In late spring, I was trying to decide what to wear to a conference in my hometown of Washington, D.C. Ordinarily the answer to this question would have been simple: it’s D.C., so wear a suit. This conference, though, was different–the topic was fintech, and as this is a new field for me, I did not want to appear too stuffy, or–heaven forbid–look like a regulator.
The conference was hosted by Women in Housing and Finance (WHF). WHF, a well-known and influential association with both female and male members, “actively promotes its members in the fields of housing and financial services while retaining a focus on its women members.”
The event was held at a law firm in the glitzy new CityCenter development in D.C. The room was large, sleek, and modern with a high ceiling and massive windows. I went to grab a cup of coffee and realized I was standing next to Blythe Masters, CEO of Digital Asset Holdings, a New York tech startup. I was starstruck: I was standing next to one of the best known and most successful women in fintech. This seemed very promising.
I took my seat and prepared for the conference to begin. Looking around, the hall was packed. The conference had sold out and the audience was full of women (and a few men). Some kickoff remarks were made and the first panel took their place on the stage.
But then…every single panelist was a man. Every. Single. One.
This startled me. All of these women had gathered for this conference and were listening to a group of men talk. Where were the women?
As I leafed through the program I realized that some of the most well-known and influential women in the financial services industry were participating in the event as panelists and speakers–but only a few of them worked in tech. To be fair, the topic of the conference was fintech, not specifically women in fintech, but given the focus of Women in Housing and Finance I had assumed we would be hearing from more women, and especially women in tech. So the question remains: Where are the women?
Fintech is a notoriously male-dominated industry.
The underrepresentation of women in fintech–and in tech more generally–spans the entire industry. The startup founders, employees, board members, investors, and even reporters covering the industry are mostly men. Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, made headlines when she joined Uber’s board of directors, making her the only woman on the board. Dating Ring, a social dating app company featured on the Gimlet Media podcast “Startup,” boasts three women co-founders, which makes it especially rare in the tech world. The COO and co-founder of Dating Ring went so far as to write a thought-provoking post about what it is like being a woman in the startup world and the challenge that it adds to trying to fundraise. Mary Wisniewski, a well-known American Banker reporter, highlighted this topic in an article expounding on what she has experienced and witnessed being one of very few female reporters covering the fintech industry.
These concerns are not unusual–but why does it matter?
This is a complicated and hotly debated issue and some may wonder why anyone should care. If the tech world is full of men and they are doing a good job creating products for the rest of us, then why is the issue of diversity important? Is this purely an equality issue, or is it leading to bigger problems? There are multiple ways to answer these questions–but one of the first, and most important, is this: These companies are creating products for all of us, regardless of sex, gender, race, age, or orientation. Doesn’t it follow that the founders of such innovations should be representative of the people their innovations have set out to serve? Companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Uber, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and so on have not only changed the way that we do business–they have changed the way we conduct our daily lives.
Here’s what it comes down to: It makes sense for people to create products for others similar to them because it is easier to have empathy for the end user. People create products for those who are most like them–and people create products to solve problems that they themselves have. If innovators themselves are diverse their products are going to reach, and benefit, more diverse users.
A similar issue impacts women who are trying to secure investments. Investors typically look for patterns in their investments, commonly referred to as pattern matching. This instantly puts female entrepreneurs at a disadvantage, because the majority of startup founders in the industry are men. If an investor is asking himself (the majority of investors are men) whether an investment opportunity with a startup looks similar to other successful investments he has made, and the founder is a woman, she may be out of luck.
The solution to this problem is not to pursue diversity for diversity’s sake. We should not simply hire more women into tech jobs. In order for women to fully engage in the tech industry they need to be given the same opportunities as men from the very beginning. We should invest in educating girls in computer science and engineering. We should strive to make the work environment in the tech industry inclusive and not a boys’ club. Companies should improve their recruitment practices to ensure women know about opportunities for careers in tech. These are all areas where tech companies can make concrete improvements and take influential steps. Some big players in the industry like Intel are making concerted efforts to hire more women and improve the talent pipeline. In addition to reforming their recruitment and hiring practices, Intel is encouraging and improving the future of tech talent through education initiatives. Citing that women and underrepresented minorities don’t pursue STEM degrees at the same rate as men, Intel is investing in schools in California to build up computer science and engineering education as well as pairing students with mentors at Intel. Other programs, such as Girls Who Code, Project Include and Girls in Tech have arisen specifically to increase the ability of women to enter the tech field. LinkedIn has been touted for being among the most gender-diverse of high-profile technology companies. It even has a devoted director of engineering growth and women in tech, a portion of whose salary and bonus is tied to the company’s overall diversity goals.
These efforts are making a difference. Google, Facebook and Amazon, three of the world’s largest tech companies, openly acknowledge having a diversity problem. Google’s page dedicated to its diversity clearly states that its overall workforce is made up of 30% women and that in their tech division the number is 18%. While this is not good, first acknowledging that the lack of women in tech is a problem and then proactively finding ways to solve it is going to help even out these numbers. This is important because it will ensure that the products created by these vastly influential companies, the ones that will continue to transform our daily lives, are representative of everyone who uses them. Having more of the population engaged in these creations will improve the world for everyone–and isn’t that incentive enough for us all to work hard to engage more women in tech?