As well as her role as Microsoft/Microsoft Ventures’ startup lead, Roxanne Varza is co-founder of the European chapter of Girls In Tech, the organisers of Lady Pitch Night, the startup contest whose finalist will get to pitch at LeWeb’14 in December. Ahead of the event, we talked about women’s place in technology today: what’s improved recently, and what progress remains to be made.
LeWeb Blog: How are things for women in tech right now? Recent events at Tinder, for example, suggest they’re not great…
Roxanne Varza: There are a lot of stories around about men who pose as investors and then hit on women; I know of one other female CEO who had to leave her company further to discrimination; and in 2012-13, some really high-level women received death threats on Twitter, to the point where Twitter itself had to get involved. But there’s progress too: in Iran, they recently had their first ever women’s startup weekend, for example. Nearly 60% of engineering graduates there are women, and are as such valued by society; but many are encouraged to have more traditional family lives rather than to develop careers as engineers.
> How does Girls In Tech try to help women working in the technology sector?
Girls in Tech (GiT) was founded in San Francisco in 2007, by Adriana Gascoigne. When I moved to France I had trouble finding many other women in the technology sector, so with entrepreneur Mounia Rkha, we decided to launch the European chapter. We expected 20 people to turn up to our event in 2010: we got 100! GiT now has 42 different chapters, all over the world. We hold events to give visibility to women in tech; we organise free coding classes; and we work with conferences like LeWeb to increase their female audiences and engagement. We’re now a 15-strong team in France, two of which are guys! It’s not just all about girls. It’s about hitting that goal of 50/50.
> Where would you put the percentage of women in technology right now?
Right now it’s about 20% in western Europe. In the UK, according to Ladygeek, it’s 17% and declining… But in France, we’ve seen an increase in female entrepreneurs. There were already a lot of French women in the tech finance sector — a lot of funds have female founders or partners — but today you’re seeing more women outside traditionally ‘female’ markets, like ecommerce and shopping. You see more in sectors like big data, for example. For Lady Pitch Night, of the 100 submissions we’re had so far, only 10% are from ‘feminine’ markets.
> What have women in tech’s biggest wins been of late?
I’d say the general sentiment is improving, and people are paying more attention. Conferences say they need more women speakers, and lots of people come to us to ensure they’re improving the ratio. Microsoft, for example, recently decided to organise free coding classes with Girls in Tech, and got an 80% female turn-out (obviously, we let boys come too!); and 42, the school created by (Free founder) Xavier Niel, as well as other tech programmes, have shown an interest in increasing their female participants. Women like Marisa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg are more visible than ever. Sandberg’s Lean In (book & movement) is terrific; she’s helped change this image that women are catty and competitive in the workplace.
> The Lean In movement has notably tried to ban words like ‘bossy’, which are too often associated with women (and never with men). Does this help?
I’m not pro-banning anything. Those words and sentiments will phase themselves out. We prefer to show counter-examples to claims like “women can’t be entrepreneurs.” Namely women like Mounia Rkha, who founded mydeal.ma, Morocco’s answer to GroupOn; Celine Lazorthes, from Leetchi.com, who has grown her payment platform really well; or Pauline Laigneau, of Gemmyo, as I’m always impressed when she talks about her customer-oriented strategy. All of these women are under 35 too, by the way! Beyond France, I’m also a great fan of Alex Depledge, the cofounder of UK startup Hassle.com, as she has a great go-getter, no-nonsense attitude. A lot of people will want to work for her.
> How can startups better support women? Impose 50/50 hiring policies, for example?
I’m not in favour of quotas. Sooner or later the ratio will work itself out. What we can change is the fact that in technology companies, women tend to work more in communications than technical roles. So I’d encourage them to learn how to code. Even if they just learn the basics and stay in marketing, they’ll have a better understanding of what can and can’t be done. Women outside of tech could also find that sort of education crucial. Microsoft holds events for young girls of about 13, to encourage them to go into tech. I was shocked to discover many didn’t want to do so as they thought they’d spend their days stuck behind a screen! So they need to be shown that doing things like learning to code involves working with other people: sharing, doing scrums and so on.
Photo: © François Tancré /eventpixr