Women’s role in innovation and technology

A think tank last week heard from a wide range of voices on the vital role of women in innovation and technology.

Light Bulb Moment, Ideas and Innovation

 

How can women get ahead in business, particularly in the technology sector? A think tank last week looked at the issue from a range of perspectives and detailed the need for women’s voice in all aspects of tech innovation.

The session, hosted by tech philosopher Somi Arian who set up the think tank and is about to launch the FemTalent platform to address some of the issues discussed, heard from a wide range of international thinkers and practitioners, from business leaders in fields ranging from animation to car manufacturing, academia, law and investment.

It began with Alessandra Cassar, Professor of Economics Department of Economics  at the University of San Francisco, who said the stereotype that had been used to explain the lack of women in senior leadership positions in business is that women are less competitive than men, more risk averse and don’t lean in enough. She said what may be true is that women have evolved to work in different ways – to be more egalitarian, to favour quality over quantity and to compete more on the basis of their offspring’s chances than their own. She says her research shows that when you add into the mix the issues that matter to women the competition gap between men and women reduces and if there is a more egalitarian structure in the workplace the gap disappears altogether. She says we need to change the system and not the women therefore and that that will create a ripple effect in the economy which will benefit long-term growth.

Innovation and diversity

Christophe Georges is CEO of Bentley US. He said one of the main problems in engineering is that the pool of female talent is small – only 25% of engineering school master’s graduates in the US are women. However, the engineering process is itself changing with more emphasis being placed on emotional intelligence. He said industry needs many different perspectives to solve the problems it faces. “Companies not embracing Diversity and Inclusion will not be successful,” he said.

On the theme of industry change, Kim Meltzer, CEO Destination Esports, spoke about how she had moved from the traditional events industry to e-sports events production. She said e-sports tended to be dominated by men and had focused a lot on the technology side of things, but human experience – the user/audience experience – was equally important and had been forgotten to a certain extent. Michelle Foley, an expert in cybersecurity, spoke of the huge skills shortage in the industry and the lack of women. She said much of the work was focused on human behaviour, for instance, understanding phishing. It needed the input of a diverse range of people, she added, and called for more focus on STEM skills for girls in the earliest stages of school. Joti Balani, Managing Director of Freshriver.ai,  spoke of the need for more women to be involved in AI related to finance. She said AI such as chatbots needed to be empathetic to all customers, to put people at the forefront of design and understand how they think. 

Investment

Cobey Flynn, Global Vice President and Co-Founder of Project Incubators, added that women often do more with less and that women-owned businesses give a greater return on investment. The problem is that they are significantly less likely to receive investment from venture capitalists.

Investor Ramona Liberoff, CEO of SPRING Accelerator, focuses on sustainable development. She said women’s contribution to the economy, for instance, through their caring work, was often not valued. The way we look at the economy needed to be rethought, she said, with more emphasis on sustainable development, for instance, climate mitigation and energy conservation rather than energy generation. She said traditional finance is dominated by men with more women being in innovative finance – finance directed at solving the sustainable development goals, for instance, or focused on social impact. “If we support innovative finance we will have more women in positions of influence and power who can change the financial system,” she said.

Daniela Barone Soares, CEO of impact fund Snowball, also spoke of the need to change the way the financial markets work and focus on things that will have a deep impact on people and the planet as well as a good financial return, such as social housing and renewable energy.  She wanted to see a model focused less on greed and competition and more on collaboration. Technology was an enabler of a more ethical approach to business, she said. “We cannot go back to normal [after Covid],” she said. “Normal is what got us here. We need to embrace a new way of doing things.”

Focus on innovation

Michael O’Toole, Managing Director at CareerDrive and a former managing director of Morgan Stanley, urged women to focus on innovation. He said many women are often in support roles in technology firms and that those roles are likely to be lost to automation in the next years. Innovation requires less and less capital investment, he said and cited women who had identified a market need and had led innovation companies in the healthcare and other sectors.

Joshua Meredith, Director of Career Advising and Technology at Yeshiva University in New York, supported this, saying women in technology need to feel confident enough to strike out alone and innovate. He also said men in technology need to reflect on how their conduct impacted women  and women should be encouraged to apply for the same roles as men.  He added that older women need to be included in coding education.

Femtech entrepreneur Debra Bass, chief marketing officer at Nuvo, which focuses on maternal-foetal connected health, said women need to be more involved in healthcare innovation. There has been no meaningful innovation in pregnancy care in the last few decades, she said. Her company aimed to reinvent pregnancy care for the 21st century and she urged other women to use technology to empower women to take more control of their health.

Immigration lawyer Samar Shams addressed innovation in work structures. She spoke of the problems women face to rise to the top in legal firms, particularly if they work part time at any stage of their career. Alternative business models could change things, she said. She spoke of umbrella firms under which lawyers worked on a self employed basis. These favoured women as they gave women more freedom to work flexibly and meant they didn’t have to provide themselves through constant presenteeism. D & I strategist Rita Kakati-Shah added that there is a need to change mindsets and bias against women and to get men to understand the issues women face in the workplace.



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