Gender equality despite being a fundamental human right is also a necessary foundation for a prosperous world. A myriad of studies conducted over the years confirms that diverse teams not only perform better but also achieve better results. The World Bank in its report  stated that eliminating barriers that discriminate against women in certain sectors and occupations could increase labour productivity by as much as 25%. This was confirmed at a company level when the Peterson Institute carried out a global survey of 21,980 firms from 91 countries and showed that a move from no female leaders to 30% representation led to a 15% increase in the company’s net revenue margin.
A major gender disparity persists in leadership roles and within the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) based sectors, despite these advantages. Although STEM fields will continue to play a significant role in solving global challenges in the future as technology continues to change our economies, societies and families they remain predominantly male, with tech and finance being the least gender-diverse. This needs to change. Repeating after UN Secretary-General António Guterres — “the 21st century must be the century of women’s equality.”
A number of major technology firms have begun to provide transparency around their diversity statistics. This is a positive development as it is a crucial move forward to identify a challenge and to understand the need for improvement. There are still, however, a number of obstacles that stop a growing number of women from working in the finance and technology sectors. Some of the obstacles are not unique to the industry, such as fitting work around childcare duties and a lack of female role models. However, some are simply the product of working in an area of technology that is male-dominated. The next steps would therefore include, among other things, making the working climate more welcoming for women and establishing new entry points for women from all backgrounds. Traditional structures and pathways into the industry work better for men because, they were built that way, intentionally or not. In order to attract and retain more women and reduce cultural bias in the company structure, there is a need to look into improving everyday organisational practices, such as creating more inclusive recruitment practices or allowing flexible working hours.
In this article, we will reflect on some of the challenges facing women and discuss possible solutions to remove them.
1. Addressing Gender Bias and Stopping Patronising Behaviour
Gender bias is particularly evident when women are recruited, interviewed and promoted in the workplace, as well as when women-led start-ups obtain funding. Women often feel undermined or patronised at these events, even though they are perceived to be experts in their fields. Research shows that as many as 41% of British women face patronising comments or behaviour in the workplace. Similarly, at startup pitching events, male investors often ignore women and direct their questions to the male staff rather than the female founder. On top of that women who ask for money are twice as likely to be treated negatively. Investors have a tendency to focus on risk when they review female-led businesses and concentrate instead on rewards when they are reviewing male startups, according to a study  on the issue. In response to that biased behaviour startups run by women frequently have to hire a male employee who can open doors for them and be the person that the investors can talk to. In an interview I recently conducted with an Australian start-up, the female founders said that they had to employ a male CEO because it was the only way for them to navigate China’s gender bias. The male CEO would speak on their behalf at all investor meetings.
In some cases, it is enough to change the introductory language and habits during workplace meetings, pitch events or meetings with investors. It helps to introduce the female founder as the business owner. This helps to establish authority and clear up any confusion about the role. Over the years I’ve found that the best approach is to provide suitable training to increase women’s awareness of biased risk-related questions that will inevitably come up during pitch events. SheLeads, for instance, provides female entrepreneurs with training on how to reframe risk-related concerns and refocus investors on the opportunities presented by the company.
2. Creating Support Systems Which Help Women Fit In
Women continue to be under-represented in leadership, despite their best efforts. In fact, equality decreases the higher up you go in an organisation and the more senior the position  For example, while 30% of the fintech workforce are women, only 17% of senior fintech roles are held by females, and only 5% are founders.
One of the consequences of a company’s lack of diverse leadership is that women’s ideas and input are often not heard or acknowledged. In fact, a recent HBR study found that in such businesses females are 20% less likely to have their ideas endorsed than straight white men. This often results in companies developing products without an understanding of women needs. Although women constitute 51% of the population and control 80% of  household spending, they still remain an untapped market for most fintech companies. Recent research by Kantar  shows that financial services are missing out on almost $800 billion in profits because they have not developed their services with women in mind or marketed them correctly. As a result, the Global Banking Alliance for Women reports that as many as 73% of women feel unsatisfied about financial services. Failing to understand women is plainly a risk to fintech products.
