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Nordic tech is increasing diversity but more needs to be done

The shortage of women in the boardroom is a problem in the Nordics, like other regions, but work in its tech sector means the future could be more promising

When it comes to the boardroom gender gap, positive patterns are beginning to appear, and in the tech sector globally and certainly in the Nordics, the situation appears more promising.

But if you asked female executives in the Nordic technology industry whether it’s mission accomplished, the response would be “not even slightly”.

Fortune 500’s 2018 list of women CEOs revealed that only 5% of women held CEO roles. In the same year, Ratedly’s Women in tech report painted a slightly rosier picture, with 10% of senior executive roles being held by women in the global sector.

Focusing on the Nordics, the AllBright Foundation reported that the proportion of women on the management teams of listed Swedish companies rose from 21% in 2017 to 23% in 2018, with the figure expected to reach a milestone 25% this year.

So the Nordics appear ahead of the curve, but there is still much inequality.

One CEO who is contributing to the increasingly positive figures in Sweden is Bonnie Roupé, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the internet and mobile industry and who now oversees Bonzun, a firm that offers pregnant women advice from a virtual midwife.

Roupé is the epitome of the modern Nordic entrepreneur, merging personal experiences and ambition within a setting more conducive to startup success than most.

“To be honest, my first company before Bonzun started from a place of desperation after the IT crash in the early 2000s,” she said. “I was bored and couldn’t find any challenging or fun jobs, so I created my own dream job.”

Following a complicated pregnancy that nearly killed her, Roupé decided that, with the wide use of smartphones, there was no reason for pregnant women not to be able to access all vital information through one tailored portal, and so Bonzun was born.

Change in the ecosystem

Two million app downloads across 79 countries is testament to the gap in the market that Roupé has filled since she noticed it back in 2011, but she still remembers a time, even in the Nordics, when no one would listen to her ideas.

“I remember, as a blonde in my twenties, being ignored in preference to my male colleagues, to the point where I actually dyed my hair black and looked forward to getting wrinkles in the hope I would be taken more seriously,” she said. “And this is in a region which I believe has always been ahead of the curve. I’ve seen the other end of the curve too, and it’s even less pretty.”

For many female executives, the idea of breaking through the glass ceiling is a strange one. Those who have started up a business haven’t done so to level the playing field – they have done so because, like any astute entrepreneur in the tech space, they noticed a gap in the market and had the knowhow to fill it.

Read more about inequality in the tech sector

This was certainly the case for Karen Dolva, CEO and co-founder of Norwegian startup No Isolation – she simply saw a problem that needed fixing.

“It’s hard to say whether gender played a part in the rise of No Isolation as it was a business to help children with illnesses stay in touch with their peers, built from scratch,” she said. “But I’d say it certainly helped in instilling equality following the inception of the company, and I’m happy to say that 50% of our management team and boardroom members are women.

“This statistic isn’t just a representation of our equality mission, though, but a result of more and more women choosing to study technology and striving for more senior positions than they used to.”

In Denmark, a similar turning of the tide is occurring, with the startup ecosystem putting a lot of focus on women in tech, while technical universities have enhanced the way they market to, and recruit, women into the sector.

Ahead of the curve, but far from equal

But the problem is not yet solved, according to Melissa Würtz Azari, co-founder  and acting CEO of Danish company Tiimo, an assistive technology app designed to help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and other cognitive disorders through their educational and social development.

“It’s still a fact that women are under-represented on boards and in the investment community,” said Azari. “We are still missing someone in our circle that we can compare ourselves to and be inspired by, especially regarding things like pregnancy and making sure that our lives with our family can coincide with our lives as entrepreneurs.

“We need more role models that challenge the traditional way of doing things and that dare to stand up and talk about it.”

Since its launch in February 2018, Tiimo has made a positive impact on more than 800 families in Denmark, and the company’s offering has made its way into the UK.

As such, Azari herself could become a role model to budding female entrepreneurs in the future. But as the subject of pregnancy highlights, there are still factors beyond women’s control that affect the likelihood of them reaching the boardroom.

Increasing paternity leave

One solution suggested by Dolva at No Isolation is that by increasing levels of mandatory paternity leave, the idea of men being “less-risk” employees at higher levels will dissipate. Azari says there is also a responsibility on women themselves to display more self-belief and “jump in” when opportunities arise.

Although Roupé, Dolva and Azari agree that the odds of women reaching boardroom level are not quite so stacked against them in the Nordic region, that is precisely why this momentum must be capitalised on among the startup community moving forward. They feel the region needs to be more than a pillar of “above-average” diversity, and more of a proactive campaigner and example-setter for complete gender equality.

“We can always do more,” said Dolva. “While Scandinavia is ahead of the curve, most initiatives fighting for equality are actually outside the Nordics because that’s where the biggest gaps are. It’s important we don’t sit back and think we are done with it.

“Equality doesn’t just mean an increase from 21% to 23% in one sector or one country. We should continue to aspire to a 50/50 split in every region and industry.”

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