We Need More Women in Tech – but Not to Serve the Drinks

We need more women in tech. That’s the general consensus. We also need to reduce our carbon emissions, but no one’s doing much about that either. So while I appreciate the trumpeting chorus of voices stating the obvious, wouldn’t it be better to see action rather than words? And better yet, should we actually talk about why we need more women in tech? Because if it’s just to make up the numbers, most of us would prefer the ladies to stay home.

If that sounded horribly misogynistic, stay with me; I’m coming to my point. More women in key positions in tech – and business in general – would be better for everyone. Women have proven their leadership skills time and again (even surpassing their male counterparts). But if we’re hiring lesser-qualified candidates to fill a quota or sprinkling women at conferences to sex up the stands, we’re going about it wrong.

In her article The Bathroom Test for Women in the Cryptocurrency World, Crystal Stranger, Co-Founder of PeaCounts, makes an interesting point. After attending Consensus New York – the biggest blockchain conference of the year – she noticed that the number of women present increased by the day.

Crystal Stranger
Crystal Stranger of Founder PeaCounts

That isn’t because there was a sudden influx of female speakers, attendees, or investors; they were simply brought on for decorative purposes. As a tax operations director, co-founder of a cryptocurrency startup, UCLA grad, and published author, she found it a little insulting. “The blockchain industry can be a little distasteful as a woman,” she says.

The Situation in Numbers

  • In 2017, only 17 percent of startups had one female founder on the board
  • In VC-financed, high-growth tech startups, just 9 percent of founders are women
  • Only 1.76 percent of the entire Bitcoin community are women
  • In the US, only 2 percent of mutual fund assets are managed by women
  • 7 out of 10 fintech employees in the UK are men, and just 17 percent of women are senior executives
  • Only 18 percent of computer science degrees in the US go to women
  • In the UK in 2017, female fund manager bonuses were as much as 70 percent below men’s

But Women in Tech Don’t Want to Talk About Women in Tech

Part of the reason that we’re getting this wrong might be because we’re reluctant to discuss the issue. And women are as much to blame as men, perhaps even more so. Women in tech don’t want to talk about women in tech. Although it’s not hard to understand their perspective.

When you boast a kickass career trajectory, raise millions in seed capital, or run a flourishing business, you want to be asked about your achievements, not your genitalia.

Moreover, being excessively vocal on the topic isn’t a good idea. In 2017, companies with female founders received just 2.2 percent of all VC funding. Even having a woman on your board appears to correlate to reduced funding. If we need more women in tech, no one’s told the VCs.

Olga Feldmeier is founder and CEO at Smart Valor, a blockchain marketplace for tokenized alternative investments. She’s also worked for Barclays Capital, UBS Wealth Management, and BCG, and was Commercial Managing Partner at Silicon Valley’s Xapo.

She recognizes that being a woman in this industry is a challenge. “Everybody told me no,” she says, “and you know what? I never take no for an answer; perhaps that’s not the attitude of a typical woman. But many women are brought up in this way. They need more help. If you’re the only woman founder of a company, it might be difficult. If you have good businessmen that you can work with and create a company with, have two or three co-founders, the job is easier.”

Olga Feldmeier
Olga Feldmeier, Founder of Smart Valor

The founder and CEO of Meethappy, Joana Gutierrez, reinforces the sentiment of keeping it low-key. “I tend to take the stance that I don’t look at working in an industry and identifying and categorizing myself as a gender, but rather as Joana, the individual.”

Are We Our Own Worst Enemies?

Posing this question provokes a heated debate. Emily Arth, VP of Operations at Constellation, remarks, “I reject the notion that women in tech are the enemies of other women thriving and being accepted in our industry. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by every woman I interact with within this industry. The reasons we’re having trouble ‘getting on board’ are deep-seated and culturally ingrained.

So, a childhood of playing with Barbies and watching commercials for baby dolls instead of discovery toys has something to do with it?

Emily Arth
Emily Arth, VP Operations, Constellation

“I believe that the cryptocurrency industry has a deep gender imbalance due to both the way children are raised, as well as a cultural imbalance of money management… This leads to an understanding beginning in early childhood that tech and science are ‘boy jobs’. In addition, historically, it has been assumed that the ‘man’s job’ is to handle both the household finances as well as Wall Street investments.”

A Little Anecdote to Boil Your Blood

Yet could our upbringings be unconsciously making us work against each other? I pose the question because an incident at MoneyConf in Dublin made me spill my drink. I was approached by a woman from the Women in Tech movement who said, “We need more women in tech.” I agreed. “Could you write an article explaining blockchain to women, you know, in a way that they’ll understand?”

I convulsed, wasting perfectly good champagne. If the very ambassadors for women in tech are implying that we need to dumb down the narrative for our lady brains, clearly we have a problem. What would that article even look like?

Ladies, so you know this whole blockchain thing? Think about it as a bunch of girlfriends linking arms, and they all have to agree for anything to happen. Oh, and you get to keep your digital money in cute little digital purses.

Eyes. Rolling.

