International Women’s Day: six women leading the way in tech

To mark International Women’s Day, Alexandra Leonards spoke to a group of women leading the way in the technology industry about the hurdles they have faced, their career highlights, and how tech companies can help to facilitate a fairer and more diverse sector.

Abadesi Osunsade – founder of Hustle Crew, author, and co-host of Techish

Abadesi Osunsade dreams of a future where UK tech teams echo the demographics of a London tube carriage. That’s one of the reasons she set up Hustle Crew, an organisation that designs inclusivity programmes for corporates across its 10,000-strong global community.

Osunsade first joined the technology industry after watching The Social Network, a film about Mark Zuckerberg’s conception of social media giant Facebook. At the time she was working in finance, but she found herself attracted a sector that was “shaping the future”, a place where you can own equity in a company and earn more than just a salary.

As a Black woman, she found navigating the largely white and male-dominated world of technology extremely challenging.

“I have faced obstacles that peers from dominant groups will never have to, like being touched without my permission, or being asked to speak as a representative of my entire ethnicity,” explains Osunsade.

After feeling excluded from a team she was working with, Osunsade decided she would be the change she wanted to see.

“Most investors I met were men and found the idea that a company would pay for sexism and racism training absolutely absurd,” says Osunsade, who has also authored a guide for millennial women in tech and co-hosts technology-themed podcast Techish. “Thankfully I could see how society's understanding of bias and prejudice was shifting, and remained determined to stick with the mission.”

She says that it’s key for technology teams and companies to actively include diversity and inclusion in their strategy because companies need to connect with every employee and every customer in a meaningful way.

“It is impossible to do this without an awareness of bias [or] privilege,” she explains. “We must understand the societal and biological blockers to inclusion if we are to effectively reach diverse audiences.”

Besides creating a fair and equal workplace, Osunsade says that one of the benefits companies will see when introducing diversity of thought is happier workers.

“Research shows folks stay in companies longer then they feel like they belong,” she says.

Osunsade looks forward to growing the Hustle Crew team and working with new corporate partners beyond Europe and the US.

Janthana Kaenprakhamroy – CEO and founder of Tapoly

Six years ago Janthana Kaenprakhamroy came up with an idea for a business after she was struggling to find an insurance policy that would protect her property and guests when renting her flat through Airbnb. There just didn’t seem to be anything on the market that would provide the short-term flexibility often necessary in the sharing economy.

Before setting up Tapoly, which provides flexible insurance for self-employed freelancers, sole traders, contractors, and small businesses, she had been working in the investment banking sector – where she was an internal audit director at UBS. Prior to this, she’d worked at Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan Chase.

“I didn’t ever expect to become a CEO of an InsurTech when thinking about my career,” says Kaenprakhamroy, who is originally from Thailand but grew up in Sweden before moving to the UK. “While it wasn’t always my plan, I’m very proud to be pushing the boundaries and driving innovation in this traditionally male-dominated space.”

While she admits it’s been a challenge developing a career in the FinTech space, she’s committed to doing all she can to remove barriers and open up space for women and other underrepresented groups to succeed.

“Fewer than seven per cent of tech jobs in Europe are held by women and as a female entrepreneur in a heavily male-dominated industry, I constantly see just how few women there are in our offices and boardrooms,” she explains. “Additionally, there is a perception that the industry is inflexible and requires long hours to get ahead, which can be particularly off-putting to women with family or caring commitments.”

Kaenprakhamroy says there’s a whole pool of amazing talent being wasted.

“It's frustrating to see companies reject flexible working as we’ve seen industries forced to rely on it for the past two years with great success,” she adds.

The Tapoly CEO says that structural changes still need to be made to break down barriers and diversity the workforce, including increasing the amount of funding available, boosting mentoring opportunities, and providing better access to education and training.

This year Kaenprakhamroy is excited for a number of plans the company has in the works for 2022 and beyond.

“This year we’re expanding our global reach further with projects in the USA and Asia launching later on in the year, and I’m looking forward to exploring more opportunities in emerging countries, as well as continuing to build on our diverse range of insurance products for workers in the under-served gig economy,” she says.

One piece of advice she would share with young women that want to join the technology industry is to find a mentor.

“Aside from the connections and insight into the industry, Mentors can also provide invaluable support during challenging times and a soundboard for new ideas,” she said. “I would also encourage women to expand their knowledge about the sector as much as possible - ask lots of questions to people you admire and other industry professionals.”

