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Opinion The gender gap remains in tech and science – and it's hurting companies

Investors are missing a trick by not investing in women; if the whole tech and investment community were to work together we could create fantastic companies and jobs.

THE TECH INDUSTRY globally suffers from a lack of female participation. Here in Ireland, it is thought that about 25% of those working in research, tech and science are women. That falls to single figures when it comes to – for example – developers and programmers. Women make up about 10% of our population of engineers.

Firstly, I have to say, I came to this whole discussion late. Having not ever considered gender as an issue in my own career, I just kept my head down, worked hard and never really noticed that the gender gap existed.

However, in recent years, along with Silicon Republic co-founder Darren McAuliffe, I have begun to grow impatient with the slow pace of change. As more traditional sectors like accountancy and law have successfully bridged the gender gap, the tech sector has been slow to follow suit. For our own events, we began to actively seek out female speakers, having become tired of turning up at conferences where panels were exclusively made up of white men – whether in suits or in hoodies and converse.

Yes, diversity is a much wider issue than gender, but we decided to take on one battle at a time and, on International Women’s Day 2013, we launched a campaign on Silicon Republic called Women Invent Tomorrow – designed to highlight inspiring women in the male-dominated areas of science, tech, engineering and maths (STEM).

Role models

All the research had shown us that role models are the key to change, but what surprised even ourselves was the number of remarkable female role models in the STEM areas who normally fall below the media radar – and indeed many that we had missed ourselves. We recently published a list of 100 Top Women in STEM – and we could have easily made that 200.

We came to the conclusion that the issue was less about a lack of role models and more about the visibility of these role models. The traditional media tends to trot out the same five or even 10 women year after year. But there are lots more out there if you look more deeply.

Ambitious female-led start-ups

There’s probably no area of tech where role models are more crucial than in the tech start-up field. It is estimated that in the US, for example, just 3% of venture-backed tech start-ups are led by women. There is no solid research in Ireland, but we estimate that this figure is only a little higher here, and by no means high enough.

Yet recent research shows that technology companies led by women are more capital-efficient, achieve 35% higher return on investment and – when backed by venture capital – bring in 12% higher revenue than male-owned companies. That was the conclusion of recent research from the Kauffman Foundation, entitled Women in Technology: Evolving, Ready to Save the World.

Here in Ireland, our state agency Enterprise Ireland has launched its own Competitive Start Fund for Female Entrepreneurs, while just last month the NDRC launched a Female Founders initiative.

Investors missing a trick by not investing in women?

There is, without doubt, a move afoot to change the ratio here. As for our own campaign at Silicon Republic, tomorrow (30.06.14), we host the inaugural Female Founders Forum at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. As well as inspiring female tech entrepreneurs from Ireland – like Leonora O’Brien of Pharmapod, Sonya Lennon of Frockadvisor and Gráinne Barron of Viddyad – a star attraction will be San Francisco-based Julia Hartz, co-founder of Eventbrite, which was recently valued at $1 billion.

On the investor side, Paris-based Anne Ravanona of Global Invest Her will highlight the statistics around investment in ambitious female-led start-ups around the world, while local panellists – including Ena Prosser, Helen McBreen, John O’Sullivan and John Kenny – will share the thoughts of the investment community here. We’ll be asking them if, given the research, investors might be missing a trick by not investing in women?

Could Ireland lead the way?

Chatting to me ahead of the Forum, one of our panellists, Helen McBreen (the only female member of the NDRC Investment Committee), put it well. She said this is not “a noble quest or imposed quota hunt; rather, it is a pragmatic ‘Moneyball-esque’ decision, based on the unequivocal evidence that female-backed ventures perform better fiscally”.

Wouldn’t it be something else if Ireland could lead the way here? We are small enough, nimble enough and flexible enough to make change quickly. If the whole tech and investment community were to work together on this, we could change the ratio, create fantastic companies and jobs and, as a country, we could be the ‘role model’ for changing the gender ratio in tech!

Ann O’Dea is co-founder and CEO of Silicon Republic, Ireland’s leading technology and innovation news service. She also leads the Women Invent Tomorrow initiative at Silicon Republic, designed to champion female role models in the areas of Science Technology, Engineering and Maths. As part of this campaign, Silicon Republic has recently published its list of Ireland’s 100 top women in STEM.

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