Another consequence of gender imbalance inside fintech companies is the lack of visible female role models for other women to look up to. This can lead to women questioning not only their ability to fit into the sector but also whether they will get equal development opportunities, support and an inclusive environment. Women thinking about starting a fintech business have similar fears, such as fear of isolation, not fitting in and being unable to attract finance. More visible female role models, as well as bold, transparent leadership targets, are essential to reach gender balance in the industry. These must be supported by programs and internal policies that help to remove biases and create a more inclusive ecosystem. Unfortunately, many existing programs and approaches are focused far too heavily on ‘fixing’ women who are ‘holding themselves back’ and do not fit existing leadership models. The focus tends to be on teaching women to adopt traditionally masculine leadership styles in order to gain the acceptance of their peers. Women are, in fact, are being encouraged to become men 2.0, and so think and act like men, to advance their careers. Women are not holding themselves back, rather unfair organisational practices are holding women back and a greater focus should be directed at improving organisational structures that enable female leaders to thrive and improve company culture, diversity and revenue. This for example may include increasing the company accountability and transparency in pay and promotion decisions. 
In addition, most women employed in male-dominated industries will find their professional journey a lonely one, even when work is going well. Having a supportive network of friends, mentors and people to confide in or consult increases women’s chances of success. A number of organisations noticed this and have developed programmes for women focused on building professional and business networks and connecting with mentors. For example, the National Association of Women Business Owners organizes events where founders can meet, She Leads Company built a platform that matches founders with mentors, and many more.
3. Using Gender-neutral Language
Language is a great way of improving gender equality. Gender neutrality is vital when we are writing and speaking about people. It is not only more accurate but also consistent with the values of equality. Therefore, gender-biased terminology and symbols need to be removed from both written and verbal communication in the finance industry, as it will make the work environment more appealing to women. The language currently used frequently excludes women by treating them unequally, with the male being the ‘norm’, and the female being the ‘other’. The language we use is therefore unjust to women and girls. A good example is a use of ‘he’ or ‘man’. Even though we know that, logically, ‘he’ is being used to be inclusive, we have a tendency to think of ‘he’ as meaning male.
Language is integral to the practice of power, so it is clear that some important questions have to be asked about language practices in STEM professions. The UK government has acknowledged this and announced a trial of gender-neutral language to define technology, science, engineering and maths apprenticeships, with the aim of encouraging more women applicants. The pilot is going to apply gender-neutral language to a dozen apprenticeship standards. Similarly, it has been noted that the wording of job adverts in tech and finance also frequently shows male bias. Job descriptions often use two methods of communicating. Communal language that is mainly applied to women invokes stereotypical female traits, such as showing warmth, being supportive and helping the team. Agentic language used when recruiting men is more focused on taking charge, getting the job done, and being independent. Although, the tech industry is making an effort to eliminate this recruitment bias  finance is still lagging behind with some job adverts still openly expressing sexist criteria 
Furthermore, male dominance in the finance industry also transpires through verbal and written communication used in HR materials, marketing and everyday business life with the use of masculine symbols and words that appeal to men. A good example is the charging bull statue on Wall Street, New York, which is a very masculine symbol. There are also the professional terms used in options trading, including naked call, fig leaf, naked put, straddle, double diagonal, strangle, reverse iron condor, and butterfly spread, which can create uncomfortable situations. Male-centric lingo used in corporate settings and derived from war, sex, sports, and machinery (such as “drill down”) can further reinforce the issue . Likewise, terms such as, fintech, cleantech and accelerators are often used in the startup ecosystem that does not sound appealing to women.
The need to deal with women and men equally highlights just how desirable the use of gender-neutral language is. The use of gender-neutral language that appeals equally to women and men might attract more females to the industry. Communication and documents that exclude references to women will not encourage gender equality. Gender-specific words need to be substituted by gender-neutral words with the same meaning.
