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Sisters are doing STEM for themselves: Female BizSpark entrepreneurs speak out about women in tech
By: Jacqueline Russell, Microsoft Western Europe Academic Lead
17 April 2013

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Why are there so few women technology entrepreneurs? There are numerous research projects and opinion polls that have looked into the issue, but we decided to go straight to the source and ask some of the leading female Start-ups working with Microsoft in Europe what they think.

First, we hear from Karen Marquez, CEO of Spanish start-up Infantium (which provides personalised education for children and has just been accepted into Wayra – congratulations Infantium!)

Karen: “Women are not encouraged to study science, technology or engineering at university and this is affecting all parts of the industry. I remember how shocked I was when I read that in Europe and the US, less than 20 per cent of computer engineering degrees are awarded to women.”

“In the last 5-10 years, there have been efforts to give women greater access to science and education technology, but I think women are still under-represented in some degrees and it is even higher in disciplines such as biology or medicine. If we can empower women to study more technology-related degrees, that will give them the potential choice of more senior job positions or the technical skills to start their own ICT companies.”

Elise Daans is CEO of Belgian start-up, which helps companies build mobile strategies for improving business processes. “We need to encourage females to choose technology as a direction at secondary school level. In the workplace, the industry is attracting women into ICT, but the gap is still really big. There is a lot of work to do because, even today, people still tend to think in stereotypes. I think the biggest problem is that a there is a real lack of women role models in the technology industry."

Benefits all-round

Why should females think about joining the ICT workforce?  All the female entrepreneurs we questioned believe there are benefits on both sides. Karen Marquez refers to the skills gap.  “Companies of all sizes and types are looking for people to cover positions that cannot be filled, because there are not enough computer scientists. Technology is everywhere, so the workforce of tomorrow should know how to code. No matter if you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher: code is the essence of how the world is working now, how the world will move tomorrow.”

Freena Eijffinger is CEO of Dutch start-up Autitouch, which simplifies and speeds up diagnosis of autism.  She cites the less tangible - but arguably just as important - benefits of joining the ICT industry: “Technology is so much fun.  You can do so much good work to really change and improve the world. It is a continuous market when you look at growth and opportunities.”

Felienne Hermans is another Dutch entrepreneur and founder of hugely successful start-up Infotron.  She agrees with Freena: “We need to explain to girls that IT is about helping to solve real problems and doesn’t have to mean sitting in a computer room all day.”'

Making a difference

So, apart from more role models and encouraging females to study ICT subjects while still at school, what else can be done?  The entrepreneurs we questioned believe that women like themselves can make a difference at grass-roots level.

Says Freena says: “I’ve tried to be a role model for women in IT since 2004.  I speak and moderate at conventions such as The Next Women, where we hold yearly events for groups of girls to meet with female IT Pros and entrepreneurs.  I attend speed-dating at schools to teach girls and their parents about IT.  I’ve also held ‘open house’ sessions at my company, where a group of girls can join us for a whole day and see for themselves what it is like to be involved in a tech start-up.”

Also in The Netherlands, Felienne Hermans is part of a group of female entrepreneurs that goes into schools and busts some of the myths about computer science.    Both Elise and Karen plan to contribute too.  Says Elise says:  “I am currently working on a plan for secondary schools. This is the time where girls or young women should become interested in technology and I can help them with the concerns they have about going for a technology career.”

Karen adds, “My co-founder wants to start a meet-up group in Barcelona to teach girls and women to code, so I want to help him as much as I can and of course, I will learn at the same time!  Although I’m lucky to have an awesome engineering team, I feel things could have been different if I knew how to code myself.”

What advice would our inspirational female entrepreneurs give to girls studying at school still who are still in school?

Elise: “” Just go for it. Don’t let the boys get away with all the fun! It’s really worth it!”Freena: “Choose technology! It is so much fun! Yes, you can still have babies, yes there are lots of opportunities, no it is not boring, and no, technology is not just for nerds and guys.”

Karen Marquez sums it up well: “Start programming, ask your parents, ask your teachers if you can learn how to code.  Technology is the language of the future. So much is possible when you join the technology industry and if you create your own company, you can help millions of people improve their lives, both at work and at home, while creating new jobs in your country.”

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