Abi Mohamad – programme lead for Libra 1.0, Tech Nation

Abi Mohamad, ex-software engineer and current programme lead for Tech Nation’s newest growth programme, didn’t always want to work in the technology industry. Initially she was after a career in politics or economics.

It wasn’t until she went along to a university open day with her brother, where she saw a lecture by a woman about the importance of diversity of thought and the “upcoming AI pandemic”, that she jumped on the tech bandwagon.

“The talk instantly sparked my curiosity, and it was that curiosity which eventually grew and led me to apply for a Master’s in information system management, and start my career in tech as a software engineer,” she says.

Although she eventually left her technical role - mainly due to ethical reasons, she says – Mohamad has crafted a career helping underrepresented professionals thrive in the technology field.

Not only is she leading Libra 1.0, an initiative designed to tackle the lack of diversity in the UK tech sector, but she also co-founded London-based angel investor group Community Growth Ventures (CGV), which invests in and supports underrepresented founders.

“From my experience as a Black woman in tech, especially early in my career, I felt like I could never be 100 per cent authentically me,” she says. “To be respected and have the opportunity to grow, I felt I had to conform to the status quo.”

Mohamad recalls once bringing up a suggestion relating to her experience and community in a team meeting, which she says made everyone around the table feel uncomfortable.

“This is sad, as it made me feel like I was forced to be quiet on the important subject matter, which is scary when you’re building technology for all but only listening to one perspective,” she explains. “Diversity in product teams is so important when you’re catering to a diverse audience.”

She points out that technology is hard to dismantle once it’s been created, that’s why it’s so crucial the tech that is built is representative of everyone.

While access to capital is fundamental for a start-up’s growth, according to a report from Extend Ventures, only 38 Black entrepreneurs received venture capital (VC) funding in the UK between 2010 and 2020. This equates to 0.24 per cent of total VC over the 10-year period.

During the same time, there was only one early-stage VC investment recorded for a Black woman, compared to 194 early-stage investments for white women.

“Access to finance is one of the key obstacles that Libra aims to help scaling Black-founded companies overcome,” she adds.

The programme has already seen two companies run by underrepresented founders successfully raise seed rounds. These were Framework, described by the company as the world's first on-demand business school, and Flair, a people analytics company with a survey-based product that helps organisations measure and build anti-racist cultures.

Mohamad says that young women that want a career in tech should join communities outside of their workplace.

“One thing I wanted when I started my career in tech was friends who looked like me - and who had lived similar experiences - that I could grow in my career with,” she adds. “Feeling alone can be very difficult, and that’s when imposter syndrome creeps in.

“Having someone to share your experiences with is always encouraging and can make a real difference.”

Her favourite quote is by the late actress Audrey Hepburn: “Nothing is impossible – the word itself says ‘I’m possible!’.

“It’s a daily reminder that although things might be hard sometimes, you will eventually succeed - you just have to have faith in yourself and consistently move forward,” she says.

Neta Schreiber – founder of SafeUP

Ten years ago Neta Schreiber found her friend being assaulted by two men at a party.

“As soon as the men noticed that my friend and I entered the room they ran away,” she recalls. “My arrival, along with my group of friends, changed the whole situation showing me there really is validation behind the saying “strength in numbers.”

Fast forward nine years, Israel-based Schreiber set up SafeUp - a social network which enables women to access support, guidance, or physical assistance when they feel unsafe.

“I decided to enter the start-up world, realising that we could create a real tech solution for when women are left in a situation where they feel unsafe, instead of relying on luck,” explains Schreiber, who was listed in TechRound’s top 40 Jewish entrepreneurs under 40.

Schreiber describes SafeUp as a platform that “crowdsources women’s safety”. The app, which she launched with partner Tal Zohar and the Tel Aviv Municipality in 2020, connects women to 2-3 of the nearest available trained women guardians who can escort or support a woman in need.

Within three months, the company reached 11,000 users. A year, later there are now over 100,000 users around the world.

“I have always been surrounded by strong women who opened doors for me,” explains Schreiber. “My first boss was a wonderful manager, her name is Shelly Keren, who believed in co-managing.”

Schreiber says that Keren gave her the opportunity to grow, despite being in a toxic working environment.

“It’s important women know someone is always there to look out for them,” she says when asked why it’s so important for an app like SafeUP to exist in the market. “Unfortunately this isn’t a given: even after the MeToo movement, women still feel unsafe in the streets.”

