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Get a mentor and be nicer to yourselves

Arch Summit in Luxembourg hears that access to lifelong learning and funding opportunities are key to increasing female representation and influence in tech.
(Featured Image: “How do we increase female representations and influence in tech” panel discussion during Arch Summit / Image Credit © Olivier Minaire)

With an expected shortage of 500,000 skilled ICT workers in the EU by 2020, tackling this deficit has become a top priority. And with the stark under-representation of women and girls in the sector, understanding how to boost their participation and influence in tech is key to addressing the problem.

This was the topic of a panel discussion at the recent Arch Summit in Luxembourg.

The panel comprised Larissa Best, the executive director of Equilibre, a think tank promoting gender complementarity at work; Els van der Helm, the founder of Shleep, a startup that uses tech to improve the sleep of business leaders and teams; Cilia Kanellopoulos, head of social innovation at the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications;  Helena Lisachuk, a director at Deloitte Consulting who leads the Internet of Things practice globally; and Stephan Peters, an early-stage investor with a focus on diversity. The discussion was moderated by Laura Turkington, senior manager at Vodafone in charge of global innovation and business development.

Nintendo’s handheld consul was, after all, a “Game Boy” not a “Game Girl.”

Eurostat figures show that women and girls accounted for only 16.7 percent of ICT students in the EU in 2016. Their representation in the labour market was not much better with females representing only 17.2 percent of all ICT specialists employed.

Discussing how this gender imbalance had arisen, participants identified gaming industry marketing done in the 80s as having a lasting impact. This was mainly directed towards boys –   Nintendo’s handheld consul was, after all, a “Game Boy” not a “Game Girl.”

What has also occurred over time is the automatic association of someone working in tech with the role of coder or developer.

“It’s important to change this narrative,” Ms Kanellopoulos said, noting that while the panel members all worked in tech not one was a developer. “There is not one stereotypical person who works in tech – you can be anybody in tech.”

“A lot of the systems puts in place in companies are old systems which were mostly designed for and by men. That’s why startups are such a breath fresh air.”

The panel noted the pros and cons for women in tech working for a startup versus a more established corporate firm.

Startups can offer more flexible forms of working which is attractive for women who also want to raise families. It also means women founders can create the type of environment in which they want to work.

“A lot of the systems puts in place in companies are old systems which were mostly designed for and by men,” said Ms Best. “That’s why startups are such a breath fresh air.”

However, the flipside for female employees is that some of the less mature companies have not put in place diversity programmes that many large corporate firms have.

Women who are leaving corporate careers to set up their own businesses require better access to finance, according to Ms Best.

Female-founded companies in Europe received just 11 percent of the venture capital spent in the region in 2017, according to PitchBook data.

“From the male side, some people might be afraid the pendulum is swinging all the way to the other the other side.”

One solution is to encourage more women to become angel investors and, Ms Best said.

Also necessary is to improve access to education at all stages of life – from very young girls to women who want to make mid- or later-life career changes. This responsibility falls to corporate organizations which must allow time for employees to develop their ICT skills and to education establishments which must create courses better suited to those in their thirties or forties.

To round up the discussion, the moderator asked the panel to provide some practical career advice for women.

Panelists agreed that finding a mentor – or, better yet, a sponsor to champion workplace advancement – is a good strategy. Ms van der Helm, who has observed that female employees generally suffer larger sleep deficits than male colleagues, said she was an advocate of “fixing things at home” to make sure both partners assume an equal share of housework and childcare.  Ms Lisachuk said that women had a tendency to be “supercritical of themselves” and “it’s so important just not to be so hard on your self.”

Finally, offering reassurance to men, Mr Peters said: “From the male side, some people might be afraid the pendulum is swinging all the way to the other the other side. You need at least to make people aware it doesn’t have to be that way. We just want it in the middle and that’s good enough.”

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