The conversation around gender balance in business has always been driven by the idea of quotas and recruitment, especially in the tech space. But after seeing a lack of progression in recent years, two Nordic innovators have looked to change the emphasis. Instead of tech being a setting in need of improved equality, how can tech solutions fix the social inequalities that are causing this gender gap in the first place?
Rather than simply trying to encourage more women into the male-dominated tech space, these female-driven companies are exploring how tech solutions can tackle issues such as financial literacy, product design and data bias, to give women an equal start on their tech, investment or entrepreneurship journeys.
This level playing field will trigger an instinctive understanding of what women can bring to the tech space and the entrepreneur fraternity, and how exactly to go about it – a message that has traditionally failed to get through.
“Regardless of how positive the image is around the Nordics in being ahead of the gender equality game, this isn’t necessarily true,” said Anna-Sophie Hartvigsen, co-founder of Danish company Female Invest – Europe’s largest financial educator designed to encourage women to learn more about, and take control of, their finances and investment opportunities.
“The debate has been going on for so long, of course, and can be so heated with opinions, but we like to stick to research, statistics and facts,” she added. “And the fact is that gender equality has completely stagnated in our region and nothing really happens any more.
“In fact, the Danish market has moved 42 places down the Gender Equality Index in recent years and we are not really moving forward in terms of representation, leadership or even the pay gap.”
Gender imbalance from a social perspective
Hartvigsen founded Female Invest alongside co-founders Emma Blitz and Camilla Falkenberg following their negative experiences in the investment space.
Not only were they struggling to get the requisite level of guidance and information to get started on their entrepreneurial and investment journeys, but when trying to take control of the situation and attend various events or forums, they often found they were the only female voices in the room.
What started as a hobby to expand their network and build a portal to share knowledge around financial management and investment has since transformed into a scaling international entity that attracted more than 25,000 women – physically – to events they were running.
And since Covid-19, during which the business has had to pivot its angle to become even more digital, its model has expanded to now serve as an online learning platform driven by partnerships with an ever-growing number of financial institutions.
Falkenberg said: “Covid was quite a big hit at the time, as we focused a lot on building physical communities and events, but actually now we’ve been able to come back stronger and open up both the financial side and businesses to better educate their female clients or employees.
“It’s all about trying to solve the gender imbalance from a social perspective, and using tech as an ideal way to do that at scale. It’s a fact that women don’t invest to the same extent as men, and the answer to that isn’t to just hire more women in the hope that they’ll create role models in the future. It’s to educate them at a younger age, so they have an instinctive understanding and drive to invest, or found a company or enter a traditionally male-dominated space.”
Blitz added: “While Denmark may not be moving further forward in terms of the women in tech conversation, being a small country has helped us as entrepreneurs tremendously, to gain brand awareness and scale our business model to so many different countries and women.”
Female Invest’s impact seems to be hitting its mark too, with the percentage of female investors rising across the Nordics.
Once again, even though the defining statistics around gender equality have a way to go, the Nordic ecosystem has proved itself invaluable to triggering a socially driven startup – NoA Ignite, a Norwegian company that delivers digital products and services by leveraging data and deep human insights.
The idea of insights in terms of general equality has been brought to light recently, as the impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) have been dissected more closely. Because AI feeds entirely off data, it will only offer solutions based on that sample information. And what if that information isn’t equally representative of genders or races?
“This is why our products, tech applications and solutions are built using universal design,” said NoA Ignite CEO Kristine Bjørnstad. “We noticed in the wider sector that the language being used to promote new digital projects was always typically ‘male’, talking about coding and the technical intricacies, rather than the project scope itself, which would require all the skills that a young woman is just as likely to have.
“By just framing it slightly differently and making it inherently sound like a traditional male-driven environment, this could dissuade a woman from exploring further.”
It’s a subtle issue, but one that contributes to this ongoing, unconscious bias.
“It leads to tech companies then thinking that there just aren’t women out there to recruit, which is a very dangerous position to take,” said Bjørnstad. “Because there absolutely are women out there with the skills to become a business leader or an asset to a tech company. They’re just not being told that’s the case, or subconsciously encouraged in that way.”
Institutional change requires sustainable action
Bjørnstad agreed with Female Invest’s assertion that “digital is one of the foremost strategic tools for businesses now”, and this doesn’t just revolve around productivity or revenue streams. To develop technology that will reach a universal audience, it should be receiving input from a universal team.
NoA Ignite’s efforts in this regard also extend to involvement in the SHE Index, an EY-driven initiative to measure gender balance across organisations, and to incite proactive progression.
It also pushes the vital narrative that gender equality must remain a constant, cultural effort, and not just a once-a-year topic of discussion.
At present, only 1% of funding goes to female founders, and the situation isn’t changing dramatically or quickly enough. Although the idea of quotas, boardroom representation and recruitment drives will help to yield more role models and positive examples, it doesn’t change the institutional biases that exist in wider society and are in danger of infiltrating the future tech landscape.
That is why these Nordic game-changers are trying to break that mould, both on International Women’s Day and beyond.
“The event is still important as it highlights the issues that are still evident, and it elevates awareness around them,” said Falkenberg. “But institutional change requires broader, more sustainable action – and that’s where tech can be more than just a sign that representation is improving.
“It can actually be the driver for all the skills, motivations and bias-breakers that are needed to make a long-term impact.”