The rise and rise of Women in Technology

“I was the only sole founder who was female,” said Barron, whose company recently launched Viddyads, a tool that allows small businesses to create online video advertisements cheaply.

Being a female entrepreneur already makes Barron unusual statistically. Irish women are two-and-a- half times less likely to be entrepreneurs than men, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

The monitor also found that women who set up businesses are less ambitious than men, also making Barron unusual. “From day one I wanted to create something that was globally scalable,” she said.

To make it a hat trick, she is an entrepreneur in the male-dominated world of digital technology.

Pauline Sargent set up her social media business, Social Zavvy, two years ago. She says she was struck by the apparent lack of female entrepreneurs in that sector. “I went to a web summit that had a great section on how to start your own business, only to have 15 men in a row telling me how to do it, when what I really wanted was some women to tell me how they did it,” she said. “In my experience, women tend to offer more practical advice and are more likely to tell you step by step how they did it.”

Last month, Sargent set up DigiWomen, a network for female digital entrepreneurs, with fellow digital technology business owners Rita Tobin of Asar, an online marketing consultancy, and Siodhna McGowan of Inspired Thinking, an online marketing strategy business.

“Part of the reason we don’t see more women on conference panels is that the women that are in this sector don’t put themselves out as much as men do,” said Sargent. “It’s a confidence issue.”

DigiWomen held its first conference on April 2 at Dublin’s Mansion House. Tickets for the conference sold out in a weekend.

Putting female tech entrepreneurs on stage to speak about their experience is important, says Sargent. “You can’t be what you can’t see. If females aren’t visible in this sector, less women will consider doing it for themselves.”

The digital economy is forecast to deliver 18,000 new jobs in the next three years, says McGowan.

Women are five times more likely to start a business when they meet someone who has done it already, she says. “Women’s networks involve a lot of sharing of information, collaboration and support. That’s not something you can put a price on, but it is a natural skill set among women. DigiWomen taps into this, helping women connect with other women.”

Before setting up Inspired Thinking, McGowan worked for companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestle. At that time, she did not see gender as relevant, she says.

As an entrepreneur she has changed her view. Women are much more likely than men to operate as sole traders so need particular support, she adds.

“Now that I’ve started my own business I see the world differently and I realise that if women are to take part in the digital boom, the types of support network open to them will be critical,” she said.

Enterprise Ireland last year launched a Competitive Start Fund for female-led start-ups.

Previous Competitive Start Funds typically received around 140 applications, of which 10% were from women. The female-only fund, with exactly the same terms and conditions, received 87 applications.

“We thought maybe [female entrepreneurs] don’t exist, but they do,” said Jean O’Sullivan, EI’s manager for female entrepreneurship. “It’s just that they don’t seek support.”

O’Sullivan found that technology, specifically the management of technology teams, was a major area of concern for women even when setting up businesses not in the technology area.

“I met so many female entrepreneurs who had all been done over by cads, it was like mechanic stories of old. One woman told me she hadn’t known to ask for tangible outputs from her tech team on a weekly basis until she met another female chief executive, despite being a very savvy entrepreneur.”

The dearth of female role models in technology was one of the reasons behind the setting up of Women in Technology and Science (WITS) 22 years ago.

Much of its work involves sending women in technology into schools to provide role models for girls. WITS chairwoman Sadhbh McCarthy said: “I started out in computer programming in 1978 because a Dutch company was going round schools looking for school-leavers for its training programme, but they only went to boys’ schools. I only heard because my boyfriend got an application form, but I filled it out and I was accepted.”

Today, she heads up her own research business, the Centre for Irish and European Security.

Ten years ago, WITS set up Talent Bank, to provide state and semi-state agencies with lists of suitably qualified and experienced women in the tech sector as candidates for directorships.

However, the number of women chosen from the lists has been “minuscule”, said McCarthy.

“When the government was putting together its Manufacturing Development Forum, we had to pick them up on the fact that it had no women on it — in 2012,” she said. “There are women going into technology and there are women out there achieving, but it’s women’s profile that is different.”

But things are changing, says Paula Fitzsimons, co-author of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report for Ireland and founder of Going For Growth, a support body to help female entrepreneurs to expand their businesses.

“What I am seeing is the emergence of a new generation of women who, although not from a tech background themselves, are able to employ others to exploit an opportunity they have perceived. And they are getting smarter at doing that.”

Barron is a case in point. “I employ five people and I’m the only one who’s not an engineer,” she said. “When I was in school, languages meant English, Irish and French, not computer languages. Yet the Wall Street Journal has ticked us as one to watch.”