As the CEO of the world’s leading deep-tech incubator, Cicada Innovations, and with a lifelong passion for technology since my early childhood in Sweden, I’m exposed to lots of truly talented STEM people.
And it always disappoints me how few are women.
Multiple reports indicate that women hold fewer than 10 per cent of technology jobs in Australia. Female tech entrepreneurs are outnumbered by their male counterparts at a rate of about four to one.
The figures at Cicada are a little better than the national numbers, but still not quite at the level we would like.
Multiple studies have shown that firms with more diverse workforces (including start-ups and scale-ups) perform better financially.
Interestingly, the difference between Australia and Sweden could not be starker.
Sweden is the most gender-equal country in the world, and I grew up not having the implicit biases that kids in Australia have to grow up with, including my daughter.
Having also lived and worked in Germany and the US before settling here, I am sad to say Australia is one of the more backwards countries I’ve lived in when it comes to gender equality.
The problems begin early for Australian women.
My seven-year-old daughter Maia had a pre-school day where the kids could dress up as either a mathematician, an artist, or a scientist. Maia was the only girl in her year who came dressed as a scientist.
I was so proud of her, but she was devastated that the feedback she received was around not being pretty – all the other girls came as pretty looking artists whereas Maia was sporting a lab coat and a pair of swimming goggles – not pretty.
That incident helped motivate me to go on a tour of NSW high schools earlier this year to promote STEM for girls. What I saw on that tour alarmed me, with the feedback from many girls being that STEM professions are not for them.
When you talk to girls between 12 and 18, they still think they have to make a choice between having a career and having a family, and that is really disturbing. The fact that shared parental leave is still not prevalent in Australia, of course, means there is some truth to this.
There is no lack of female role models in deep tech start-ups. But they are not featured as role models nearly often enough, which is something we need to address in order to secure the future participation of women in this important field.
We at Cicada are trying to do our bit, with our Project XX workshops. This initiative brings together scores of female undergrad, post-grad, and PhDs in different STEM fields to inspire and motivate them to find their own tech start-ups, and/or work in the tech disruption and innovation space.
The workshop also increases awareness of the range of opportunities for women arising from STEM education and, crucially, provides them with a ready-made network of other like-minded women in STEM.
Like all big corporates, most entrepreneurship support programs these days say they focus on diversity and gender equality. The problem is that it’s often largely cosmetic. We need to see more female role models in tech and more female business mentors to move the needle.
How are women going to be encouraged when they feel excluded?
Project XX is an effort to move the needle – not through cosmetics, window-dressing, or for marketing purposes – but by creating an ecosystem with real women paying it forward and who can mentor each other.
To this end, institutions must question how their learning environment contributes to or detracts from building interest in women for STEM degrees, and supporting them within the classroom and beyond.
Tackling the gender imbalance in tech will need multiple campaigns making it easier and more acceptable for men to participate in child rearing and targeting, inspiring, and motivating women at different stages of their lives, from the playpen to post-graduate life.
Women Love Tech would like to thank Petra Andren for this article.
More About Petra
Petra Andren is the CEO of Cicada Innovations (www.cicadainnovations.com), Australia’s home for deep tech – unique, proprietary, hard to reproduce science-based innovations. Cicada has a unique model for supporting science-based innovations. It creates and accelerates deep tech ventures through specialised commercialisation and accelerator programs that feed graduate companies into the incubator where they receive long term support in the form of subsidised physical space, specialised infrastructure, access to our community of world class innovators, networks of investors and domain experts as well as talent and capabilities sourced from our shareholder Universities.