Ingelou Stol, co-founder of Female Tech Heroes has seen this initiative skyrocket over the past year. Yet it’s not just supposed to be a bunch of women discussing issues, so now it’s the men’s turn. Diversity in the technology sector is ultimately something we have to do together.
Stol, communications manager at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, together with Hilde de Vocht, are the driving force behind Female Tech Heroes. A network that aims to give a major boost to female talent in the tech sector.
What need does Female Tech Heroes cater to?
We already have 12,000 people with 100 nationalities divided across 220 companies working here at the High Tech Campus. It’s a kind of a mini society. Discussions with these companies revealed two things. That they’re all struggling with diversity and that they’re struggling to bring in female employees. Although individual companies had set up all kinds of diversity clubs in the meantime, they were all separate from each other. We sensed a need for support and thought: let’s take on that role. And that’s how the Female Tech Heroes initiative came into being – a network that now has 2000 members. With the aim of bringing more women, and ultimately more diversity, into the tech sector.”
“After we hired Neelie Kroes as our ambassador, things suddenly went very fast. Within two months we had 1400 new applications to the network. She arranged all kinds of media appearances and interviews and helped us create more awareness for this subject. So, the theme of gender equality not only fits in with the Sustainable Development Goals, more diversity also leads to an increase in turnover. Good for companies, but also good for society.”
Why are male as well as female role models so important?
“The Female Tech Heroes dinner during Dutch Design Week last October was a great success, with many familiar themes. Like gender bias and the importance of female role models. Initially we wanted to bring like-minded people together through the Female Tech Heroes network. That worked out quite well. But we also want to make a positive impact with a view to increasing the number of women and diversity in the tech sector. That’s where the decision-makers come in. And so we also need to include men and provide male role models. A male entrepreneur, Hans Meeske, says: ‘Gender should not be the issue. This is not only about salary discrepancies, but also about things like work-life balance. These things are not yet so obvious in a lot of companies.”
How do you want to get more men involved in Female Tech Heroes?
“By involving influential men. We want to offer more men a podium. For example, we are currently busy organizing a two-day conference as part of the Dutch Technology Week on the 9th and 10th of June. Two lots of 500 visitors will attend this event. The aim is that at least 20 percent of the audience will be men.
Several men will be seen on stage at the conference. In addition, we want to portray a few male role models in our new interview series. The ultimate goal is for women and men to talk to each other. That’s also the reason why we recently decided to change the logo of Female Tech Heroes. Instead of a single female figure, we also want to incorporate some male input.
In the meantime, we’ve had a lot of reactions to that logo issue. It may seem like a few steps, but it also has to happen organically. Changes that make it increasingly clear where we want to go. That it’s not merely about a club of women doing stuff together, but that it’s really about a movement that concerns us all.”
One of the themes discussed earlier was entrepreneurship and the lack of female entrepreneurs. What kind of contribution do you want to make to that?
“It goes without saying that it will also be about entrepreneurship at the upcoming Dutch Technology Week conference in June, especially since 22 % of our members are entrepreneurs and 11 % have indicated that they want to become entrepreneurs.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will contribute something on international entrepreneurship. But we’re also working on a pilot for a series of mentor sessions. With around thirty people, women and men, who have successful tech careers, who are prepared to take other Female Tech Heroes under their wing and support them. This can be in all sorts of areas, such as equality and work-life balance.”
Female entrepreneurs have to deal with gender bias. How does that show itself?
“More than half of our members say they suffer from male cultures. There are still just a few female leaders, there’s a huge lack of investment funding and female entrepreneurs have to deal with all kinds of conscious as well as unconscious prejudices. Such as perceptions: that a young, blond woman can’t be a mechanical engineer, as one of our members stated in the survey. Women are very often criticized on their appearance.
Or take artificial intelligence (AI). For example, facial recognition programs. A lot of data is often collected for these. Consequently, everyone thinks they’re neutral. But they’re not at all. Those programs are made by people who are bringing in their own bias. Consider, for instance, digital cameras with facial recognition. If you want to take a picture of someone with an Asian appearance, you then get the question whether that person is willing to open their eyes.
But it can also happen that a woman doctor is denied access somewhere, which makes it impossible for her to do her job. Purely because she is recognized as a woman because of her appearance and therefore the algorithm thinks she can’t be a doctor. “It can become really dangerous when people are tracked based on these kinds of algorithms.”