The number of female entrepreneurs in Australia’s technology sector is increasing but women say they are being held back by unfair labels, a lack of expertise and unequal access to the benefits of networking.
In research released today, Terem Technologies analysed publicly available information on 113 Australian female tech entrepreneurs, along with qualitative data from 44 entrepreneurs, in a bid to understand the backgrounds of some of the country’s leading technology entrepreneurs but also the challenges they face.
According to the Terem Technologies research, women are estimated to make up 19% of all Australian tech entrepreneurs, with this figure increasing 3% from 16% in 2011.
Female tech entrepreneurs included in the research were most likely to come from a more general business background as opposed to a technology background.
Less than 20% of the survey sample (19%) had a background in science, technology, engineering or mathematics and just 4% have a background in computer science.
However, 41% of the sample had a tertiary qualification in business, commerce or economics.
To work around their limited personal experience in tech, 50% of the women surveyed outsource the technical work, while 14% have opted to hire specialist staff.
Close to a third of entrepreneurs (32%) indicated they had sought out a co-founder with tech experience, but more than half of survey respondents (56%) said it is difficult or hard to find the right tech co-founder.
The entrepreneurs were asked to nominate the top two challenges facing female tech entrepreneurs and “lack of expertise” was the most frequently cited challenge (34%), followed by “lack of confidence” (30%).
Almost a third of entrepreneurs (27%) said they feel they don’t have access to the same networking advantages that male tech entrepreneurs do.
Other factors nominated by the entrepreneurs as holding back female entrepreneurship included risk (27%), lack of women involved or interested in STEM (25%), life choices (25%) and family responsibility (14%).
“Women are hard on themselves and can think of a million reasons why they may fail and shouldn’t start a business before they think of why they can and will succeed,” said Jane Lu, chief executive of online retailer Showpo and one of the women surveyed for the research.
Fiona Anson, co-founder of mobile human resource startup Workible, also participated in the study.
She told SmartCompany that coming from a non-technical background when she and co-founder Alli Baker first started their business four years ago, networking was “difficult” on a number of fronts.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Anson says of attempting to network in the tech industry.
“You have to trust you are getting the right advice but not having a background in technology, you can’t pull on that background.”
But Anson says networking challenges are not just confined to the technical know-how, saying it can also be difficult for female founders to connect with the right people when raising capital.
While Anson says she and Baker have outsourced some of the technical development of Workible, a mobile platform that allows employers to quickly access pools of workers with the right skills and availability.
Anson believes not having a technical background, or even a background in human resources, has also had some benefits.
“We’re not looking at the industry with the same old eyes, thinking this is how it’s always been done,” she says.
“We’ve been able to apply lateral thinking and disrupt the sector quite substantially.”
But that’s not to say Anson doesn’t see other female tech entrepreneurs being held back by a lack of confidence, as indicated in the report.
“Women tend to be humble,” she says.
“They believe they have to earn their stripes. There is a lot of hustle in this industry and women are not as good at hustling.”
Anson says part of the problem is a perception that women who are too confident may be looked upon unfavourably.
“You tend to dance the line of being too cocky,” she says.
“If a woman is too confident she gets labels of being too cocky or a bitch, which guys don’t tend to get. So they err on the side of being a little more conservative.”
While high-profile tech entrepreneurs such as Ron Creevey have called on governments to do more to help the next generation of Australian entrepreneurs, Anson isn’t entirely sure the solution to encouraging female entrepreneurship lies solely with government, although she says “it can’t possibly hurt”.
What Anson would like to see is schools place greater emphasis on teaching the realities of running, or working for, a business.
“The replacement of jobs with technology means there is less job opportunities,” she says.
“So there is going to have to be more entrepreneurs, a lot more people creating their own jobs.”
Anson says not everyone is “cut out” for being an entrepreneur – “it takes huge amounts of resilience and tenacity and that’s not in everyone’s makeup” – but she says even students who don’t go on to found their own business should understand what it takes to do so.
“They are not actually taught what happens in a business. Whether you are an employee or running a business, you need to know that,” she says.