Nancy Wang, Co-Founder and CEO of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP) sees the issue raising itself time and time again. “So many women who approach me online and in person at AWIP events tell me how they are intimidated of taking the next step, even when it’s as tangible as applying for that dream role, because they are afraid they’re not 100 percent qualified.”

Nancy Wang
Nancy Wang, Co-Founder & CEO, AWIP

In fact, a Harvard Business Review study found that men will apply for a job when they meet just 60 percent of the criteria, but women will apply only if they meet 100 percent.

A Toxic Environment for Women

For the handful of women working in tech, many report a “toxic” environment, akin to showing up at a frat house uninvited. Just consider Susan Fowler and the Pandora’s box she opened about Uber’s horribly sexist working culture. And many others followed.

Not all tech companies are created equal. That’s for sure. And not all male coworkers are misogynistic. But Feldmeier makes a valid point when she says: “If you start working at a tech firm with 34 men and you show up as number 35 as a woman, you’re probably not going to feel very comfortable.”

Sa Wang is CMO of IOST, an enterprise-grade blockchain services company. She says, “The fact is that you have to work harder, project confidence even if you’re lacking it, find the right allies, and work on a project whose people understand your value.”

Being a woman in tech seems to imply that you have to force your way into a boy’s club, keep your head down, remove gender from the question, find tolerant males to align with, and work twice as hard just to prove your worth.

We End up on the Cutting Room Floor – and That’s Okay

Cindy Mallory is board advisor for blockchaingamer.biz and the VR/AR Association Blockchain Committee co-chair. She says, “As the CMO of a VR game studio, it pained me to time and time again hire the best-fit candidate… and in an application pool on the cutting edge, women are a minority. Throw in previous work experience on top of the portfolio and it pains me to say a lot of women wind up on the cutting room floor.”

Cindy Mallory
Cindy Mallory, Board Advisor, blockchaingamer.biz

But that’s the way it should be. Strategically placing women at conferences, hiring less qualified professionals because of their gender, and trying to sex up blockchain isn’t helping anyone.

Mallory adds, “I was the only woman that spoke at the NYC 4th Annual Blockchain Summit. I’ve attended conferences where they literally couldn’t find a woman speaker to hit stage diversity quotas. Now that I have a few blockchain talks under my belt, the sluice gates have opened and the requests to speak pour in.

I’d like to think it’s because I have an amazing stage presence or present novel ideas in an earth-shattering way. More likely, it’s because I’m one of only a handful of women that meet the criteria for their speakers.”

So, What Is the Solution?

Readjusting the gender imbalance isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s also not going to happen by forcing women to shapeshift themselves into a man’s world. For all the talk about women and tech, often the most obvious factor is left out: we are different, and as such, different methods need to be applied that don’t involve dumbing things down or filling quotas.

All the women I spoke to agreed that females in the STEM subjects are still highly underrepresented and that addressing the issue starts way back in school. And by thinking twice about the playthings we buy for our kids.

Some headway is being made, with more and more governments understanding the need for diversity in tech. Ireland, for example, launched the Coderdojo initiative, which is about encouraging children (particularly girls) to get into programming.

Another response was to “bring your girlfriends along” and to encourage them to get into the industry. Surprisingly, not many women suggested what I would have thought was critical – tailoring the working conditions to make it possible for women to really make a dent in the workplace. We can educate our kids, we can help our fellow colleagues, but if we can’t balance a family life with a career, the door is only just inching open.

Flexible Working Conditions

While major behemoths like Apple and Facebook are blazing the trail for women, even offering part payment of egg freezing plans, the US still comes in last place on paid maternity leave. Out of all the countries in the world. Below Papua New Guinea and Oman. Women are expected to give birth and get back to work without missing a meeting – while missing their babies growing up.

For companies that understand the importance of maternity and even paternity leave, they still expect women to mold back into a rigid 9-5 (or 6, or 7, or 8, or 9…). Shouldn’t it be obvious that to get more women in tech – and in the workforce in general – some flexible working policies are needed?

Women in Leadership Positions

We also need to see more women higher up the ranks to make us realize that we can push through the glass ceiling, even with unfavorable odds. Diana LaValle, Director of Engineering at Ignyte Assurance Platform, says:

“We not only need more women in tech but also in leadership. It all starts in high school or college by opening up pathways for the next generation of women to fill technology-driven leadership roles. There are many colleges today that are simply missing out on this piece, and it is critical to helping women. Locally in Minneapolis, we are now starting to hold women in leadership events and women in technology events, but this should have been happening long ago.”

Diana LaValle
Diana LaValle, Director Engineering, Ignyte

Wrapping It Up

Some of the largest and most successful tech companies have women at the helm, including IBM and Oracle. And going back to the numerous studies, no one can argue the fact that we need more women in tech. But we also need to stop expecting women to achieve the impossible and shrink to fit a system designed for men.

Women are far more likely to want to work in tech and stay in tech if there are other females involved, especially at the top. So, why not put these ideas into practice? Let’s get more women in tech. As long as they’re not serving the drinks or decorating the booths.

Image(s): Shutterstock.com

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