03/11/2016 - 06:42

Breaking down the boys’ network

03/11/2016 - 06:42


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The lack of diversity in tech startups is an impediment to the sector’s ongoing growth.

Breaking down the boys’ network
Startup founders are predominantly young, and many of their products focus on issues relevant to them. Photo: Stockphoto

WORKPLACE diversity is a crucial element common to many successful businesses. Diversity increases the range of opinions, reduces the incidence of groupthink, and allows teams to address a wider set of concerns with more options and a broader range of analyses.

For all its successes, the tech industry is one sector in which diversity is clearly lacking, with the computer industry overwhelmingly made up of men.

There are some interesting theories as to why this seems to be the case, as it wasn’t always this way. Programmers in the 1960s were often clerical staff and were predominantly female. My favourite explanation is that the computer revolution of the 1980s was marketed to young boys, and playing with computers suddenly became a gendered activity.

The startup industry has picked up on this and even taken it one step further by adopting (consciously or otherwise) an ageist prejudice. In my experience, startup founders are overwhelmingly under 30 years of age, male, and Caucasian or Asian.

There are some reasons for the ageism, at least. Founding a startup is risky and involves long periods of relative poverty. Young people without families or mortgages are more able to accept these risks – and they don’t know what can’t be done, of course.

But there are also multiple downsides. The range of problems being addressed by startups is embarrassingly narrow – problems faced by young urbanites are massively over-addressed, while problems faced by other demographics are barely touched.

Perth is a very multicultural city, with a broad base of immigrants from all over the world. We should see that reflected in our startup community, too, especially since we know that entrepreneurs are disproportionately immigrants.

However, while there are immigrants in the startup community, they tend to be British, Irish, South African or Canadian, with a smattering of people from South-East Asian.

In terms of gender diversity, men predominate in startups. There are some very successful female entrepreneurs in the community, obviously, but the average Startup Weekend is 75 per cent male, at least. We know this is a problem, but we haven’t been able to do anything about it yet.

I help organise Perth {Web} Girls (http://perthwebgirls.com), a one-day introductory course in web development for women. It’s a women-only event because it allows women to feel comfortable and at home. The atmosphere is always amazing, and the event has encouraged a few women to embark on careers in programming, which is our measure of success.

The accelerator, Springboard (https://sb.co/programs/australia/), which only accepts female entrepreneurs, has achieved some real success stories. (It is open for applications now, for anyone interested.) Springboard tells a similar story – that restricting itself to women has created a better atmosphere for women to succeed.

The last Founder’s Institute introductory sessions included a session specifically aimed at women, which attracted the highest turnout I’ve seen for one of those sessions. As one of the five men in the room of an audience of 100, I can vouch that being in a minority can be uncomfortable. It felt like I wasn't in the right place, like I was unwelcome, even though it was at Spacecubed and a startup event, both of which are routine for me.

No-one made me feel unwelcome deliberately, but there it was anyway (equally, I don’t think the gender bias is a deliberate thing done by men).

So in order to stop finding solutions only to the problems of young urbanites, we need to have a more diverse base of founders. To have a more diverse base of founders, we need to make our events and community more welcoming. The best way of doing that is to have a more diverse range of founders attend our events. You see the problem.

To an extent, being aware of the problem can help. We know we need to take a broader look at more diverse problems, and to do this effectively we’ll need to find co-founders who understand the demographic being addressed.

That means actively finding diverse founders and specifically welcoming them into the community. It sounds very cynical, only inviting minority founders so we can plunder their specialist knowledge of problems we don’t understand. But if it results in a more diverse, less homogenous community then I think it’s worthwhile in the end.


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