While half the world’s population is female, and most health decisions are carried out by women, only 9% of health tech businesses are founded by women, just 9% of investment into UK start-ups goes to female founders, and a mere 17% of the UK technology sector is female.
Why is this? There are many reasons but they all start early in a woman’s life. A recent report, Girls in STEM, by Accenture highlighted how from a very young age girls are all too often persuaded to believe that, in certain subjects, their abilities are defined by their gender. The report showed that more than four out of five parents (82%) and teachers (88%) agree that there is unconscious gender stereotyping and bias when it comes to STEM subjects and careers. More than half of both parents (52%) and teachers (57%) admit to having personally made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys. The report concluded it is up to all of us, parents, teachers, politicians or leaders of industry, to change these misconceptions, to stoke girls’ natural curiosity and show them that the STEM disciplines are full of exciting and genuinely fulfilling possibilities.
The gender issues in STEM education are a major contributor to the problems with diversity that currently exist in the global technology sector, with serious economic and societal consequences. New technology could have a disproportionately greater negative impact on women concerning jobs, and men currently dominate in Artificial Intelligence and other digital disruptors – with the risk that traditional biases guide the algorithms that will be at the heart of future products and services.
The danger of biases entering algorithms was cited by Google’s AI chief John Giannandrea recently as his biggest fear- not Elon Musk’s fear of super-intelligent killer robots. Google has been criticised too for their part in perpetuating gender biases in their own company culture- one of the biggest stories in tech this year was the internal memo sent by Google engineer James Damore, who was fired from the company after writing that there are biological differences to blame for the lack of women in tech.
I have had the pleasure of working with Maja Pantic, Professor of Behavioural Computing at Imperial College, in her national campaign to address these issues by encouraging more women to study computer science. We had hundreds of teenage girls and their parents and teachers come to the launch event and hear inspirational role models like Saadia Zahidi, Head of Education, Gender and Work of World Economic Forum, Dr Sharon Goldwater, University of Edinburgh School of Informatics, Dr Sabine Hauert, Lecturer in Robotics, University of Bristol, Dr Holly Cummins, Technical Lead, IBM Bluemix Garage, and Maxine Mackintosh, Co-founder of One HealthTech. There were many takeaways from the event, but one key message was that girls needed more hands-on experience and exposure to the range of careers that STEM offers them, in terms that resonate with them-like creativity, problem solving and social impact.
But what about the support that is needed for those women who do follow STEM careers? Getting attention in a male dominated investor community is a particular challenge. A recent Tech Crunch study – CrunchBase Women In Venture – revealed that female owned companies were only receiving 10% of global venture capital funds despite delivering strong returns, with the majority of funding directed at male-led businesses. In March 2017, Fortune reported that for each women-led company that received venture capital funding in 2016, 16 other male-led companies got cash.
A recent story illustrates the sexism that exists and the ingenuity women have to use to get around this. Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer, co-founders of e-commerce site Witchsy, invented “Keith Mann,” a fake male cofounder, which, depressingly, worked to kick down doors that had previously been closed to them. “Kevin” got faster and more polite responses than the female co-founders, and essentially gave the company immediate authority around other men.
The takeaway is clear: It’s harder for women to get ahead in a start-up world with odds stacked against them- and they must take things into their own hands to get ahead. This is why it is encouraging to see such initiatives as Allbright, which has a ‘first of its kind’ funding platform aimed at female entrepreneurs to tackle the funding gap between female-led and male-led business in the UK, and more recently, Blooms, London's first business club for female founders and entrepreneurs, set up by Lu Li who is also behind Blooming Founders, a community aiming to break down the barriers that hold female entrepreneurs back.
Every step, large or small is important. And that’s why I am extremely excited to be working with AXA on their new ‘Women in Health Tech’ category of the 2018 AXA Health Tech & You Awards. The category aims to support women who are changing the way people think about their health and how to care for others. Working with AXA and great women leaders, like Julie Bretland of Our Mobile Health, and Angela Maragna, Indra Joshi and Maxine Mackintosh of One HealthTech and Marija Butkovic at Women of Wearables, we are all doing our bit to help women pioneers in health technology.
We all need to support gender diversity- men and women. The pay-off will be huge to society in ethical terms but also economically- a recent McKinsey Global Institute report found that if women play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much $28 trillion or 26% could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.