Schreiber envisions SafeUP becoming a community. The platform has led to local groups of guardians meeting up outside of the virtual world and educating themselves on how to make women feel safer.

“My wish for SafeUP is that we will continue to find ways to use tech to create a better world for women and empowering that movement will help it spread all over the world,” she adds.

Nicola Martin – head of quality at Adarga and software testing expert

Nicola Martin, vice chair of the software testing specialist group at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT and head of quality at AI and data science business Adarga, has nearly two decades of experience in software testing, where she has worked on high profile projects across different industries.

When asked what it’s like being a woman in the technology industry – she says it has been interesting.

“As someone who has been in the industry for over 20 years, I have seen a lot of changes, some for the better but there is a lot of work still to be done,” explains Martin, who was listed in Computer Weekly’s 2021 Women in Tech Rising Stars Top 10. “I think it depends on the area you work in but issues of how women are viewed and treated in tech are universal.

“I have had both good and bad experiences in my tech journey that I could absolutely say happened because I am a woman. Even the bad experiences have made me stronger and more resilient.”

She says that women may think they have to work much harder to feel as though they will be taken seriously and to progress their career, especially to C-Level. With tech teams still dominated by men, she says it can seem that women are still only “chipping away at the barriers”.

Martin explains that one of the positive things about working in tech at the moment is that there are many diversity groups working with organisations and being recognised by government policy groups such as PICTOR to ensure gender inequality in tech is a subject which is taken seriously.

“BCSWomen is one such group which is doing a lot in this space to raise the profile of women and to support in areas such as advice, training, coaching and mentoring for women at all stages of their career,” she says.

BCS published stats in late 2020 showing that women only make up 20 per cent of the UK tech industry. According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Black women make up less than 1 per cent of the IT industry overall.

“Organisations need to be more transparent with their stats, there is good work being done by groups such as Tech Talent Charter to work with companies to gather that data,” says Martin. “BCS itself is working on initiatives with groups such as Coding Black Females.”

Martin agrees with Tapoly’s Janthana Kaenprakhamroy that women in the industry should find a mentor – or more than one – to help guide them through the maze that is a tech career.

“Find someone who can help with short- or long-term goals and keep you accountable,” advises Martin. “It can make the journey easier, and they can also help to build your support network,”

Nimmi Patel – policy manager for skills, diversity, and talent at techUK

“Entrenched biases and gender stereotypes can drive some away from pursuing a career in STEM,” warns Nimmi Patel, who manages policy across skills, diversity and talent at technology trade association techUK.

She explains that from the very start, girls are less likely to study technology related subjects at school – with this gap continuing right through to university. In fact, the number of girls taking computing GCSEs actually fell last year.

Patel quotes a nationwide poll of 1,000 16-18 year olds by the Institute of Coding which found that over half think the digital workforce lacks diversity. One in ten admitted they are actively discouraged from pursuing digital education and jobs due to the lack of people that represent them.

“While some of these opinions echo what many people in the industry may already feel, what’s shocking is that these are the perceptions of young people who have yet to set foot in the industry,” explains Patel. “Unfortunately, existing employment practices can unintentionally exclude female talent - people practices and work models that employers have in place are often outdated, preventing women from demonstrating their true potential, and even worse, excluding them from the business altogether.”

To address some of these issues, techUK memberships that support inclusion are focussing on four key things: action in the community to inspire the next generation; attraction and recruitment; getting workplace culture right; and development of diversity.

“Many businesses are acutely aware of the growing problem and have initiatives to turn the tide, but companies often work in silos,” she warns. “We’ve got to work together to shift the balance and look at every stage of the pipeline – attracting girls into tech, retaining them and supporting the progression of women throughout their tech careers as well as bringing men into that conversation.”

She says that role models and diverse representation are integral to ensuring that diverse talent is able to see itself reflected in the organisations that are seeking to recruit them.
“techUK is a founding signatory and sponsor of the Tech Talent Charter and we urge all employers to join,” she adds. “The Tech Talent Charter is a commitment by organisations to a set of undertakings that aim to deliver greater diversity in the tech workforce of the UK, one that better reflects the make-up of the population.”

The Charter states that all signatories must provide data on their own workforce each year so that the organisation can measure success and make more impactful, measurable changes as an industry for the future.

International Women’s Day, which takes place on 8th March every year, celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, and marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

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