The trend is here: more women are entering the digital enterprise arena and tech economy space. But what is their experience of it?
After the recent Missing In Action: Women and Digital Enterprise in the UK seminar organised by Digital Women UK and Dr Angela Martinez Dy with funding by Nemode, I believe that much more work and research needs to be done to unveil the factors which are still keeping women a minority in the sector. We also need to celebrate the pioneer women that have come to embrace the potential of the digital enterprise age to grow more women in the sector.
There has been a 45 per cent growth year on year of young women taking on computer science courses in the UK (A level Entry in Computing). Women are entering the market eagerly, though the numbers are still low compared to men: only 9 per cent of the tech sector is composed of women.
This comes with many questions: what is their experience of the sector? Is the digital industry changing with more women joining? Are the traditional female challenges reproduced in the sector or reduced? Have women really been able to move away from the hidden bias within the online space?
According to Dr Angela Martinez Dy, seminar co-organiser, there is a lack of research on how individuals use the internet for entrepreneurial purposes, and therefore an absence of data on how women embrace new technologies and social media to empower themselves and start companies.
Yet, it hasn’t stopped tech gurus of all genders from affirming that the digital space promotes gender equality and democracy because supposedly everyone is equal online. If the internet works as a virtual network with low costs to entry, it therefore supports collaboration between individuals no matter their background, status and gender. In other words, it’s expected that online your only identity is your IP, a set of numbers without gender to alter your experience. You are free – to surf and free to be what you want to be.
Maybe this was true at the start, especially before Facebook started authenticating everyone’s identity and customising our newsfeed or what we read. It’s still true, nevertheless, that the internet runs along the principle of a free space of expression, as Anonymous or Isis – for better or worse – can testify. This must be said and celebrated as a big achievement.
But after attending the first day of Missing in Action, and hearing from women who had a very different experience of the internet from me – they found it scary and overwhelming and were “afraid their businesses could become obsolete quickly”, while others said they discovered there was a “safe community to speak to” and were actually shocked with “how online could contrast with the offline reality” – I have come to rethink my understanding of who has access to digital enterprise. I have even questioned the gender element of it.
Has free expression of different voices online, and the possibility of starting a business at a very low cost and from home, changed the lives of women and the obvious social discrimination they face in business in the ‘real’ world? Well, the answer is more complicated than that.
From speaking with academics, entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts on the day, it became clear that the experiences of digital are arguably less negatively-gendered than we see in the mainstream media: (one which seems to want you to believe that women don’t like to code or need a man to fix their computers). The reality is that the experiences of women are more often framed by social class, ethnic background, geography and education, and are all interlinked.
True, women have a way of embracing social media which often matches their own developed social skills. I believe women are often equipped with a whole vernacular to express their emotions, which is rarely taught to men who are often not allowed to use them, at least not in public.
This is not to say this is true for all women. What I mean is that it isn’t true that women are less prone to embrace and be successful in digital enterprise – quite the contrary. Frankly, men and women share the same ambitions when it comes down to business.
What I was happy to witness on the day is that digital exclusion had nothing to do with age – a long-standing misconception about the internet. In the room, there were women of all ages, with varying levels of digital literacy. My parents and grandparents can testify to that, as they often interrupt my daily life on WhatsApp or Gchat to send me Reddit videos.
That said, is the experience of digital for women different from men? Yes, but there is more to it than that. White European women and men have probably a more similar experience than white European women and south Asian women. The language in which you browse the internet, the reliability of your connection and the tools you use to connect frame your experience of it.
This is why education, ethnicity, geography and social background say more about women’s experience of digital enterprise than by gender itself. Nonetheless, because women in the real world are treated differently, it is obvious that these three factors are working hand in hand to reinforce that difference.
From the fear of being left behind in an increasingly technology-driven economy, to the importance of a space to discuss the realities of our experience of digital, I left uplifted with a broader and richer perspective on the possibilities of tech to advance the gender debate and fight gender discrimination.
I am a true believer that we are well on our way – at least in the UK – for the minority of women in digital to become the mainstream.
Photo of Joséphine Goube giving a keynote talk at Missing in Action on Saturday 21 November 2015, taken by Adrianne McKenzie.
Listed by Management Today as one of the top 35 women in Business in Britain in 2015, Josephine Goube is the former head of Migreat, a global platform for migrants to get access to information and immigration support. She is now CEO of techfugees.com. Josephine used to donate her professional time to Girls in Tech UK, a non-profit raising the visibility of women in the tech and entrepreneurship sector in London and operating a mentoring scheme. She previously worked at TechStars London and Rainmaking, co-founded the London School of Economics Business Incubator and graduated from the New Entrepreneurs Foundation.
You can find Joséphine on Twitter @josephinegoube.