Key insights from this year’s Women in IT Summit Europe Edition

Here's what we learned about female equity and progression in Europe's tech ecosystem

This year’s Women in IT Summit Europe Edition, (Women in IT Europe), presented by DiversityQ, was an opportune occasion for female tech leaders to share their knowledge following a year where the equality and social inclusion conversation has only grown in importance.

Women in IT Europe 2021

The free-to-attend Women in IT Europe summit event promised a “nation to nation” information sharing experience on diversity and inclusion (D&I) processes, and it certainly delivered.

The first panel discussion of the Women in IT Europe summit entitled “Diversity Conversations Across Europe: Progress from Country to Country,” covered varying progress in diversity, equity and inclusion across the continent.

The speakers were Dr. Cristina Aranda, Consultant in Digitalisation and AI, MujeresTech & Spain AI, Dániel Waliduda, Progam Coordinator, HIV Peer Service, Háttér Society, Åsa Nilsson Billme, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Nordea, and Oliwia Bosomtwe, Editor-in-Chief, Noizz. Madhavi Reddy, EMEA Leader – Migrations Acceleration Program, Amazon Web Services, moderated the discussion.

Diversity and inclusion – differences by location

Bosomtwe said the social mood towards the LGBT+ community in countries like Poland and Hungary had affected GDP in those countries as large firms are cautious about moving there. She added that the situation is very complex because Europe has so many different cultures and different governmental approaches to equality.

Reddy asked the panel whether approaches should be tailored by location. Billme said that “one size does not fit all when it comes to diversity and inclusion” and to be “sensitive to the cultural differences.” She added that changes in a country that could be affecting minority groups are something companies should be mindful of. She gave the murder of George Floyd in the US as an example that sparked a global discussion.

However, she added that companies with a presence across different countries “must play by the same rules” and strive for the same equity such as equal opportunities and that the workplace must be the same.

Waliduda said that international companies must be a “safe space” for minorities. He added that “companies shouldn’t be afraid to lead on any cause” as it will only benefit them and that a diverse workforce makes for a stronger company. He added that he “believes in the power of personal stories” and that companies should embrace them whether they are on “LGBT+ topics” or single mothers or any other underrepresented group as they “bring attention to the cause” of equality.

Billme said it would be good to measure the perceptions of inclusion and “follow that closely and put KPIs to it”, which should be seen as equally important as collecting data on D&I in more traditional ways.

Then came the first two-way conversation for this year’s Women in IT Europe event between Lisa Spencer, Vice President, Marketing, Irdeto, and Deborah Choi, Co-Founder, Founderland. The session called “Do We Really Need to Send the Elevator Down?” covered career progression, role models, and mentorship.

Moving up the career ladder as women

Choi asked Spencer about her experience with Irdeto and asked what elements kept her engaged and wanting to grow with the company. Spencer said in her company there are a lot of long-term employees, where their people are their best asset, and “it’s not just lip-service.”

She added that early on, she “articulated where she wanted to go” in the company where sponsorship and mentorship were key to enabling her progression. She also said she self-reflected on what she found important and found someone with the same values as her.

She also said that making room for others is important too, which equates to “sending the elevator down.” She also said that speaking up is crucial for self-progression and said that being eager “to have a greater scope of influence” in the company helped identify her to others as wanting more.

Choi said that she didn’t have sponsorship in her early corporate days, where she said she didn’t understand the “mechanics of going up” in terms of the elevator progression and whether it was speaking up in meetings or dressing in a certain way that would help her progress.

She added that she moved into the entrepreneurial world where “she took the stairs” and “just put one foot in front of another”, where this approach made more sense to her. Both speakers then agreed that most women want to get to a certain level, but everyone’s path is different about getting there.

Spencer said it’s important to visualise “what your end goal looks like.” She added that once you know where you want to be and why you can decide what you need to get there.

