International Women's Day

Tech economies losing a ‘powerful force’ by sidelining women, researchers say

Interim study shows that in Israel, Norway, Sweden and Ireland just 12%-15% of entrepreneurs are women; why is still unclear, but could be because ecosystem is tailored to men

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative: A woman walking toward a building at the Bnei Brak Business Center on October 23, 2017. Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90)
Illustrative: A woman walking toward a building at the Bnei Brak Business Center on October 23, 2017. Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90)

Israel, Norway, Sweden and Ireland have many things in common, it appears. They are all high-income countries according to the World Bank, all are considered small in population (though Israel is smallest in square miles), and all have a thriving technological ecosystem. They also have one more thing in common: an acute lack of women tech entrepreneurs.

Indeed, according to two Israeli researchers, Prof. Sibylle Heilbrunn, the dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, and Caren Weinberg, a senior lecturer on Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Ruppin Academic Center, in these advanced economies women account for just 12% to 15% of the total number of tech entrepreneurs.

The researchers are studying cross-cultural variations in the technology ecosystems from a gender perspective, and are leading a project that compares these four countries — Israel, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. Their study is part of an international research initiative into gender inequality funded by the GenderNet Plus program, which is part of the Horizon 2020 EU program, in a bid to boost equality.

“We are trying to understand the underrepresentation of women in the technological ecosystem as entrepreneurs,” said Heilbrunn in a phone interview. “There are very few women entrepreneurs in these high-tech ecosystems.”

Attendees take part of the big zumba dance that took place in Tel Aviv’s port on saturday, as part of the womens’ sports day events. (Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The nations are both similar and dissimilar in a number of aspects. They all have public innovation agencies dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems. In 2019 all four countries were ranked within the top 15% of 141 countries in terms of innovation and competitiveness, with Sweden and Israel ranking highest.

The dissimilarities include the fact that Israel has the highest income inequality of the four and ranks the lowest in terms of human development. It has the highest gross domestic spending on R&D, and the highest gender wage gaps.

Sweden and Norway are more welfare state-oriented, scoring high in terms of income distribution. Israel ranks lowest on gender equality, and its parental leave and childcare facilities are considered less supportive. In Norway, it is easier to set up businesses, followed by Sweden, Ireland and then Israel. Ireland and Israel are more conservative societies, as opposed to the more liberal Norway and Sweden.

Women in tech in these countries, with all the similarities and dissimilarities, are, however, persistently underrepresented.

“There are fewer woman entrepreneurs, thus logically resulting in fewer women in tech incubators, fewer women startup founders, and fewer women in a variety of roles throughout the tech ecosystem,” said Heilbrunn.

Illustrative photo of a woman standing on a busy street. (Jacoblund/iStock by Getty Images)

The researchers still have to find out why that is the case and the study will run until July 2022, when hopefully there will be answers or, more importantly, suggestions to equalize the statistics. “For now,” Heilbrum said, “we can only speculate as to why this is the case.”

“In all of these countries the ecosystem is male-dominated, very masculine, and there is an expectation that women adjust to the ecosystem versus the ecosystem adjusting to their needs,” she said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women work on computers in the Comax software company office in the central city of Holon near Tel Aviv on April 17, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA )

Previous research has also shown that women are generally more averse than men to taking risks, a necessary ingredient for entrepreneurs. “The high degree of risk in setting up a startup perhaps makes women more reluctant to enter the field,” she said. There may also be a reluctance to be part of the “crazy work-non-work life balance” of a 24/7 work schedule, she said.

Policymakers in Ireland, Sweden and Israel acknowledge there is a need to narrow the gender gap and increase the number of women in the ecosystem, and have set up dedicated women-focused programs like Enterprise Ireland’s 2020 Action Plan for Women in Business, Promoting Women’s Entrepreneurship national program in Sweden, and Incentive Program for Female-Led Startups in Israel. Norway, however, has terminated specific programs fostering women entrepreneurship as the nation believes its society is already very equal.

“Women make up 51% of the global population,” said Heilbrunn. “If the ecosystem does not afford them an equal opportunity to participate, due to barriers and cultural norms, then the economy is losing a powerful force to enhance, increase and strengthen economic impact for the good of society as a whole.”

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