Female entrepreneurship: it’s not the genes, it's our culture

By Edel Fitzgerald

Is Ireland’s ranking on the digital scoreboard an ambition gap?

The ‘ambition gap’ is a theory that has often been bandied about to explain away gender inequality in the workplace. The story goes that with age and motherhood, women lower their career goals, and are less ambitious than men. In fact, research dispels this myth: women often start their career with the same ambition as men, and when a company prioritises a culture that encourages diversity, where leadership looks achievable and enjoyable, women will strive to get there, often regardless of family constraints. Conversely, if the career path looks to be a struggle, with few female role models in leadership and limited initiatives that encourage and promote diversity, reaching the top may not seem worth it and women may rationally decide to step off the leadership track.

Encouraging diverse leadership isn’t just down to individual companies alone of course. Government policy initiatives that aim to advance gender equality as well as an encouraging and supportive education system, amongst a myriad of other initiatives, play a role in promoting ambition amongst both men and women.

The ambition gap concept came to mind recently when I happened upon a European Commission report, published last month. The EU ‘digital scoreboard’  measured the performance of Europe and EU Member States on digital competitiveness, assessing a range of topics from digital skills to the digitisation of businesses. It won’t surprise many that Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark scored the highest ratings; Ireland, for its part, was ranked 7th of the EU-28, better than the EU average and ahead of Belgium and Germany but behind the UK.

There was a specific focus on women in tech, and the results made for depressing reading. There are still four times more men than women with ICT-related studies in Europe, and the gap has been widening, rather than narrowing.

Lack of inclusive entrepreneurship

While Ireland scored well generally, we were marked down considerably on female tech entrepreneurship, scoring the lowest in the EU-28, with the exception of Malta.  With an anticipated 50,000 new high-tech leaders expected to be required annually in the next five years, could Ireland, as a hub for multinational tech companies, step up to address this inequity? Indeed, if the research is true that young girls are just as ambitious as young boys, how can we ensure that the rules are not stacked against women when it comes to becoming ICT entrepreneurs and business leaders in the future?

The Domino Effect

A bottom-up approach in investment is an important starting point: one of the problems women face when starting a company – in particular a tech company – is the lack of access to capital in a sector traditionally dominated by men. Only 7.4% of investors of start-ups are women, according to the Commission report, despite the increasing number of business angels worldwide. This has a domino effect as reluctance and unconscious bias on the part of the mostly male investors can hold female entrepreneurs back. Similar to developing a company culture where women are inspired by the success of their female peers, placing more females in the decision-making seat of investment companies can help to encourage women entrepreneurs to excel. The Irish Government’s recent Balance for Better Business  initiative goes in the right direction here, as does the excellent work of 30% Club Ireland.  


Not just “guy stuff”

But more fundamentally, why is computing still perceived as male territory? According to the Commission’s report, the number of women who enrol in ICT studies has not always been as low as it is now; in fact in the 1970s, women’s participation in computer science courses was similar to their participation in other fields such as physics and even higher than in law or medical schools. But since the mid-80s, women’s participation in computer science began to decline, contrary to participation in other subjects.

Tackling gender bias and how culture and society links interest and success with computers to boys and men is a big task, one that clearly needs to be addressed from early childhood. Fortunately, there are numerous examples of initiatives taking place in primary and secondary schools across the country to tackle such prejudices, including projects that strive to eliminate gender role biases before they take shape.

More work however is required to demystify stereotypes, particularly by making ICT and ICT courses at third-level more appealing and engaging and ensuring such subjects avoid alienating young girls. Rethinking the way computer science is presented to girls, providing more innovative teaching techniques and stressing the usefulness of computing and its real-world applications, will help to address the confidence gap of girls versus boys with computers and make it more relatable.

Making headway in female ICT leadership

Ireland, for its part, needs to be more ambitious in devising improvement targets for the number of women taking up ICT. Working with influential stakeholders to advocate on gender diversity in tech, particularly who represent young people such as social influencers, as well as career guidance teachers, could allow Ireland to make headway in female ICT leadership.

This is key to truly tackle the persistent, strong and unconscious bias that exists: about what is appropriate and what capacities each gender has. Indeed, if existing biases are not addressed and the gap widens further, the digital transformation that is galloping ahead will amplify the lack of diversity in tech entrepreneurship in Ireland, and perpetuate further gender stereotypes. 

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