The Nordics are forerunners in gender equality, but does it mean that the job here is done? It seems that there’s another side to the story – especially when it comes to tech. In a public webinar organized by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs as part of the UN Women’s Generation Equality campaign, a panel discussion focused on how to advance gender equality in tech. Here’s what we learned.
Generation Equality panel
Generation Equality is a 5-year campaign coordinated by UN Women, aiming to remove systemic barriers to gender equality and speed up the realization of the rights of women and girls. Finland leads one of the campaign’s six Action Coalitions – Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality. One of Finland’s main goals in the initiative is to increase the number, participation and leadership roles of women and girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
To launch this discussion in Finland, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs organized a public webinar on 24 November, 2020. With a keynote from Product Marketing Manager & DEI Lead at Google, Northern Europe Yacine Samb, the audience was reminded of the exciting opportunities that true intersectional cooperation could bring to all of us: “Doing good and going equal also make business sense”. As an example, Samb mentioned a study showing companies with higher representation of women on their senior teams reaching 34% higher profits compared to those with more homogeneous top management.
Next, diving deep into the current equality issues and solutions especially within the tech industry, Inklusiiv founder Katja Toropainen led a panel discussion between four speakers: Eva Biaudet, MP and Chair of the National Council of Women of Finland, Jyri Engeström, Partner and Co-Founder of Yes VC, Yuri Birjulin, UN Youth Delegate of Finland, and Priyanka Banerjee, Co-Founder & CEO at BusinessWiz.
Inequality in tech is rooted in our society
Finland is often titled as one of the forerunners in equality. And, true enough, a lot has already been done in the matter, as MP Eva Biaudet points out during the discussion. However, the work is far from done.
“It’s not enough to have a ‘little bit of’ equality. We need to have complete equality.” – Eva Biaudet
As statistics raise alarm about, e.g. our working life being one of the most gender segregated in the OECD countries, and only 14% of tech industry workers being women, it’s crucial to keep our eye on the ball and stay humble. Founder of YES VC Jyri Engeström points out that the Nordic countries tend to think they’re more advanced in terms of gender equality.
“It’s like the Titanic effect: there’s a risk that you become overconfident and look too much on a single measure, like giving women the vote in 1906. Coming from Silicon Valley, I see a lot of misogyny in the culture here.” – Jyri Engeström
Of course, the tech industry hasn’t formed into its current shape in a vacuum: the attitudes and structures that shape our beliefs are present very early on in our childhood. Finland’s UN Youth Delegate Yuri Birjulin highlights that the encouragement – and stereotypes – young people are exposed to in the school system already set expectations on which careers might be most suitable for them later on. If we truly want to advance gender equality, it is also critical to take into account the diversity of women. There are many other overlapping aspects of diversity that put women into different positions such as sexuality, ethnicity or disability.
“Things that happen online cannot be separated from the structures we have offline.” – Yuri Birjulin
Birjulin goes on to note that with over 40% of girls in Finland having faced online harassment, technology has an important role in either solving or causing these issues. The same notion came up earlier in the webinar: in his opening words, Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Ville Skinnari also called for the creation of safe digital spaces that enable women and girls to use their voice online.
Taking action to solve the inequality in the tech industry is a big step towards a more equal society as a whole: tech is already embedded in our day-to-day lives and all industries, and so its impact is equally widespread.
Good for business, even better for society
Inclusivity is not just improving the lives of individuals and those underrepresented, but it’s also critical for organizations and their success. Through her vast experience in the tech field, Priyanka Banerjee has seen first-hand how a team lacking diversity can be ill-equipped to identify the biases they have when building work policies or products that, in the worst case, may put people in danger. Banerjee encourages organizations to identify the gaps in their culture and policies that are damaging to gender equality in tech, and then create an action plan to fix the gaps.
“Without diversity in your team, you are not able to identify the bias in the product you are developing. And you don’t know how to solve it. We also need to change the narrative of who can be a leader, or an engineer.” –Priyanka Banerjee
The importance of diversity and gender equality should also be on the minds of investors. At least if you’re an investor interested in high returns.
“As a founder and investor you want to stand on the right side of history, but you also want to make bets that tack onto fundamental changes in the structure of society, because that’s where the large returns are”, Engeström explains. He adds that the top two performing companies in their current portfolio are women-run. Engeström challenges his fellow investors to give more support to the women founders they invest in, so that they themselves can one day become investors and accelerate the change.
A lot of work needs to be done, but the panelists feel that the shift is already happening and the potential of diversity is finally being unlocked.
“I don’t think it’s that hard. We’re dealing with something that is inevitable – it’s so obvious that this is the right direction. I’m very optimistic that this change is going to accelerate quicker than we realize”, Engeström sums up.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomes you all to join the Generation Equality work. To keep updated on the process, please follow the Ministry’s website on Generation Equality.
You can find the entire webinar on gender equality in tech, until December 31st 2020 here. Take part in the discussion on social media using #GenerationEqualityFI.