March 8th is International Womens Day. And, as usual, mainstream media decide to do an annual item on the role of women in society, especially business. It looks like the corporates in developed countries haven’t yet got the memo, because the trends in many parts of Western Europe are the reverse of the growth economies in South-East Asia.
One of the best monitors of the situation is the annual Grant Thornton International Business Report, which surveys around 6,600 business leaders in 44 countries
This year they report that while more women are advancing into senior management roles globally than at any time in the last 3 years, progress is very slow in the G7 group of developed economies. The data reveals that globally, 24% of senior management roles are now filled by women, up from 21% in 2012. However, the G7 economies cite just 21% of senior roles occupied by women, compared to 28% in the BRIC economies and 32% in South East Asia. Eastern Europe fares better than the West. Women hold 48% of executive positions in Poland and over 40% in the Baltic States.
Wake up signal for Dutch corporates
The United States ranks in the bottom eight performing countries for women in senior management at 20%: the United Kingdom at 19%.
The Netherlands bumps along the bottom with 11% (down significantly from 18% last year) and only just ahead of Japan at 7%. While Dutch women are active in industry, they ‘often deliberately opt for a part-time job which makes it difficult to reach the top,’ according to Grant Thornton partner Karin van Wijngaarden.
Interestingly, these economies are also experiencing low levels of growth with GDP in Japan (1.9%), the United Kingdom (-0.1%) and the United States (2.2%) modest in 2012.
In comparison, China ranks as the top country for women in senior management at 51%, while GDP growth for 2013 there is projected to be between 7-8%. The top 10 performing countries include the growth economies of Latvia, Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines.
So what has this got to do with European startups?
Startups driven by women founders are making better progress than all male teams. That’s my conclusion from working with accelerator programs in both Western Europe (Startupbootcamp) and Sub-Saharan Africa . I’m particularly impressed with VC4Africa and their colleagues building Afrilabs). In fact, I observe that an accelerator program that doesn’t get the gender balance right is probably going to fail fast. And note that I’m talking about women in leadership roles, driving the team.
So why could this be so? Eleanor Watson, one of the alumni from Startupbootcamp Amsterdam 2012, has a clear vision. She is CEO of Poikos, developers of extremely clever 3D body measurement technology:
“It is difficult to provide advice or insight with regards to gender without risking stereotypes. But in my experience of leading the tech startup Poikos, I see that female founders manage to make limited resources go much further. Female CEOs have a strength in locating pockets of money or opportunities and leveraging them far more effectively. They are quicker to spot value in services and people and they are more careful than men in avoiding waste.
I also believe that female CEOs have an opportunity to capitalise on their skills in empathy. Women are definitely better than men at taking other people’s perspectives, feeling their pain and experiencing compassion for them. Although it is not clear if women’s empathy is the result of nature or nurture, in practice women are a stabilizing factor in the often heated and tense situations that arise when companies get accelerated. Working in a startup is tough. There will be many un-glamorous and dreary moments. I believe that female CEOs are better able to intuitively understand the morale of the team and to help release tension when times are tough.
If such skills resonate with any CEO, they ought to play to their strengths, since wasted money and imploding teams are both startup-killing factors that can otherwise be avoided.
Female CEOs definitely have it tougher, because they will be judged on appearance much more harshly than a male. Ironically, this bites both ways, since being considered unattractive means being ignored, and being particularly attractive often means that one’s technical aptitude is not taken seriously.
Women also are also judged for being too ‘strident’, being ‘arrogant’, or for ‘accomplishing too much’ in ways which men rarely have to deal with. Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison get respect for being extraordinarily obnoxious. This is extremely difficult for females without severe judgment passed upon them, especially in the media. So life for a woman CEO can often seem to be finding a delicate balance between ‘not too bold and not too meek’.
Recent research shows that startup teams which are diverse show a strongly indicated likelihood of high performance. Diversity includes cultural factors, age, etc, but a strong correlations with success is having a mixed gender team. I conclude that this is due to a balancing of strengths and perspectives, leading to overall better management decisions being executed within the company.”
So what needs to be done change the gender balance, especially to encourage women to head their own tech startup? I note on the blog by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, an active call for action.
” I’ve seen great ideas launched like the simple but incredibly effective Academy Cube, to tell people what jobs they’re eligible for – and what they could become eligible for with the right training. Now I’m on the lookout for similar bright ideas and innovations that can support getting more women into ICT. I know there are many worthy initiatives out there. From the great Rails Girls initiative by Finnish Digital Champion Linda Liukas; to the “Lean In Foundation” set up by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. But I’m open to novel ideas for effective solutions, and I want to know what you think.”
Personally, I tend to think that training and briefings on how to build a world-class startup from Europe are seriously lacking. Look at the briefings from Steve Blank. They are an excellent start. But we need to produce our own versions, because there are definitely cultural differences between Silicon Valley and Silicon Polder, Silicon Roundabout, etc. People keep telling me about how Europe is risk averse, especially in the midst of such a devastating recession. But the way to tackle the problem is to create communities of excellence, shooting for the moon rather than hoping “to roll out the nation”. And we need to hurry, because South-East Asia has already discovered that the future is female.”