Back in April, Techcrunch reported that, in Silicon Valley, the percentage of women starting technology companies is a shockingly low 3 percent. What’s more, of privately held companies just 6.5 percent have a female CEO, and 1.3 percent were founded by a female. While Northern Europe is famed for gender equality, only 6 per cent of companies who received start-up funding from Tekes (the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation) last year were led by women.
The reasons behind such figures have been analysed to death. From women’s lack of confidence in putting themselves forward to powerful positions to their employment in sectors with less opportunity for entrepreneurship (like healthcare, dominated by the public sector), everyone seems to have a suggestion.
Technigal explains it all:
I came across Technigal a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine – a female entrepreneur – shared it on Facebook. A Robot Hugs comic strip, it tells the true story of Chrissie, an independent videographer and transwoman. Since she transitioned from Christopher to Chrissie a few years ago, colleagues and customers have treated her totally differently. And that’s not everyone, but only those who’ve only known her as a woman. Not only is she asked different questions, but she’s also consistently undermined in her ability to do her job. You can see the entire, absolutely brilliant strip here.
So, could the scarcity of female entrepreneurs be due to attitudes? You’re not expected to handle it, to know enough, your skills are questioned from the very beginning of your career, so in the end you will lack the confidence to start on your own? To find out the answer, I got in touch with female founders of Nordic startups and asked them about their experience. Here’s what they had to say:
Camilla Ley Valentine, Queue-It, Denmark
“My personal experiences of discriminating treatment been limited to a few (male) individuals. They’ve preferred to only talk business with my male co-founders, or behaved blatantly condescendingly.
As a woman in the vastly male-dominated technology industry, I believe some discrimination - explicit or between the lines – is almost inevitable. My best advice is to just brush it off: pick your battles. People behaving this way in business are not worth your time and will bring no business or mental value
Instead, try to focus on the positives. People are more likely to remember you (and your business), and include you in social events in connection with business meetings. Try not to worry too much about why you were remembered or invited, if it opened a door to a business opportunity. The final business deal will only happen if your value proposition is relevant, but first you need your seat at the table to present your message.”
Lisa Gerken, LeeLuu Nightlights, Finland
“My company makes children’s nightlights. If I say I make cute kids’ toys, everyone believes me. If I say I develop patterns for textile sensor technology, people are massively surprised. In those situations, I tend to say something super-techy, after which they decide I’m special.
As a woman in technology, you get noticed because you’re different, and you should use that to your advantage. Make the most of the media attention, for example.
So why are they no more female-led startups? Firstly very much of the start-up world is about technology, so there’s about a hundred years of different education for boys and girls. Secondly, it’s a bit of a boys’ club, where most of the key investors – the venture capitalists – are men. Plus, and this applies to Finland in particular, start-up events can still be held in the sauna. Most founders being men, women are left out for very obvious reasons!”
Suzanne Van Nes and Alexandra Neczliova, Sure, Denmark
“The worst thing is that women, including myself, are too modest. Which immediately puts us a step behind. Through years of working in a male dominated environment, I've learnt to be more outspoken about my achievements but it still feels unnatural.”
“Even hearing the term female entrepreneur - the fact that people make that distinction between male and female entrepreneurs - makes me a little uncomfortable. We are all just entrepreneurs, working on crazy ideas and loving the drive. I know people mean it well when they tell you ‘oh wow you are a woman and you co-founded a company, well done’. Not as many people have a need to say that to a man.”
Jaclyne Clarke, Findify, Sweden
“I can’t say I’ve never experienced any sort of discrimination as a female entrepreneur in tech, but anything bordering on that has not affected me negatively. Since I was a child I’ve always pushed to be seen as equal to anyone (boy or girl), and gone out of my way to prove it. I believe this has really shaped how I respond in life to gender discrimination. I don’t self-reflect on it, instead I wonder how anyone discriminating could possibly go anywhere in life with such antiquated social and cultural opinions.
That said, every woman has different experiences, affected by a combination of circumstances, geography, demography, age, etc., so I know discrimination issues are very real and discussion around the subject is both important and relevant. As a founder, I have the privilege of shaping my own company culture into something that expresses our views on diversity and equality.”
Is the future more female?
So, the Technigal experience has some echoes in the tech start-up world, from the occasional condescending attitudes to the necessity of super-techy talk. But will things be different once young girls catch up with tech education, thanks to projects like Finnish Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby? Or once venture capitalists finally realize that female-led businesses are more likely to succeed than their male-owned counterparts?
Perhaps, fifty years from now, it’ll be the men sitting outside the start-up saunas, listening through the door as highly successful women talk business. Or, as we hope, the decades-old, archaic (yet thankfully very Finland-specific) habit of conducting meetings in a steaming, sex-segregated room will be relegated to the dustbin of history.