In BRW: Australia’s female tech startup founders speak on why there aren’t more of them

1 Apr 2016 by Scott Middleton

This article originally appeared in the BRW.

Scratch the surface of the startup world, however, and conventions are as rigid as ever. In Startup Muster’s last study it found that the number of female-led tech startups has increased by only 3 per cent between the first study in 2011 and the most recent in 2013.

Theories as to why women are under-represented abound. It has been attributed to the testosterone-fueled “brogrammer” atmosphere of incubators and the startup world, to women’s supposed preference for lower intensity enterprise which accommodates family life, and to the relatively small number of women graduating with science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) qualifications, which are often thought of as a pre-requisite for tech founders.

Astonishingly, while the topic is frequently written about and rightly lamented, no-one had thought to ask women leading tech startups about their experience and why they think there are so few female tech entrepreneurs.

In an Australian first, we surveyed 44 of Australia’s approximately 230 female tech entrepreneurs to help us answer this question and perhaps uncover some insights which might prove constructive for policy makers.

Their responses were enlightening and sometimes unexpected.

For instance, only 19 per cent of the female tech entrepreneurs we surveyed had any form of STEM education. Of these, only 4 per cent had studied computer science. Now if you’re an educator, these are figures which should cause you anxiety. But if you are a women with a killer idea for a tech startup and no background in STEM, these are very encouraging figures.

By far the most common degree among our respondents was Business, Commerce or Economics – in other words, degrees heavily associated with management. This flies in the face of the idea that you need to be able to code to have a tech startup. Of our sample, 50 per cent outsource the technical side of things to development companies and another 14 per cent employ technical staff. Others preferred a partnership arrangement, with 32 per cent teaming up with a tech co-founder.

This is good news.. But the women surveyed also named a number of reasons why they think there aren’t more female tech entrepreneurs. The largest number named a lack of expertise, with 34 per cent pinpointing this as a key issue; another 30 per cent pointed the finger at a lack of confidence. We can speculate that these responses are linked. A study conducted by the US-based Centre for Entrepreneurship found that “despite the fact that an analysis of the companies in question showed that the companies led by female entrepreneurs were performing more strongly than those of the men surveyed, only 42 per cent of female leaders described their business as prospering, versus 62 per cent of the men”. Moreover, in a study of 500 women in the tech sector from around the world, academic and author Vivek Wadhewa found that women-led private technology companies are “more capital efficient, achieve 35 per cent higher return on investment, and, when venture backed, bring in 12 per cent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies”. So the lack of confidence may go some way to explaining a perceived lack of expertise, despite the fact that the women succeeding in the Australian tech startup space seem to be very effectively bridging any technical shortcomings.

What also emerged is that women feel under-supported in the space, with 27 per cent saying that they lack the networks to redress the balance with their male peers. Startups rely heavily on these networks, which often lead to introductions to sources of funding, large corporate customers and mentorships.

It is clear that increasing the numbers of female tech entrepreneurs to something near 50 per cent need not be an insurmountable task to be undertaken over multiple generations, starting with coding in primary school. It is a much more manageable task, which we can start by overturning the myths of the industry, creating supportive alliances and simply by showing venture capitalists and women the statistics which prove there can be – and are – successful female tech entrepreneurs.

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