Women in tech: 'The bias is real'
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times to be a woman in tech.
"I truly believe there is no better time for women in tech than today," founder and CEO Margaret Zablocka told DW, reflecting back on when she founded her company Onoco, a popular parenting app, in 2020. The support network for women is already so much better than it used to be, she said.
Then how to explain the results of a recent report by Web Summit, the world's largest technology event? In a 2022 survey of women in Web Summit's tech community, 70% said they felt they needed to work harder to prove themselves in their roles because of their gender. This was an increase of 36% compared with 2019 figures.
The number of women in the tech startup scene is growing, and it's shining a light on gender-related issues in the industry. About 20% of startups worldwide had at least one female founder in 2019, up from 10% in 2009, according to data from Crunchbase, which provides insights on startups. But even with a growing number of women in the game, only 2% of venture capital funding in Europe went to all-female startups in 2021 — even less than a puny 3% in 2020.
'Investors don't expect a woman'
"Look, the bias is real," said Rima Al-Shikh, the founder of an artificial intelligence (AI) startup in a call from Canada, where she's based. "I'm not going to hide it. It's not simple. It's not like you tell people, 'Hey, change,' and they'll change," she told DW.
Al-Shikh has been obsessed with computers and coding since she was a child in Syria, growing up in a family of scientists. After working as a tech consultant in the corporate world for several years, during the pandemic she founded Begin AI, an AI platform that enables companies to process customer data into a personalized user experience without having to build up in-house AI infrastructure.
Begin AI recently secured $1 million (€944,000) in funding, including from Sandpiper Ventures, a Canadian investment fund managed by women to invest in female-led companies. This is something that means a lot to Al-Shikh.
"People have [sexist stereotypes] very deeply drilled into their brain," she said. "In fundraising, it's clear when I walk into a room, investors don't expect to see a woman technologist."
Men feel the pressure
Zablocka says she's also experienced gender bias when fundraising for her London-based startup. The founder launched the parenting app, which allows you to track and plan your baby's schedule according to developmental phases, after becoming a mother for a second time — and after she'd spent ten years building digital products for sports betting and the financial industry.
"People quickly connect the dots and think: 'Okay, she's young. She's a woman. She started a mobile company for parents. It probably means that she has no experience in tech'," she said.
Women in tech are so much more visibile today, she says. Oddly enough, this could be one reason more women are feeling pressure to prove they belong.
"There might have been a growing frustration among men in tech that the importance of diversity and inclusion is a topic which is being even more openly discussed," she said, adding: "And I think some people might think that there is some unfairness there."
Tighter market means greater competition
It's a frustrating moment overall for the tech sector, whatever your gender. After over a decade of what seemed like unstoppable growth, higher interest rates and tighter economic conditions have hit tech funding hard. The tech-heavy NASDAQ stock index in the US lost $7.4 trillion between November 2021 and November 2022.
Investors are screening companies more thoroughly before buying in. Before, when money was flowing freely, they were often choosing companies that had little to no business case, Al-Shikh noted, relying instead on what they thought of as "instinct."
"So you think this is a great person [to invest in] because why?" she said. "Maybe because they speak your accent. They share your color. They speak your language."
With less resources to go around, women in the tech space might feel like a target for their peers' frustration. Zablocka recently attended an artificial intelligence conference in London where one of the expert panels was all women. From her seat in the audience, she could hear voices behind her saying the panelists had probably been selected because of their gender.
"After they listened to what these women had to say, I think they were probably embarrassed [for thinking that]," she said. "Because the panelists were very knowledgeable."
Startups still great place for women
Focusing less on their gender and letting the quality of their work speak for itself is one way to help support women in tech, both CEOs say.
"Yes, I am a female founder, but also I would like to be treated simply as a founder," said Zablocka. "I'd rather we focus on the men's world and what can we do to help men better understand."
For her, this means improving parental leave policies so that women are no longer the default parent. Making it easier to share parenting duties is a key goal of her company's app.
Tech is still a great space for women, both founders agree, particularly in the startup scene, where founders have a lot of flexibility to build their values into the organization, more than corporate world.
"In my experience, most people, given the chance to do the right thing and the awareness of what the right thing is, they'll do it," said Al-Shikh. "I feel startups are better positioned to create deeper change, for sure."