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The diversity problem in NZ tech – and how to fix it

There’s been a lot of talk about the environment for women in tech, but most of the conversations centre on Silicon Valley. BizDojo’s Tracy Moyes takes a look at the situation for New Zealand women in the tech and start-up sectors – and delivers a call to arms for her colleagues in the industry.

It’s been quite the week, in what is turning out to be a big year, for conversations around the culture of sexual harassment and the place for women within the tech ecosystem. As the New York Times piece ‘Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment‘ did the rounds, the resignation of 500 Startups co-founder Dave McClure was not the only outcome. My Twitter and LinkedIn feeds filled with comments, critiques and declarations of “are you really surprised?”, both before and after a mea culpa from high profile investor Chris Sacca.

The Times piece was by no means a revelation – it’s not exactly a big secret that there is a serious gender imbalance in the tech industry globally. And the revelations about McClure and Sacca weren’t the year’s most impactful – it was only in February that Susan Fowler’s blog about her year at Uber ultimately led to the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

So while it is great to see this work lead to some immediate impacts, I wonder how well we are working towards catalysing significant, systemic change.

The media stories have been specifically about the tech startup ecosystem in the US, but the willingness of women to speak out suggests a larger culture change. This is something we’re also seeing in New Zealand, though the conversation here is focussed more on gender imbalance and gender bias, both conscious and unconscious. A piece earlier this year on The Wireless looked at the issue and included case studies showing how some in the tech ecosystem are trying to fix it.

As someone who worked in the tech industry in San Francisco in the early 2000s, and now, some 15 years on, is heavily immersed in New Zealand’s startup ecosystem, I am still not seeing the great leaps in diversity that I would have envisaged back then.

Women in the NZ startup and technology ecosystem: the state of play

Earlier this year Mastercard recognised New Zealand as the best country for supporting female entrepreneurship. Yet we have one of the lowest rates of women on public company boards in the Western world. Every week I hear stories from female founders about how they’ve been treated, and attend events where I am definitely the minority in the room. We see panels of speakers for events announced with no women represented. And, as I write this this piece, information arrived in my inbox for an upcoming corporate hackathon – out of 20 mentors and judges there was one woman. ONE.

After the latest furore in the States we’ve had a flurry of conversations here at BizDojo, centred around the question “are we doing enough to support both gender diversity and a zero tolerance policy of any form of harassment?”. I honestly don’t think I’ve worked in a more inclusive company than BizDojo. We support a whole host of great initiatives in the ecosystem which are working to help bridge the divide. On a weekly basis we are helping others in the ecosystem with this, whether it is gently pointing out the lack of diversity on an event panel and offering them recommendations and introductions, or making sure that we create space for the next generation of women in the tech industry through supporting programmes such as Girl Code.

It is sometimes hard to self-identify areas where you can improve, and so we often look at what others are doing in the ecosystem to see what we can do too – essentially learning from the community around us. Recently we were impressed by Elyse Wyatt’s diversity policy for the Hardware Meetup AKL: “50% of our tickets will be available to people who identify as women and non-binary, and 50% to people who identify as men.” We’ve been proud to support this event since its inception and even more proud of this bold move. And I don’t think that anyone will be surprised to see them receiving criticism for going too far and not far enough.

Not exactly the warmest reception for a small organisation trying to draw a line in the sand, to enable them to make future iterative change.

Biz Dojo, Auckland. Photo: supplied

So what can we all do, right here, right now?

Back up people in the community trying to move the needle

See great work in the ecosystem? Tell the people behind it you appreciate it. It seems like a small thing, but if you are putting yourself out there and receiving criticism, someone taking the time out to say “I see what you are trying to do, and I appreciate it” is huge.

In the same vein, if you see someone trying to move the needle and you think you have a suggestion for a way to improve their initiative why not start with a “Yes, and [insert suggestion]”, or better yet why not offer to help?

Ask for more, deliver more

As people who run and facilitate events, arrange incubators, hire, suggest people for boards or put together boards ask to see the representation you know you deserve. Even better, have a hand in making sure there is diversity.

When organising and promoting your event reach out to a range of the great organisations out there like Refractor, Women’s Collective, Global Women, NZTech Women to see if it will be of interest or benefit to their members and networks. If you’re looking for a speaker, board member, advisor or mentor, check out this crowdsourced list initiated by PledgeMe’s Anna Guenther: Inspiring Women in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Help us support a more diverse founder community

We recently announced Founders Central, our move to support more of New Zealand’s business founders – and we are more than conscious that we need to ensure diversity in all its facets. We are working on how we do this, and know that it will be a constant work in progress. We think that we’re starting from a pretty solid base with what we are already doing, but I’m very keen to hear any ideas, no matter how radical about how we achieve this.

Invest in our women

If you’re an investor, judge on the merits not gender. But how about taking a step further with an active policy of seeking out and supporting female founders? Let’s not leave it up to groups like ArcAngels to carry the mantle of focussing on for-profits led by women founders.

At the same time we should all look for non financial ways to invest in women too, giving our time and experience to female founders so they can advance in tangible ways.

Ask, who else is not present at the table?

It is relatively easy for me to write about the issue of gender diversity because I have personal experience of the impacts of attitudes towards women. And while the conversation about women in tech – and in business in general – is an important one, we should also be looking at other areas of diversity. If women are underrepresented in general, how underrepresented are Māori women or Pasifika communities?

When there is an opportunity to talk about issues of diversity – whether it’s gender, age, socio-economic background or Māori and Pacific inclusion – always seek ways to amplify the voices from those communities.

Lastly, be real about what there is to do, stay honest and be open to change

We all have a part to play in shaping the next steps for a more diverse business and tech community. What are you bringing to the table?

Tracy Moyes is the director of strategy at startup incubator BizDojo, where she leads consulting services and local government partnerships, including Wellington’s tech hub and Collider programmes and Auckland’s GridAKL startup hub. This piece originally ran on LinkedIn.


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