There’s a gender gap in the tech industry. According to the Harvard Business Review, women fill only 26% of computer and mathematical science roles in the US; 15% of engineering roles; and only 24% of all technical positions, in spite of inclusion and diversity programs now being commonplace among companies.
The 2019 Women in Tech survey identified a gender pay gap in the industry – 60% of women agreed that males earn a higher salary in tech, while only 8% believed women generally achieve an equal salary. And a 2021 report by Tech Nation, focused on UK companies, revealed that 77% of tech director roles are held by men, while only 19% of the tech workforce are women.
This is a systemic issue that clearly needs to be addressed by the industry as a whole: companies need to work harder to attract women in top positions, and to enable skills acquisition and education for women at an early stage of their careers so they can climb the ladder faster. But here, we want to take a more personal approach – using the wisdom of two standout female entrepreneurs to look at how women can find their place in tech.
How important are role models for female entrepreneurs?
Karren Brady CBE is an entrepreneur; a member of the House of Lords; Vice Chairman of West Ham United FC.The Apprentice. Kelly Hoppen CBE is a globally renowned interior designer; entrepreneur; author of nine books; and also star of several TV shows, including Dragons’ Den and Super Interiors with Kelly Hoppen.
Both of them started work very young, at around the age of 16. At #LEAP22, they took to the stage with Andrew Bloch (Founder at Andrew Bloch & Associates), who asked them how they launched their careers – and what motivated them to reach such great heights.
“I had one ambition for myself when I was younger,” Brady said, “and that was to be independent.”
“I wanted to have some control over my life,” she went on, “I wanted to be independent, and I wanted to make my own decisions. And I knew that real independence only came when you had your own money.”
For Hoppen, it was a tenacious desire to build something of her own that spurred her on. “I didn’t fit into school,” she said, “so when I had the chance to actually do this small job, which was tiny, I realised at sixteen-and-a-half that I wanted to start a business. I was completely fearless, I think when you’re that young you don’t think about all the things that could go wrong.”
It’s an important point: that succeeding in tech (or in anything, really) requires the bravery to try things out, experiment, and push forwards even after failure. You don’t have to be born fearless (and as we learnt from Julian Pistone, courage is a learned skill) but for anyone – and especially a woman – to build a career in tech, you have to be able to embrace adversity.
Part of that adversity is simply the lack of role models – 57% of women see this as a barrier to tech, according to research from London Tech Week in 2022. Both Hoppen and Brady have built careers and businesses in male-dominated industries, and when they started out, there were no clear female leaders for them to aspire to be like. Instead, their own sense of independence, and their desire to prove themselves, motivated them to keep going.
Brady said, “I chose very male-dominated environments to go in. It doesn’t get more male-dominated than premier league football, where I spent 30 years of my career; as well as politics, as well as journalism. So I didn’t have any real role models, but I had a real sense of who I was. I had a real sense of ambition and desire and passion. And I had a lot of courage.”
“I’ve never worked in business thinking about being a woman,” Hoppen noted. “I have worked in business knowing that I am good and that I can deliver, and continue to deliver, and have people pleased with what I can do.”
Lift others as you go, and know your core values
With few role models to look to, a female tech entrepreneur has the potential to influence other women almost as soon as she starts work. The very fact that she’s there, doing a technical job or designing a product, can serve as inspiration to others.
Brady shared the words her grandmother told her regularly when she was a child: “You must never look down on people unless you’re helping them up.”
And that’s been a framework for her entire career. Now, as a role model for others, she wants to show women “that it is possible to have a career and a family, it is possible to be courageous, to be determined, to be irrepressible, and have your integrity, and lead great businesses with great cultures that are worth a lot of money; but still have respect and kindness and ambition and integrity right at the heart of it.”
Both entrepreneurs also emphasised how important their core values are – not just to guide their personal lives, but to shape their approach to business. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research found that core values (or ‘deep beliefs’) play an important role in the way an entrepreneur works – underpinning their decision-making and their perspective on business and life.
The study found a strong link between a specific value-set (which included independence and ambitiousness) and entrepreneurial behaviour. But it also found that social factors can influence whether or not someone feels able to express entrepreneurial behaviours – for example, ambitiousness is a more accepted trait in urban areas than in rural areas.
For female entrepreneurs, it’s useful to work with an understanding that some of your entrepreneurial values might not be welcomed by others because you are a woman; and equally, that you might feel pressured into adopting values that aren’t really true to you because you’re working in an environment created by and for men.
Any entrepreneur would do well to get clear on what their core values are. But for females working in a male-dominated industry, core values can act as a personal linchpin to help you return to your centre, remain steady in who you are and what you want to achieve, and build a business that reflects your sense of purpose in the world.
“I get very annoyed when people are afraid to say they’re ambitious,” Brady said, “because ambition is not a dirty word. It’s that spark, it’s that fire inside of you that drives you on.”
Embrace your ambition. Identify your core values. And know that you never really know how good you are until you try something.