When only 15% of engineering and technology undergraduates are female, women who work in traditionally male-dominated areas can find it tough to push back.
Elizabeth Varley is as far removed from the geeky loner stereotype of the successful technology entrepreneur as it is possible to be. Yet at 38, Varley has already created and run not one, but two successful technology businesses.
Varley was in her early 20s when, after a period of working as a journalist, she set up Online Content UK, an editorial agency providing content for businesses such as Amazon, Shiny Media and Microsoft. In 2010, she co-founded TechHub, a physical and virtual network for technology entrepreneurs, enabling them to meet, share ideas and collaborate. TechHub now has a presence in three continents and six cities.
Both businesses were, unusually, set up without investment or capital funds. “I focused on revenue as a funding model,” she says. “Even though it can be challenging not to have a big pot of capital to get started, it’s a true way of testing out whether what you’re doing is sustainable.”
Her approach to entrepreneurship is characterised by self-belief and a lack of fear. “It was a case of seeing something that was needed and saying to myself: ‘There is no reason I can’t make that happen,’” she says.
Yet Varley is in a minority. In the UK, only 11% of business owners in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector are women – compared with 33% of business owners in the non-STEM sector. This is partly a reflection of the smaller number of women in those sectors as a whole: only 15% of engineering and technology undergraduates are female.Once in employment, women are more likely to drop out of STEM careers than men.
It can undoubtedly be tough for women working in a male-dominated industry. Shima Barakat, a research and teaching fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, recalls working as an engineer on a construction site in Paris, the only woman among 400 men. There was no female toilet: “I was given a key to a bathroom several streets away and I thought, ‘What is this – I’m supposed to plan when I go to the toilet?’”
Barakat, who now runs EnterpriseWISE, a programme aimed at encouraging women in STEM to consider entrepreneurship, says businesses in traditionally male sectors can sometimes have a work culture that feels hostile to women, particularly those with children – there may be an emphasis on putting in long hours at the office, for example, rather than on quality of work.
Susie Diamond is a building physics engineer, which involves applying the principles of physics to the design of buildings. When the small firm she worked for was taken over by a large engineering company, it introduced a rigid timesheet-based culture that didn’t allow for the flexibility she needed to bring up a young family. “I was running a team and I just felt, ‘I’m nearly 40 and you don’t trust me to get on with my job,’” she says.
Setting up your own business may feel like an attractive alternative, but it brings its own challenges. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank suggests that banks discriminate against women entrepreneurs asking for loans, and a US study found that new companies pitched by men were about 40% more likely to receive funding than those led by women – even though the scripts used were identical. Barakat says women often use more hesitant language when pitching: “They’re incredibly competent for the job but they’re humble. They’re not the big, colourful peacock that says, ‘I am wonderful, look at me.’”
But there’s another side to the story, as Varley demonstrates. Research in the US has shown that private technology companies led by women achieve a 35% higher return on investment than ones owned by men.
In some respects, women have an advantage in male-dominated industries. There is, for example, the “purple elephant” effect. As Varley puts it: “When there is anything about you that is less common, you stand out more.” In her case, she points out, being female, blonde and Australian all make her more memorable.
And in industries where a certain level of geekiness is the norm, the ability to communicate well can make you stand out. Varley’s networking and persuasive abilities have been integral to the success of TechHub – which is built on the recognition that entrepreneurs need to talk to each other. “I’ve always been a connector,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in putting people with each other. I get a sense of enjoyment and achievement out of seeing people do more because they had access to the right people and the right opportunities.”
Diamond, who left her job to co-found the building physics firm Inkling says that she and her female business partner bring a more approachable, client-focused touch to their business: “Building physics is quite a nerdy part of engineering, which is already quite a nerdy profession, so a lot of our competition are companies that call themselves things like Modern Dynamics Relation Limited dotcom, and they’re all keen on staying in their bedrooms and never coming out – they would rather send you an email than pick up a phone. So we made it clear that we are about the communication, and we will explain clearly and carefully what we’ve done and be very transparent about what the results are and what they mean.”
The business is a success, she says, because she and her partner are good at what they do – but now they choose the hours they work. The move from a culture of timesheets and presenteeism has been liberating: “We don’t earn as much as we might if we had a different business model but we gain a lot more in freedom and time with our families, and that’s more important to us.”
Published on The Guardian newspaper website