Malcolm Turnbull’s new cabinet is certainly a welcome start. It’s encouraging to see some of the most important portfolios such as defence going to women. Having a separate minister for women is also a significant step forward.
Perhaps the most exciting change for Australia’s entrepreneurs is the new minister for innovation. It’s crucial that the government takes this area seriously, as it hasn’t been an easy ride for Australian start-ups in recent years. Australia is a tough business environment for new companies faced with heavy and complex regulation, and high operating costs. We are still losing far too much talent overseas as companies reach a certain size and move offshore looking for greener pastures.
We’re also failing to properly employ female talent in technology, and this is something that the Australian government needs to address. Women are consuming technology, but not sufficiently involved in its creation. A look inside most technology companies finds them full of men, with male-dominated cultures. Keeping this in mind, here are five things I think are critical to increase female participation in the innovation economy:
1. Teaching girls to code as part of the school curriculum. The fact this has been ratified is a fantastic start.. The ability to code gives women an opportunity to speak the language of the future.
It’s worth remembering that some of the very first programmers were women, and back in the 1960s it was seen as a valid career choice for girls. We need to get that mindset back again.
2. Getting more women into STEM degrees. Currently only 20% of science graduates are women, which makes it very difficult to fill graduate positions with enough women. We need to start integrating STEM subjects into other degrees. For example, I did business studies with computer science as an elective. Computer science should be compulsory: it’s vital to understand how technology works and how it supports business and industry.
Many women are interested in starting their own businesses, so entrepreneurship can be the gateway through which technology is promoted. I meet many women at entrepreneur events, the interest is clearly there. Getting women thinking about technology could enable their businesses dreams.
3. More visible female role models in technology. I have been going to ecommerce conferences for fifteen years, and it’s been male speaker after male speaker. Speakers and attendees need to be vocal about their desire to hear from a wider spectrum of presenters, bringing a variety of experience and perspective.
Take the recent ruckus between Matt Barrie and Naomi Simson over the clear absence of women entrepreneurs speaking at SydStart . They have since tried to balance out the program, but it’s rubbish to say you can’t find any: there are plenty of women entrepreneurs who would be available to speak. I actually think it would be great for men to refuse to speak on a panel unless there’s at least one woman on it.
4. Finding ways to encourage more men to take a primary care role. Responsibility for families still predominantly falls on women, and we should try to enable men to play a larger role, to take more paternity leave, and time to care for children. Women find it hard to stay in the workforce in any career when they’re effectively trying to hold down two full time jobs. We are losing women becuase of the clash between expanding work hours and rigid childcare availablity. This is a problem in every industry, not just technology.
We need to make it easier for men to leave early and participate in school pick up/drop off routines. I was sitting at a business breakfast a couple of months ago, with around fifty people, of whom just ten per cent were women. The breakfast started at 6.30am, and nearly all of the men were there because they had a partner to get the kids up and get them to school.
5. Encouraging companies to be more diverse. Companies need to understand that diversity of input means better quality output, diversity policies are more than just ticking an HR box. It’s important to identify barriers at every rung of the ladder, for each type of position. Businesses need to offer flexibility and what I term “work life integration”: making it easy to do work whenever, wherever.
For example I have staff working 7.30am-3.30pm so they can pick up kids. Currently one staff member has a sick nanny, so she’s taking off 1.5 days a week and coming in on the weekend instead, when her husband can look after the child. It doesn’t matter to me or my business when the work is done, if it’s done after hours or on the weekend, that’s fine. But we need to make it easier for fathers to be parents as well.
I’ve been in e-commerce for nearly sixteen years, and in terms of gender diversity it’s just as bad as it ever was. I go to leadership summits and am one of two women in a room of twenty men. The fact is that the technology industry is hurting itself by not having more women involved. More women equals better results, and there’s a slew of research to support this.
I’m hopeful that the new Prime Minister will encourage us all to take some steps forwards. In the past there seemd to be an assumption that the start-up community would take care of itself, and, up to a point, that may be true. But we would see quicker results if the government showed constructive support.