Bridging the IT gender gap
Diversity problems in Silicon Valley continue to take center stage but to what extent do these issues also resonate in Hong Kong’s startup community? Tech experts weigh in on the topic. Nan-Hie In reports.
Diversity woes in Silicon Valley are making headlines again as Arjuna Capital’s push for transparency in the gender pay gap in the tech sector gains traction.
The investment firm is pressuring shareholders at seven tech giants, including eBay, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, to disclose salary disparities of men and women and more. Amazon and eBay have balked, whereas Intel and Apple have embraced them. Other firms will vote on the proposals this year.
The movement was ignited after an uproar over comments by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in 2014 that women should refrain from asking for pay raises but should have faith in the system.
Jennifer Carver, chief investment officer at Nest in Hong Kong, applauds Arjuna Capital’s movement but cautions companies not to get too carried away so as to overlook the meritocracy. Skills and experience should shape salaries. “Sometimes the conversation turns too much around pushing women as opposed to pushing capable women and helping women to be more effective in the work place,” she says.
The industry veteran also claims pay inequality is not as prevalent in Hong Kong, where the startup scene remains too green to have developed these issues to the same degree.
Eda Chow echoes that view. She’s a career tech entrepreneur who just opened Maker Lab, a hardware products innovation lab in North Point focused on digital fabrication technologies. “I was paid decently during my startup and tech career. I was even paid a little higher than my male counterparts,” she says. “When I’m the boss, I pay my staff based on their experience and not their gender,” adds the co-founder of Maker Lab.
In other areas of the industry gender imbalances are evident. Chow has attended tech events and mentoring programs where she was the only female entrepreneur present. Tech experts elaborate on various gender diversity issues and efforts to help close these gender gaps in Hong Kong.
Ping Wong, the CEO of Evention, a mobile-based event solution helping organizers stage events, has observed underrepresentation of women in her industry. For instance, Wong, who has 15 years of experience in the IT industry is the only woman on the eight-member board of the Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation.
She recalls a dinner gathering at which tech peers asked everyone to count how many female tech startup founders they knew in Hong Kong. “I could count them on my 10 fingers,” she says.
Many factors are at work behind the gender imbalance. That includes what Wong dubs as “unconscious bias” in the industry. She says it’s not active discrimination but gender bias among industry professionals, rooted in social culture and expectations. “For example, employers are not conscious about wanting to recruit male developers but they believe it perhaps due to a long-held perception that men are better at coding than women,” she says.
She suggests women give voice to these issues to challenge such misperceptions in the hopes that decision-makers use more objective criteria in assessing tech professionals for hiring and promotion.
Another factor that deters women from the industry is the traditional Asian culture that expects women to carry the bulk of family responsibilities. “These (expectations) not only come from your husband but your husband’s family and your family, which amounts to a lot of pressure,” she says. Wong implores family members to encourage and support women with startup founder ambitions or other dreams in the field. That includes the sharing of family responsibilities.
Wong and some of her industry friends plan to launch Tech X Women within a few months. It’s planned as a platform to help women in the tech sector to connect, share knowledge, support and mentor each another.
One of the initiatives includes trips to Silicon Valley, to experience the startup culture and mindset. “When I went a few years ago to Silicon Valley, it changed my thinking, that I can do much more than I had thought,” she says, adding that the experience shaped her current startup.
On those trips, Wong observed stark differences in the mindset of US and Hong Kong entrepreneurs. Startup founders in Silicon Valley tend to take bigger risks and hold grand visions of their concepts. “Often they would say ‘I want to make a product that changes the world,’” says Wong. Most young people in Hong Kong tend to aim to make lots of money to buy a flat, says Wong.
“If you don’t think big you will never be big; for young people and for startups, I think the mindset is very important,” she says.
In Silicon Valley, gender inequity is most amplified at the investor level, as Ellen Pao’s sex discrimination lawsuit in 2015 has highlighted. Studies also reflect this. Babson College’s survey in 2014 found that only 6 percent of decision makers in venture capital firms in the US were female, a decline from the 10 percent in 1999.
Carver says this is because “the old boy network is just too difficult to overcome.” However the situation is not the same in Hong Kong’s young startup ecosystem. For example, four or five years ago there were no early stage venture capital firms in Hong Kong, so that issue didn’t even exist.
“Among the early stage venture capitalists we work with, there are still fewer women than men but it’s not 6 percent; it’s maybe 40 percent or 30 percent,” she reveals.
There was a time gender equality in the Hong Kong investment scene was worse. Carver’s nearly 30-year career in asset management began in 1987, in equity sales in Hong Kong. Back then, brokers and clients were predominately male. “I went to a lot of hostess clubs and drank a lot of scotch and smoked a lot of cigars,” she recalls. That was how you got business back then.
She found she was excluded from after-hour outings where deal-making, idea-sharing and networking were done. She couldn’t get into The Chinnery Bar at the Mandarin Oriental, a popular hangout for brokers. In those days women were not allowed.
Conditions have changed dramatically since. In the tech field, for example, Chow, Carver and Wong claim they do not feel excluded from social occasions because of their gender. “Because of the early stage of the ecosystem, everybody wants to include many people so they can get things moving,” explains Carver.
The investment head at Nest foresees more women participating in the industry, as Hong Kong’s startup culture matures. Her firm is at the forefront of advancing this community. Nest’s founder Simon Squibb, for example, has been persuading InvestHK to do more to build the city’s startup culture and his efforts have paid off. StartmeupHK was one result: a week-long events and activities for new and promising companies, organized by InvestHK. Its recent launch drew considerable attention with Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk as its keynote speaker.
Nest also launched the Step Up series at its AIA Accelerator debut in Hong Kong this month. The aim was to highlight issues such as raising capital to help female entrepreneurs. However, as its first event, the lack of men in the audience concerned Carver. “We need to engage men but they don’t show up for those conversations. Without them, things won’t change as rapidly as they need to,” she says.
Education can also be improved to help close the gender gap. Local schools must shift away from its heavy test-oriented approach and an educational culture that fosters a negative stay-within-your-confines mindset. She has noticed some universities now focus on entrepreneurial studies. “That’s a good move to teach kids to think out of the box but it needs to start earlier,” she says.
Tackling the cultures that define gender roles and women’s pressures at home are trickier. As she says, it’s a challenging global issue. Male support of women including willingness to share family responsibilities are key to recalibrating gender imbalances in the sector. “It comes back to having more men involved in these conversations to understand the issues and participate in them,” she explains.
While it is important to have this dialogue among men and women, at the same time she takes issue with the fact that question is still under discussion in 2016. “I look forward to the day these conversations doesn’t need to happen.”
Female serial entrepreneur, CEO and Co-founder of EVENTION, her 2nd tech startup.Business development & marketing professional with >15 yrs’ exp in IT. Writer for HK & regional media.