Earlier this month, New Zealand’s National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW) held a Women in Innovation Summit. Our fearless leader Rod spoke about some of the barriers and opportunities women in tech face these days. A group of us tagged along to watch and came away with some pretty interesting food for thought.
How gender bias affects women in innovation
One of Rod’s key points was that ideally the gender balance of a company should reflect its customer base. While Xero’s stats put us ahead of many other companies in terms of gender balance – Google, for example – there is still room for improvement. For example, while 40 percent of Xero employees are women, only half of these positions are considered to be “hard core tech” roles.
Bias was a central theme of the day. We need more women leaders to speak out with confidence about their success, in order to provide girls and women of all ages with much-needed role models. Both men and women need to remove bias against other women and celebrate their success. Women need to be supported in their success and not be accused of “trying to act like a man”, or fall victim to tall poppy syndrome.
Rod also stressed the importance of encouraging girls in their final year/s of high school to consider tech careers. One attendee mentioned that at a recent visit to a Wellington girls’ high school, students had the overwhelming impression that “tech careers” were for sweaty, overweight, introverted men. It’s imperative kids learn that tech can be so much more than that – glamorous, challenging, exciting, innovative, a great way to earn money, and a means to contribute to the future of the county.
How education affects women in innovation
Another speaker, Melissa Clark-Reynolds, discussed the ways in which the New Zealand education system is failing to keep pace with rapid advancements in technology. Conversely, it caters to an outdated style of learning – a style that, in fact, never really suited anyone. She recalled having to be bussed to a boys’ school to take tech classes, because she was the only girl whose interest in the subject had been piqued. Even in 2014, education is still delivered in subject silos.
Educators must consider that improvements can easily be made around the integration of technology in schools, teacher training and professional development. There are many examples of innovative educational processes and tools using technology that are being offered in the private sector. These systems and opportunities need to be available to all students in order to best prepare them for the future.
This is particularly pertinent to girls, as they need to be exposed to a wider range of subjects, including technology, from a young age. Parents are key influencers and can encourage young people to embrace the opportunities technology presents – even if they are unfamiliar with technology themselves.
What the future holds for women in innovation
There were countless interesting discussions around the future of women in innovation, but some of the highlights included:
- Rod suggested we need a government-appointed Chief Technology Officer for New Zealand, a movement that found strong support around the room. This, Rod reasoned, is one way we can help break down tech barriers of all kinds in New Zealand. He applauded Dr Michelle Dickinson, Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland and head of NZ’s only nanomechanical testing laboratory; and Lillian Grace, founder and chief of Wiki New Zealand; as living examples. He recommended checking out both of their TEDxTalks, which you can find via the links above.
- Companies would be better positioned to meet their customer’s needs if they acknowledged that women make 80 percent of all household technology purchases. Using this knowledge proactively would mean employing more women in the design and development process.
- We need to increase the number of women who graduate with Information Technology qualifications to help meet the demand for skilled technology professionals.
- The New Zealand curriculum needs to instil risk-taking as a value. Children who are scared to take risks will develop into adults with the same misgiving. Trying and failing is an invaluable and everyday part of entrepreneurial life – and essential to women in innovation.