Recent figures suggest that tech boardrooms are seeing a drop in the number of female CEOs, despite the success of campaigns such as International Women’s Day at improving equality and diversity in the workplace.
The worrying decrease suggests that there is much room for improvement in the industry despite the great strides that have been made in encouraging more female talent, especially towards sustained careers in leadership roles.
Research by cloud talent creation firm Revolent has revealed that 7% of the CEOs on the 2016 fortune 500 list identified as female, dropping to just 4.41% in 2021—a 14% decrease over the last five years. Furthermore, none of the CEOs on either list were founders of their company.
“While it’s great to celebrate the accomplishments of women in the workplace, this is also a day to highlight some of the inequalities that still exist,” said Nabila Salem, President at Revolent. “There are so many barriers that prevent women from enjoying a long and successful career in tech, rather than it simply being a job that they move on from, and this needs to be addressed.”
Is investment at the heart of it?
With no women on the list founding the companies they worked for, many female leaders have pointed towards investment being one major hurdle that plays a part in this problem. “In 2019 only 2.8% of funding went to women-led start-ups,” said Jade Phillips, founder of Mane Hook-Up. “This is probably the biggest issue when it comes to having female CEOs – if they aren’t being invested in then there will not be enough of them in the mix.”
Zandra Moore, CEO and Co-Founder of business intelligence and predictive analytics firm Panintelligence, agreed, adding her own experience of trying to get investment in a male-dominated environment. “When raising finance from venture capital I pitched to over 30 funds. In all the pitches I met only two women, neither of whom were partners. People buy people—the lack of women in the investment community definitely creates an additional barrier to women in the tech sector raising finance, and I think also impacts the quality of relationships in the boardroom.”
A crisis in confidence
Another stumbling block is often the confidence to progress, having spent a lifetime in an industry where a woman’s solutions or abilities are questioned more often than a man’s. Jade Phillips added: “The biggest barrier I’ve faced is having to prove myself, whether it be proving I have the knowledge or the skills, and being questioned even when I’ve produced results that clearly demonstrate my level of experience. The questioning and doubt is challenging, as it can eat away at your confidence.”
Zandra Moore, who also created No Code Lab to try and create a more inclusive support space for tech professionals agreed. “It took me three months to put CEO on the bottom of my email signature, as I felt like an imposter,” she said “I did not know any other female CEOs, let alone CEOs in the tech industry. I felt terrified I would be found out that I had no idea what I was doing. For many women, me included, fighting the negative self-talk and gender-based internal and societal programming is a daily challenge.”
Getting beyond talk
Ultimately, according to Alexa Grellet, Co-Founder and Commercial Director of the HR intelligence platform HRDataHub, the problem lies beyond talk to address the issue. “As a woman, navigating the field of work and separating the facts from fiction about how diverse a company is feels like another full-time job. I believe, however, that data helps cut through all of this and lets us focus on facts. Data can show us how well an employer is paying, whether they are promoting women equally, and whether there is a pattern of discrimination. If organizations really want to be transparent about how they treat their female employees, then they need to collect and report on meaningful data. Only then can we really start to shift the needle.”
And while this action undoubtedly needs to take place in the workplace, Caroline Adams, Co-Founder of Natterhub, acknowledges that leadership traits also need to be nurtured well before that. She said: “Women need to believe in themselves more and learn to ask for help when they need it. It is such an important skill to teach right through school—it’s encouraging to hear how schools are tackling wellbeing, but high performing girls are frequently expected to quietly comply and consistently maintain unrealistic standards, and this is part of the reason that high achievers are one of the highest at-risk groups for generalised anxiety and low self-esteem. It would be wonderful if we could shift our education system to celebrate leadership skills from a young age because they don’t necessarily have to correlate with other traditionally academic skills.”
With a range of female leaders in tech willing to speak out against the problem, as well as lending support to peers at the beginning of their journey, the hope is that International Women’s Day won’t just help raise awareness of inequality in the workplace, but also the effect that gender discrimination is having on long-term career prospects.
The research was found by obtaining the companies from the 2021 and 2016 Fortune 500 lists, filtering them by the technology sector. We then used the ‘female CEO’ filter to identify the companies that have a female CEO and therefore, for those companies not included when using the ‘female CEO’ filter we assumed the CEO does not identify as female.