Speech delivered at the World Summit on the Information Society organized under the auspices of the UN agency for telecommunications, ITU, and UNESCO
Geneva, 10thApril 2019
Follow me on Twitter @MayaPlentz
By Maya Plentz
We have seen businesses all over the globe reckon with issues of accountability in the year 2018. It is great that so many in the tech sector are owning-up their share of responsibility on making our societies just and inclusive.
We are only getting started.
We, as a collective of multilateral organisations, governments, and private sector actors must continue to shed light in the structures that prevent, often unwittingly, the advancement of women in positions of decision-making in the technology sector.
These are systemic, structural issues, it takes a village. It takes villages and cities all over the globe connected through high-speed Internet. We hope in a not too far away future.
It takes greater transparency on the modus-operandi of all stakeholders. What it would take? As far as closing the pay-gap? Posting the companies’ salaries online? Some organizations already do that, the UN and its system of agencies for instance, US federal agencies, government agencies in Norway, the UK for companies above 250 employees.
And for venture capital? Posting the amounts invested in each woman-led startup alongside the amounts invested in male-led startups?
And in tech companies’ hiring? Posting the hiring processes online so the age, gender, sexual orientation of the candidate chosen to fill the position are for all to see? Anonymised, of course.
We need to see the Big Tech companies step-up their efforts too, since they have the means to use Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning on their trove of in-house data, to uncover and categorize the participation of women in their corporate structures in the US, and in the different regional offices that they run around the globe.
Looking candidly at the pay gap being one of today’s pressing questions, the efforts towards creating an environment that welcomes women and people of colour and invests in their advancement is really the low-hanging fruit in an organization, come to think of it.
There is an amazing opportunity for these companies to go beyond cosmetic changes, or marketing gimmicks, they have literally the structures and the reach to do well, by doing good. They are beloved brands in far-flung corners of the globe, the local tech startup ecosystems look up to them.
It is time to unveil the stage and, once the country and sector-specific gaps identified, put in place action plans. We need metrics. Benchmarks. Targets. We need to monitor, measure, and deliver programs.
It is too easy to engage in public shaming. Social media offers plenty of opportunity for that. But we can all agree that is better to get the decision-makers, community organisers, and citizens together to design and implement solutions. And yes, policy-making can seem painfully slow to outsiders. But we must insist through deliberate work with our countries’ legislative processes.
Because it is only through coordinated action that we can advance the digital and economic rights of women.
Corporations, multilateral organizations, governments, and citizens must be involved, engaged. I look forward to gatherings such as the WSIS to further strengthen the ties among stakeholders, to debate and find solutions to eliminate the inequalities in the digital economy.
From doing away with the culture of bullying, to unconscious bias, we need to collectively unveil that what is holding us back. Because it is not only your sister, or your wife, or your daughter that are being harmed, it is the society around them, it is all of us.
We need to stop the scarcity thinking that there aren’t enough resources, capital, to go around. From what I hear in the magic circles of Venture Capital in Switzerland, France, the UK, and the United States, there is plenty of smart cash looking for a good investment opportunity.
Why are we not investing in women-led companies, why are there so few venture capital firms that are run by women and people of colour in the US, Latin America, and Europe?
We need to keep asking, keep looking for answers.
We have many studies published by venture capital research firms, including Jane VC, PitchBook, and CBI Insights in the United States, and others in Europe, that shed light on the state-of-the-art of Venture Capital investing and opportunities for women, as investors, and as founders.
The numbers are appalling.
But we have to continue to speak-up because it has not reached critical mass yet, the awareness, the understanding that there is plenty of smart money that has not yet connected to women-led companies.
There is, however, a tiny bit of progress.
I will give you numbers from the last 3 years:
In 2016 women received 1.9% of all Venture Capital invested in the US, around USD $77 Billion.
In 2017 women received 2.2% of all Venture Capital invested in the US, around USD $87 Billion.
In 2018 women received 2.3% from $120/130 billion USD invested in the US.
* Figures from Pitchbook.com and Jane VC
Given that so many look-up to the US regarding thought leadership, that is a concerning proportion of investments, and of transformation speed.
Horizon 2020, the European Commission funding framework for research and innovation, has invested in women-led research and companies about 17% of its 4-year budget of 77 Billion Euros.
We must share the data on women’s participation in the digital economy widely, monitor, and compare. Only this way we can advance. This is one of the raisons d’etre of multilateral organizations, of the UN, and its telecommunications agency, ITU, and UNESCO. To share knowledge, best practices, and to shape policy.
Only now the conversation around inclusion and diversity is catching on, in conferences, and the news media. Sadly, it is thanks to the excellent investigative journalism of Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker, and the social movements that alerted us about the size and scale of incidents of sexual harassment, and other forms of bullying, of gaslighting women in the workplace, that we are discussing and seeing the interconnectedness of the issues.
Pay gap, stalled careers, women who do not help other women, who have internalized misogynistic behaviour. A topic of discussion in itself, giving its ramifications for closing the digital gender divide.
But here is what we know so far. We need to move the conversation forward. We need to talk at all levels of government: municipal, state, federal.
It is a multifaceted issue.
There is much to be aspiring to, there is plenty of scholarly research that illuminates the question of systemic misogyny in our societies. Here I want to point to two publications that have made an impact on the public discourse, on the question of women’s economic and digital rights in the last year or so.
It is the work of Kate Manne, Philosophy professor at Cornell University, in the US. Her book examines the question of systemic misogyny, it speaks about the subtle and not so subtle ways that women are being prevented of fully participating in public life, and by extension in the digital economy. Its title is “Down Girl”.
And Cambridge University’s own revered Classics scholar, Mary Beard, on the cultural underpinnings of misogyny from the Classical world to the present, it is a short publication, titled “Women and Power”, on how women are silenced when they point out power asymmetries or want to participate in public life.
With that I plead to you all, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished colleagues, members of the news media, academics, private sector representatives, that we do not stop talking and leveraging our networks to advance women’s digital rights.
Support them when they are creating start-ups.
Make fair pay and safe workplaces a priority and invest in women-led companies.
Women of all ages, all persuasions, all cultural backgrounds.
Creativity does not stop at 50. Actually, the evidence points that the elderly have greater imagination powers, and to keep them from accessing Venture Capital and government funding because of ageist stereotypes is not only morally wrong, it is very short sighted when it comes to creating real economic value for society, and the next Unicorn.
We have too many copy-cats startups in crowded spaces, obsessing with the male, affluent, 18-to-34 years-old crowd. Enough of the Mad Men folly. It is 2019.
Besides, we are ignoring two thirds plus of the world’s population.
My generation is looking at an increased lifespan of 30 years or more, the affluent among the Baby Boomers all looking at a healthspan of 120 years of age. So, if an elderpreneur approaches you, think about it, a 55-year-old will live long enough to launch and exit a tech company within 5 to 10 years. At the young age of 65.
Bringing more experience and imagination to the table than most, just by the sheer force of the experiences that she will have accumulated and learned from, through life. Because we have also to pay close attention to the changing demographics not only in Europe and the US, but in emerging economies, including India and Brazil.
Instead of fear-mongering and seeing it as a crisis to our social security systems, lets us see it as an opportunity to create programs that support entrepreneurship among the 50 years-old plus population. By 2030 there will be 2.5 billion + people over the age of 65 worldwide, according to Pew Research, a leading research organisation in the US.
Women are going to be a significant segment of the population to address through programs that support their entrepreneurship efforts. Whoever jumps in that space will have huge first-mover advantages.
The elderpreneur is the entrepreneur of the Future. Like it or not.
Link to recording of the Gender Mainstreaming session