A third of the staff working at an investment management firm Goldman Sachs are engineers, and 60% have backgrounds in STEM. Similarly, companies in the financial ecosystem such as IT and telecommunications firms that disintermediate the trading and settlement of securities also require employees with qualifications in STEM. And although STEM is a major part of fintech female representation in these fields remains low. An important part of the problem is the challenge of getting females into STEM-related studies that can provide the necessary skills. Fewer women and girls take part in STEM fields because of social pressures rather than their ability. This leads to a lack of role models, negative peer pressure, harassment, lack of encouragement and active discouragement. Unfortunately, the gender gap in technology begins at school and continues through each stage of a woman’s life, according to PWC research that involved more than 2,000 A-Level and university students. Just 27% of female students said they would consider following a career in technology, compared to 61% of males.
There needs to be a conscious proactive strategy in schools and universities to firstly, encourage women to start considering STEM subjects as a degree, and secondly, raise awareness of female role models. The introduction of alternative role models is vital as most students asked to draw a scientist usually draw a white man in a lab coat . Above all, we must debunk any misconceptions that STEM is just for boys and give girls an opportunity to become a STEM student (including courses, summer programmes, social media) and fintech professional. This can be achieved by raising awareness of the amazing opportunities in tech and finance. It is admittedly a huge communication challenge, but one that needs to be tackled. Actions that could be taken include showcasing successes of female fintech leaders, ensuring female speakers feature at fintech events, and creating a culture that rewards inclusive behaviours. It is vital to keep promoting STEM and improve the pipeline. Existence of movements like Women in Tech and She Leads Company and campaigns focused on showcasing female leaders, founders and innovators in tech and fintech play a crucial role in sparking change. When women in STEM, become more visible it will motivate more girls to choose STEM education, and female professionals to pursue careers in these sectors.
In addition, networking opportunities and mentoring programmes for women are necessary because they provide female professionals and business owners with both a stimulating peer-learning atmosphere and a welcoming community. As professionals in the industry, we can play our part by encouraging women to join and contribute to the sector.This may include becoming a mentor, engaging in networking activities, and showcasing the contributions of women to the finance and fintech industries.
5. Access To Finance
It’s recently been confirmed  that female-led startup companies receive only 10% of venture capital investment, and less than 1% of UK venture funding goes to all-female teams. The reality is fairly complex. Research shows that female founders ask for outside funding less frequently than their male counterparts do, plus when they request cash, they generally get less than men. Turns out, it’s not just female leadership that puts investors off, it’s the mere presence of a woman. In fact, having a woman on your pitch team means you get only a tenth of funding compared to those without a woman. Each risk-related question that women are asked equates, on average, to around $3.8 million less in funding. Investors tend to focus on risk when they review female-led businesses and focus on rewards when reviewing male startups. That is why just 10% of capital flows to female-run tech businesses .
When pitching, you typically have to be overly optimistic, which is not how women handle things. Instead, women prefer to narrate, be realistic and balance the risk, which is not appreciated at the investment stage although proves very valuable in leadership roles. The result is that while female entrepreneurs receive less support, they outperform all-male teams significantly. Statistics show that, for every dollar of investment generated, female-run startups generate 78 cents in revenue, while male-run startups generate only 31 cents.
The growth rate of funding provided to female-founded companies has plateaued in recent years. Unfortunately, biases and prejudices limit the ability of investors to see clearly, so big changes are needed in the investing industry to stop this trend from continuing. Changes in the ranks can be influenced by venture capital backers, including state pension funds and insurers. If backers demand that VC firms employ more female executives and invest in a greater number of female founders, the funds listen. At every single stage of the investment process, more women-founder-friendly VCs are needed along with more funding focused on women’s businesses. The fact that female founders raise less money hampers their potential to thrive.
She Leads (https://sheleadscompany.com) team believes that the world needs more female leaders, women investors and more female-led startups. Our mission is to close the gender gap in business and access to finance for women. By working with investors, VC’s, banks, startups, and corporates we strive to bring more investment, more recognition, and more support to all women in STEM fields.
- The Global Banking Alliance for Women report www.gbaforwomen.org/