Choi added that “the top is not a title, the top is impact, which is personal.” She also said that having a “peer community” is important as there’s “so much value in understanding that you’re not alone on this journey.” She added that even as a leader today, she still seeks sponsorship as she wants to leave an impact.

The Women in IT Europe summit continued with a presentation by Gary Stewart, Founder & CEO at FounderTribes called “Europe’s Venture Capital Hide & Seek – Find the Diverse Tech Founders” followed, and covered topics including barriers to funding for underrepresented groups and changing the funding narrative to increase accessibility.

VC and lack of funding diversity – Europe, the UK and the US

Stewart explained how venture capitalists see startup entrepreneurs as “products, not partners” and how they have a “blind spot” where they see women and ethnic minority startup leaders as riskier investments despite research showing that diverse teams drive business performance.

He also said that specific group issues that minority entrepreneurs could be pursuing, such as tackling “period poverty” or producing makeup products for women of colour, don’t resonate with venture funds as they don’t understand them. He added that the people who invest in women and other minorities tend to be from the same groups due to affinity where there’s enough money within these groups to help.

Stewart said “the stats are low everywhere” regarding minority startup founders getting venture capital funding in Europe, the UK, and the US.

He added that in the UK, “there’s some recognition there could be a problem”, while in mainland Europe “they don’t want to acknowledge that race and difference exist” where data collection is hard, making it hard to define the problem and devise a solution, adding that “mainland Europe still has its head stuck in the sand.”

He said in the US, some corporate giants have been working to allocate funds “worth billions of dollars” to help fund minority businesses, and despite a lot of work still to be done, it’s more than what’s being done in the UK and Europe. He added that in terms of generational transition of wealth, millennial inheritors of assets are more likely to be equity-minded in terms of their investment choices than their predecessors, which is hopeful.

Then came the morning’s closing Q&A session for Women in IT Europe entitled “You Either Win…or You Learn”, the speakers were Kirsty Sharman, Founder, Referral Factory, Riya Karumanchi, Founder & CEO, SmartCane and Stanley Nyoni, Founder, The Sustainability Collaborative & Leading from Love, who moderated.

Entrepreneurial motivation – early lessons

Karumanchi said in her entrepreneurial journey, she has discovered that the team can be even more important than an idea, “as ideas can pivot,” whereas having a team united behind the company’s mission is key.

Sharman said that “asking questions” is essential when going on your journey, where being self-reflective on where you have failed can help you in the long-term, whether that’s a failed funding round or meeting.

The women in IT Europe’s first masterclass was called “How to Use Gender Partnership and Advocacy to achieve equity & inclusion” and featured the participation of Jose M. Romero, Director, MARC Alumni Learning & Engagement, Catalyst, and Sandra Ondraschek-Norris, VP Global MARC Learning, Catalyst.

Being an ally to women

The session explored the important role men can take as allies in the gender inclusion discussion and related initiatives and how gender equity can benefit everyone in businesses.

Romero said gender equity couldn’t be advanced without fully engaging men and exploring “masculinity in-depth”, such as what society expects from men from a behavioural perspective. He added that creating real change means “genuine impact”, which requires a mindset and culture change from top-down, middle-out, and bottom-up within an organisation.

He then referred to statistics gathered from management consultants Boston Consulting Group that found among companies where men were actively involved in gender diversity. These firms reported far greater progress (96%) compared to those where men didn’t get involved (30%).

Ondraschek-Norris said when it comes to some senior women in the workplace, they sometimes don’t see inequities as they’ve “learned to navigate around them.” She also advised that leaders look into structures that create cultures of silence around sexism and other forms of gender inequity in the workplace.

Ondraschek-Norris said that performative allyship is a big problem, such as commenting about gender equality on social media but not translating it into “real, proactive and everyday action in the workplace.”

She said that “if we position men as allies, we position them as helping someone else’s cause”, however, men should see gender equity as their cause, too, she added. She also said that by “getting involved beyond the business case for gender equity”, the more authentic the engagement.

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