Tech women: The difficult reality

James Riley
Editorial Director

The great lie being sold to young women professionals in the tech sector is that they can have it all. Not yet they can’t, and Ruslan Kogan knows why.

The 2015 Startup Muster report revealed that 24 per cent of startups in Australia were founded by women in 2014. However, depending on whose statistics you favour, just 4 to 14 per cent of startups which received private equity funding (as opposed to being bootstrapped or funded through loans) were founded by women.

The female funnel starts early; a decent (if not yet equal) supply of women to start with, but fewer over time or higher up.

It’s a global phenomenon.

Nicola Hazell:  ‘We need to shift the equation on gender equality’

The US based Female Founders’ Fund analysis of venture funded, female led companies, revealed that even in the Bay Area of Northern California, just 8 per cent of the companies receiving Series A funding in 2015 were led by a woman – a 26 per cent reduction compared to the year prior.

In India surely things should be better, after all 50 per cent of the entry level IT workforce is female, compared to Australia where just one in eight IT undergrads is a woman. Surely women can climb the Indian tech ladder? Not so fast it seems.

Aruna Newton is head of diversity and inclusion for Indian tech giant Infosys. The company employs 200,000 people worldwide.

Ms Newton, who was in Australia recently to work with clients on diversity and culture issues, said that 36 per cent of Infosys’ technical workforce is female. Three of Infosys’ nine board members are women, however not one of its presidents or executive vice-presidents (essentially the very top level of management) is female.

Ms Newton said the firm has a stated objective to have a quarter of its overall management positions held by women by 2025 – she said the figure currently is 9 per cent. She has her work cut out.

So why does female participation in tech businesses start off well only to tail off later?

Cue Ruslan Kogan.

Back in 2011 the founder of the eponymous tech merchandiser, who was then 28, told this reporter that as the only male offspring he was facing a lot of pressure from his paternal grandfather to sire the next generation of Kogans.

“I want to at some stage settle down and have some kids and spread the Kogan gene,” he said, but back in 2011 he was focused on building up the Kogan brand rather than extending the Kogan gene pool.

Unlike Mr Kogan, the option of waiting until they are in their 40s or 50s to start a family just isn’t an option for female entrepreneurs and technology professionals.

Some tech giants have tried to take on biology directly by throwing money at the problem. Back in 2014 reports emerged that Apple and Facebook were offering talented women up to $US20,000 to freeze their eggs, giving them more flexibility about starting a family. Both companies have also extended their parental leave scheme to spur diversity.

Locally REA Group this year also announced an innovative family leave package that provides six months’ paid parental leave for primary caregivers and three months’ paid leave for secondary carers along with all superannuation payments for both paid and unpaid leave periods.

Can’t fault them for trying – but again there’s a female funnel at work, because it’s still overwhelmingly women who are taking up these sorts of parental leave offers according to Michael Kimmel, distinguished professor of Stony Brook University in New York.

A recent report in ANZ’s Bluenotes documents Professor Kimmel’s research that found only one in 50 men took parental leave lest they end up on the “daddy track,” and also references OECD statistics that indicate that’s the case in Australia as well.

Professor Kimmel was one of the presenters at a BlueChilli Gender Equality event last month – but he presents a bleak picture of the support that working mothers can expect from their male partners as they rise through the enterprise ranks or build a business.

Everyone knows that one father who spends as much time as the mother raising the children, or doing the housework, or cooking dinner. But they remain the outliers.

Even the founder of the “Lean In” movement which encourages women to take on management positions, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, has had an epiphany about just how hard it can be for women to rise through the ranks.

Having tragically lost her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO David Goldberg, last year, Ms Sandberg this year posted a Mother’s Day Facebook comment acknowledging that; “Before, I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”

Startup incubator BlueChilli’s recently appointed head of diversity and impact programme Nicola Hazell acknowledges the challenge, but is adamant that “if we are going to grow this massive (innovation) economy then while it is still embryonic we need to shift the equation on gender equality,” not least because research out of Colombia University shows that the more diverse the workforce, the more creative and innovative the solutions that emerge.

BlueChilli this year formed the SheStarts initiative to fund 10 women entrepreneurs, this month (7 June) it will host a SheCodes event, and Ms Hazell is working on an eight-part web documentary series that will showcase women in technology and startups in the hope of inspiring women through the “if I can see it I can be it” motif.

What remains largely unseen and unreported however are the sacrifices that women often have to make to “be it”; whether that be taking on more of the childcare responsibilities than their male partners, outsourcing family care, or opting not to have children. Ms Hazell acknowledged that to achieve full equality a “massive cultural shift” is still required.

She lamented the face that the questions professional women faced were still quite different to those faced by men, with fathers rarely being asked “how do you cope?” with regard to family issues where it was a stock question for professional mothers.

“The role of parenting can’t be placed at the feet of women alone. There’s a long way to go.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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