Less than 20% of the students who follow technology related studies in the Netherlands are female. “Most companies will become technology companies, so if you do not understand technology you can not have a challenging job let alone a leadership role in a company. If the majority of young women and girls think that technology is boring and not for them, there will be even fewer women in leadership roles in the future than there are today,” says Janneke Niessen (38), technology entrepreneur and co-founder of Improve Digital. How can girls become exited about technology when there are no female role models in tech with whom they can identify? Janneke Niessen thought of a solution and created a female tech role model for girls.
Role Models Key to Change Perception
“Female role models in technology are very important. When women see other women working in technology, they are more likely to think a career in tech might be something for them. ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ If they only see men working in technology, women will shy away from it because their perception is that technology is just for men. Role models are key to changing perceptions,” Janneke says. This is one of the reasons why Janneke, together with Joelle Frijters, initiated “Inspiring Fifty”, a list of the fifty most inspiring women in technology. With the “Inspiring Fifty” they want to make female role models more visible and change perceptions about female leadership, especially in the technology industry. Some of the “Inspiring Fifty” role models like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer are already changing the perception of women in tech. “We all need role models, people who can inspire us,” Janneke says. “One of my personal role models is Neelie Kroes, Special Envoy of StartupDelta; she has the ability to make things happen. She is a strong person and a great example for many women. Women like Neelie Kroes, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer are incredible role models, but they are not necessarily the role models young girls can identify with. There are no female role models in tech for girls. When girls are at the age of 10-14, they need to make very important decisions about the direction to take in their education, decisions that have a real impact on the path their career takes. Girls should be able to make their own decisions based on the right information. They often start ruling out a career in technology, based on stereotypes; technology is difficult and boring. If you ask girls if they want to follow a career in technology their reply will be negative. But if you ask them if they want to work for Instagram, they will say yes! This is because have the wrong idea about technology. I want them to see that technology provides many opportunities that it is relevant in every career and that tech is fun! The question now is how to get more girls pursue careers in technology, when they have no role model? I decided to create a role model for these girls.” Her name is Isabel.
Tech is Everywhere
Isabel is the 13-year-old main character of “Project Prep”, a novel written by Niki Smit that was published this year and has already sold almost 20,000 copies. Isabel is a regular teenager who is about to go to high school, plays hockey, thinks her nose is strange, and is nervous about her first kiss, a character many teenage girls can easily identify with. She feels insecure about her clothes and is frustrated that she can’t mix and match her clothes well but gets the brilliant idea of developing an app that advises her on how to dress. She learns how to code, develops a fashion app, launches her own company and is faced with all the excitement, hurdles and challenges a real tech start-up entrepreneur faces. Isabel shows the reader that technology is not only for nerds, but that it is something exciting, not difficult, and that fashion, creativity and technology are intertwined. “Tech is embedded in every company you will work for and every in role you will pursue: the fashion industry, banks, travel agencies, design companies are all technology companies. To show girls that technology is key, whether you work in sports, fashion, for Tom Tom, or run a magazine, we organized a “Project Prep high tea” with thirty young girls and a diverse group of female role models who work in and with technology. “During the high tea the girls asked many questions and hung on every word these women said. After the high tea one of the girls, Nikki, said that it would be very cool to have a career in technology and to be able to make an app or “to build something big.” When I heard this, the impact of the book became very real to me. It would be awesome if in ten years time I read an interview with a successful female tech entrepreneur who says that she decided to start up a tech company after reading “Project Prep”.
Digital Skills Gap
“If you look at the number of women in leadership positions they are really poor and when it comes to female leadership positions in tech it is even worse. All companies will become tech companies. You need to understand technology to become a leader of such a company. If the majority of women dismiss technology the number of female leaders will decrease even more. In the end it is in the interest of everyone to tackle this problem. The tech industry struggles with a lack of skilled people and if more women become skilled in technology this problem would be solved. Besides this, diverse organizations perform better in all aspects; they are more creative and have higher revenue and profits.
Some people argue there is no need to focus on female role models and that the gender diversity issue will sort it itself out since there are more women at university than men. Yet, when it comes to technology, statistics show that less than 20% of women follow tech studies. Not doing anything is not an option. Recent research done by one of my other role models, Sheryl Sandberg, showed that if we do nothing more and continue at this current pace of progress we are more then 100 years away from gender equality in the boardroom. 100 years! Seriously, we do not have the luxury of waiting that long.”
StartupDelta supports the “Inspiring Fifty” and the “Project Prep” initiative and is also initiator of the national CodePact. One of the aims of CodePact is learning children at school how to program.