visibility, which I believe is the biggest hindrance. I think women - famously - lack confidence in comparison to men, and I certainly found that I was bad at asking for things and asking for help, but I learned to get better at that."
Tsouros says the Irish tech landscape "is undoubtedly male dominated", but points out that so too are the "corporate, entrepreneurial, political" worlds.
"I never found it problematic," she adds, "but women need more role models, we need visibility and to see other women rising to the top. You need to seek women out and put them there, and everyone needs to make the effort to do that if we're going to see any change.
"The good thing about tech is that most people are young, they are progressive, men and women both want to see the change and I think welcome a more equal gender balance. Yes, you enter rooms entirely filled with men, it can be intimidating to be in the minority, but luckily I never experienced anything directly negative."
And nor have Tanya Grimson and Agata Stoinska, although Grimson admits that as the mother of a six-year-old, she sometimes wrestles with feelings of guilt. "Sometimes it's quite difficult being a woman and a mother and an entrepreneur - it's almost like you're adding another difficulty on top of it because you do have a terrible guilt, if you're doing the right thing.
"The one thing that always brings me back is I'm doing it as a legacy for my son. I want him to believe in strong women.
"I want him to be one of those men, when he's grown up, who values hard work but also, 100pc, doesn't see the difference between men and women."
Irish women who are leading tech charge
Sinéad McSweeney - managing director of Twitter in Ireland, who joined the social-media giant four years ago
Cathriona Hallahan - joined Microsoft in 1986 and after holding several senior roles, is now managing director of the giant's Irish operation
Aisling Hassell - head of Airbnb's customer experience operations across Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA)
Cathy Kearney - has been with Apple since 1988 and has overseen the expansion of the Cork site, which now employs over 5,000 people; she is vice president for European operations
Fionnuala Meehan - after a 10-year career at Google, the Trinity graduate has recently been appointed as the head of the Irish site in charge of 5,000 employees
Regina Moran - the long-time head of Fujitsu Ireland is now managing the UK and Irish operations from London
Louise Phelan - VP for global operations for PayPal in EMEA
Niamh Townsend - general manager for Dell in Ireland, with some 2,500 people employed here