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International Women’s Day on 8 March kick-started global conversation about the gender inequality that still infuses much of society and enterprises.
But from within the tech startup realm, there is a call for the event to be not just a yearly reminder of disparity, but a celebration of tangible progress.
Of course, for this to happen, tangible progress needs to be made, and that is why many female entrepreneurs in the Nordic tech space are championing year-round initiatives – and, failing that, an ongoing reliance on labels and quotas if that is what it takes to level the playing fields.
Marie Mostad is one such business leader, having co-founded global influencer marketing platform inzpire.me while also, more recently, becoming involved in investment firm Unconventional Ventures – a long-time advocate of reducing the gender funding gap across the Nordics. “I’m always a little muddled about whether I’m OK being called a ‘female founder’ or a ‘woman in tech’,” said Mostad. “However, I’ve realised it’s probably a good idea to use labels at this stage.
“Sadly, in some of these categories, we’re moving backwards instead of forwards, so labels are important in the meantime to highlight this disparity all year round, while events like International Women’s Day shine an extra spotlight on the progress – or lack of it – being made.”
Solfrid Sagstad is executive markets manager at Motitech, another Nordic-incepted company focusing on elderly care in the healthtech space. She agrees that the technology industry is still very male-dominated as a consequence of socially entrenched hurdles.
“It is therefore unsurprising that stereotypically masculine traits have been directly linked to success in the sector,” she said. “The sad part is that, even today, there is still a lack of willingness to understand and acknowledge that the gender traits of women should be harnessed as strengths. This then compounds the strong gender bias across numerous sectors, tech included.”
This is why International Women’s Day is perceived as important for the industry. For Ida Tin, it’s about bringing these injustices to the fore, but also about continuing a battle that others have been fighting for generations. Femtech pioneer and Clue co-founder Tin added: “I’m personally standing on the shoulders of all those brave people who paved the way for me to do what I’m doing now.
“International Women’s Day is a great reflection of history, and it’s my responsibility to try to continue that history and this battle.”
But where to start? Much has been made of the imbalance that exists at C-level within boardrooms, and more recently during startup funding rounds. However, Tin, Mostad and Sagstad all agree that a three-pronged approach is needed to proactively change the status quo for women in tech – even in a more flexible and seemingly more inclusive ecosystem such as the Nordic startup scene.
Read more about gender inequality in Nordic tech
- 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.
- Tech investors are biased towards men when it comes to investing – even if they are not aware of it.
- Although countries in the Nordic region are often hailed as pioneers of digital and equal worker rights, there is still gender inequality in the IT sector.
The first strand is education, as Tin explained: “Simply not enough is being done to encourage girls at a young age into a male-led sector. I believe this is because all the self-confidence that young girls have gets taken out of them as they get older, as they see the hurdles up ahead, and we need to instead try to maintain that confidence.
“At the moment, we’re losing too much enthusiasm, as girls get transported from inquisitive and curious with endless possibilities, into a pigeonholed pink universe surrounded by male domination. And that stereotype is an issue for boys, too. ‘Bro culture’ is just as bad as it still promotes an idea that men and women are unequal, as their motivations are being sent in different directions from such a young age.”
The next stage that needs to be addressed is hiring, said Mostad. “This is where tools such as employment quotas perhaps need to be instilled,” she said. “At present, the traditional social unbalance has created a process where many women don’t feel equal to men in the hiring process. This may lead to them not getting jobs, but more often it manifests in women not even applying for them.
“Women are much harder on themselves in the application process, often not going for it if they can’t tick off everything on the requirement checklist. Meanwhile, a man would see they have 50% of the listed skills, presume to pick up the rest later, and apply anyway.”
Mostad added: “I believe gender balance starts with this notion of hiring, but then there is a lot more that needs to be done once women find themselves in a tech company.”
The inzpire.me founder said that the third strand – retention and promotion – is an element that startups can rightly claim to be further along with remedying. “In a startup, some of the systemic prejudices are broken down as you get to develop people in a more individualised way,” said Mostad.
“Women who have never led a team before, and who wouldn’t get a chance in a larger organisation, will get the chance to do so. They are also more likely to be rewarded, promoted or paid more, based on performance – a very important aspect given that males are much more likely to put themselves in negotiation situations at larger companies.”
Kick-starting more than conversation
Rewarding performance and facilitating progression is the final stop on a daunting journey that many women have to face when entering the tech realm, but startups are in prime position to break the mould.
At the very least, by having one portion of industry setting the pace, the likelihood of more role models such as Tin, Mostad and Sagstad is also improved, hopefully inspiring more young women to battle through these adversities to have a similar impact in the tech space.
“Startups are so fast-paced that they can often lead evolutions such as these,” said Mostad. “I have already seen incredible progress when it comes to investing venture capital in more diverse founder teams.
“Ultimately, they are doing so not just because it’s a quota exercise or because it’s a charity; they are doing so because it’s an incredible business opportunity to have a more diverse workforce and leadership team.”
Sagstad added: “Ultimately, the tech industry needs to be changed from within, in addition to encouraging new women into the sector, those working within it must be taught to recognise that diversity is crucial in creating sustainable businesses.
“It is encouraging to see that the UN Sustainable Development Goals make a point of highlighting gender equality as a significant foundation for a new area within business and leadership. And finally, we are all beginning to understand the importance of bringing a mix of strengths, experiences and world views to the table.”