I once interviewed a former Swiss employee of a major multinational technology company. When asked why so few women entrepreneurs in Switzerland engaged in the tech sector, he remarked that women can’t engage in what they haven’t been trained to understand. He went on to claim that, “There are 95 percent men and five percent women in information technology. Less than 15% and some years below 10% of women study technology fields at ETH Zurich. The gender issue is in the education field, not in the entrepreneurship space. Some female students have been told by math and physics teachers that they “cannot go for computer science.” Whether or not this former employee was right when he claimed that the gender disparity in Swiss entrepreneurship is created in schools and not in startups is an open topic for discussion. However, recent statistics seem to tell a similar story.
The number of women trained in science and technology is increasing rapidly across the globe, and Switzerland is no exception. According to Switzerland’s Federal Statistical Office, the annual growth rate of female researchers (4.6%) was nearly fifteen times greater than that of male researchers (0.3%) from 2004 to 2008. In 2010, 35% of Swiss PhD graduates in mathematics and computing were women and 23% of Swiss PhD graduates in technical sciences were women. While these numbers by no means indicate gender parity in Switzerland’s science and technology sector, they do represent progress toward parity.
Not only graduates and professionals, but also students studying for their bachelor’s degrees are experiencing more gender parity. In Switzerland in 2010, the percentage of women enrolled in higher education institutions was nearly identical to the percentage of men enrolled. More Swiss women graduated with a Bachelor's or Master's degree in 2010 than did Swiss men.
And yet, despite the growing number of Swiss women enrolling in tertiary education, Swiss women remain underrepresented in Switzerland’s science and technology sectors. Swiss women represented 34% of researchers in higher education institutions, 33% in the federal administration, and 19% in private enterprises in 2008.
Unfortunately, the numbers point to an even gloomier picture for Swiss women entrepreneurs in the tech sector. According to a 2013 study from the University of Western Switzerland, nearly two-thirds of all Swiss women entrepreneurs’ ventures are categorized as consumer-oriented. These types of businesses work in areas such as education, food, beauty, or social work. In contrast, nearly three-fourths of all Swiss men entrepreneurs’ ventures are categorized as business-to-business or science/technology/manufacturing. Women entrepreneurs are markedly underrepresented in the areas of science/technology/manufacturing at 13.2 percent.
From my own research, I would argue that gender disparity and sexism stem from not only education or only entrepreneurship, but both. Consider this excerpt from the same tech company employee who was quoted in the opening paragraph: “For information technology, your competition is not local, it’s international. There you have people that don’t have family, that have much more money than you, that have access to much more knowledge, that have access to greater networks than you have. So if you’re a woman considering tech, you either don’t have a family and go all-in, or your don’t do tech at all. And because Switzerland is largely about the family, men often do the majority of work and women stay at home.”
So, not only educational inequality, but also different cultural expectations in how women ought to become mothers and how men ought to become breadwinners affect gender disparity. I walked away from that interview wondering if adult Swiss women entrepreneurs are seen as future or current mothers first and foremost, and whether adult men entrepreneurs are ever seen, or spoken of, as fathers first and foremost. To what extent do parenthood and the reproductive role of women shape gendered Swiss notions of entrepreneurs?
Regardless of my questions, one shared Swiss sentiment stuck out from my research: Swiss women entrepreneurs, by and large, knew less about technology than their men counterparts. Women entrepreneurs admitted to feeling this way, and men entrepreneurs admitted to thinking this way. As a result, Swiss women entrepreneurs could not - or, maybe would not - compete in the tech sector to the same extent as Swiss men entrepreneurs. This led to the question - how are entrepreneurs in the tech sector educated in the first place? How does one train a ‘technopreneur’?
The answer, of course, is long and complicated. Training starts with supportive parental figures who don’t discourage children from dreaming big, designing and selling a product, taking potentially profitable risks - all tenets of entrepreneurship. Training continues in formal and informal education - teachers should not discourage students from studying science, math, or technology based on gender. Of course, technopreneurs can be trained far past their late teens and early twenties. In fact, as shown below, technopreneurs across the world are making a living (and a purposeful life) out of training potential technopreneurs in their craft.
Below are some of the best free, online resources that I have found for training entrepreneurs in technology and digital communications. From coding to marketing, graphic design to data visualizations, these five websites provide resources and training opportunities for the entrepreneur wishing to become a bit more ‘technopreneurial.’ I have used each, and my recommendations are based on experience with the product or service as they compare with competitor products or services.
codecademy.com - learn to code interactively. I was a codecademy ‘student’ for six months and learned more about coding than I anticipated. Codecademy is a great resource for anyone, beginner or expert.
canva.com - makes design simple for everyone. I have used Canva to design graphics, presentations, social media content, posters, and flyers for nearly three years now. I’ve yet to find a competitor website that stacks up to Canva. By the way, the ‘women in tech’ quote graphic from Ms. Charania at the beginning of this article? Made in Canva.
coolors.com - generates endless color combinations and allows users to export or edit existing palettes. I just began using this free online resource a few weeks ago, and have since redesigned my podcast logo with Coolors.
infogr.am - Create multiple data visualizations in one comprehensive infographic. Offers free and paid upgrade options. I've used the free version for three years and would recommend Infogr.am for creating quite detailed and "busy" infographics, but not as highly as I would recommend Canva for all-around infographic design.
Hootsuite.com - a comprehensive social media management dashboard that allows management of multiple profiles and networks. Additionally, Hootsuite allows measurements of engagements and metrics that social media sites like Facebook and TWitter don’t provide. I have used Hootsuite on and off for over four years, and recommend it to anyone seeking to optimize their social media marketing.
By presenting these online resources, I don’t mean to suggest that Swiss women entrepreneurs will be able to operate on an “even playing field” with Swiss men entrepreneurs by taking advantage of a few free tools. However, I do claim that entrepreneurs, regardless of gender, can make up for lack of educational opportunities or missed vocational training by capitalizing on free online training and tools, some of which I’ve presented above.
A comprehensive solution for gender disparity in the Swiss entrepreneurship space will need to involve a cultural shift away from working adult women entrepreneurs with children as “mothers first, entrepreneurs second,” accompanied by a shift toward men and women sharing in what parenthood and employment have to offer. Paternal leave policies, for example, may shift the Swiss cultural understanding of men away from workers/breadwinners and toward fathers/parents. A solution will also need to involve an economic shift toward a more favorable entrepreneurial environment for Swiss women. For now, however, the websites listed above provide some free tools and training that may allow Swiss entrepreneurs to incorporate a competitive digital component in their venture. After all, whether or not you agree with the former tech company employee’s sentiments, it’s hard to argue with the logic that women, or anyone for that matter, can’t fully engage in what they haven’t been trained to understand.
Links to statistics and recommended readings: