Tech reset could help tackle gender inequality

Sponsored by: ISERD
23 Mar 2021 |

International research highlights importance of systemic change

In the European Union, women account for 25% of information, science, and technology graduates, but only 13% of the workforce in these fields, according to the European Commission.

Even in those countries that rank highly on various measures of gender equality, much more needs to be done to align the reality of the tech industry with women’s aspirations and needs, according to new research. Tech ecosystems must adapt to the needs of women, rather than vice versa, says Sybille Heilbrunn, a professor in sociology from the Kinneret Academic College and a member of the research team. “You can’t expect only the women to change. If the system itself isn’t supportive, it won’t fit.”

That is one of the findings from “Overcoming the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Divide: A Cross-Cultural Perspective” research project, also known as the GENRE Project, which has been examining trends in Norway, Ireland, Sweden and Israel since 2018. Run by an international consortium, the project is backed by €1 million in funding under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

“It’s not research just for the theoretical interest. It’s also research for the point of making change,” says Caren Weinberg, one of the project’s researchers, who studies innovation and entrepreneurship at Israel’s Ruppin Academic Centre.

As Weinberg puts it, technology ecosystems are “requiring people in [their] traditional way of work to put everything into it: 24 hours a day, really sacrificing your life for this start-up dream, which is what’s expected by traditional investors.” But this doesn’t hold equally true across tech and innovation sectors – Weinberg notes that the life sciences ecosystem tends to attract a greater share of women, whereas other high-tech sectors have struggled to recruit and retain female talent – suggesting that tech in general has much to learn from the biotech sector.

Encouraging greater workplace flexibility, as most companies have been forced to do amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, could help encourage more gender diversity. Of course, many women working from home have found these more “flexible” arrangements taxing, given that they’ve also been disproportionately tasked with caring for home-schooled children and managing other household tasks.

Accordingly, companies need to do more than offer flexible hours or remote working options. It’s just as imperative to rethink the “always-on” mentality that has led many women (and a significant number of men) to drop out of the tech ecosystem, the new research suggests.

Uncovering the gender dynamics in entrepreneurial ecosystems

The four countries in the GENRE study all post high scores for gender equality in the UN’s Gender Inequality Index: Norway, which ranks first out of 189 countries; Ireland, which ranks second; Sweden, which ranks seventh; and Israel, ranked 19th. These countries are all developed economies with small populations and renowned technology and entrepreneurship ecosystems, albeit with distinct national cultures, making them ideal subjects for this inquiry.

Women comprise less than a quarter of the tech workforce and less than 13% of investors in each of the four countries, according to data compiled by the project, which is designed to illuminate gender dynamics in entrepreneurial ecosystems: From determining which companies secure venture capital funding to gauging the impact of incentive programmes and workplace policies.

To gain the comprehensive, multidisciplinary perspectives needed to drive change within the countries’ tech ecosystems, the researchers have been interviewing female entrepreneurs, incubator managers, and venture capitalists while gathering droves of relevant data. This work will culminate in a set of key takeaways and recommendations later this year.

There may be much to learn from the current health crisis. Challenging as it may be to effect systemic change, Heilbrunn says that the COVID-19 pandemic – which has forced organizations to adapt to new modes of operation and spurred intensive discussions about what the post-pandemic normal should look like – may actually make it easier to achieve the necessary shift in mindset.

“Maybe we can take from this COVID crisis something which is going to make us better and a little bit different, rather than only looking to go back to where we were,” Heilbrunn says.

Weinberg and Heilbrunn’s perch in Israel – dubbed the “Start-Up Nation” in an eponymous 2009 book – provides the two scholars with a unique perspective on gender, technology, and the intersection of the two. The country has racked up significant gender equality milestones – including women in key roles, such as former Chief Scientist Orna Berry, Nobel Laureate in chemistry Prof. Ada Yonath, and the heads of Israel’s R&D centres for multinationals such as Facebook and Microsoft. Israel has also posted high scores for female entrepreneurship and participation in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Moving past traditional paradigms

When the researchers’ findings and recommendations are released, don’t expect a set of prescriptions that will achieve gender parity in tech. Not only is that a long way off, but Weinberg – herself a former tech executive – says that it isn’t necessarily the right goal. What’s most important is ensuring that women who want to work in the tech industry have the resources and support necessary to do so.

“What we need to make sure of is that we allow those who want to be in the system to remain in the system and not always jump to these grand conclusions that it’s all bad, if it’s not 50/50,” Weinberg argues.

Female-to-female mentoring programmes can play a big role in facilitating the kind of support that women entrepreneurs need, Weinberg adds.

In Israel, the Israel Innovation Authority has launched a range of programmes designed to connect women to opportunities in the tech industry and support women-founded start-ups.

A two-year incentive programme for women-led companies, operated by the Innovation Authority, provides grants of up to 75% of R&D funding in the first year and 70% in the second year, with budget caps of NIS 2.5 million in the first year and NIS 4.5 million in the second year. Launched in the second quarter of 2019, the programme has led to a substantial increase in support for women-led start-ups.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services’ She Codes initiative has provided more than 20,000 women across the country with coding instruction, career mentorship, and job placement assistance.

Multidisciplinary and multinational

As the researchers look toward the final months of the GENRE Project, they say that the Horizon 2020 programme has played a vital role in enhancing their work and clarifying their thinking about how gender issues play out in the tech industry across EU countries, and beyond.

The project’s broad lens and diversity of academic perspectives will ultimately yield a more insightful set of conclusions than a narrower approach would have allowed, Weinberg believes.

“Each of us are bringing these different theoretical foundations to all of our discussions, and I think that is enhancing all of us,” she says.

What started with the support of Horizon 2020 won’t end there, Weinberg adds. “This project has created both a vibrant and robust database from our extensive interviews as well as a community of researchers who will continue to work together on many projects well into the future.”

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