End the boys’ club

Women are vastly underrepresented in Lebanon’s tech startups, and that’s bad for growth

The message of success (see “In praise of chaos“) bears repeating: as Executive surveyed the offices, workshops and hangouts of ambitious young companies over the past two months, we found the Lebanese entrepreneurship ecosystem in 2014 to be performing far beyond the assumptions of defeatists, and even our own optimistic expectations.

But while this ecosystem is growing and maturing faster than anyone but the most wide eyed enthusiast could have suspected half a decade ago, we must take extreme care to not fall into a self-congratulatory trap. Our budding tech entrepreneurship is amazing, but there is much more to do. And now is the right time to think critically and strategically about how to remedy the ecosystem’s all too real shortfalls.

One striking deficiency in tech companies is that they sorely lack women leaders. The insight has been painfully slow in unfolding, but an enlightened, global consensus has formed that women have far more to contribute to corporate performance than they are asked of today. There is no evidence of this realization, however, in the ranks of our list of science and tech entrepreneurs. Among our Top 20 in 2014, we can only present a handful of women among an overflow of men. And although the number of startups and projects which we investigated while crafting the Top 20 involved talking to a much larger number of venture pilots than made it on the list, the share of women in this wider group was also depressingly low.

Of course, this is not just a Lebanese problem. Recent international studies show that high tech is an environment where even female MBA grads forsake their careers at much higher rates than their male counterparts, and we also have known for most of the information age that the high tech industry hosts a hostile environment for highly skilled women. Moreover, female leadership and perspectives are underrepresented in the entrepreneurship ecosystems the world over, with deficiencies spanning from lower acceptance of women’s ideas in science and tech companies to general underestimation of their investment capabilities and preferences.

Yet it would be preposterous to assume that women are lesser entrepreneurs than men. Statistics demonstrate that women and men are represented in different proportions in different fields of economic activity and one cannot rationally deny those differences. But why such discrepancies exist is an entirely different, and often assumptions driven and ideology laden, discussion.

Here is not the place for this discussion, but there are a few things that are clear.  When it comes to women in high tech companies and tech driven growth industries such as the development of online games, their underrepresentation must be attributed almost entirely to male misogyny. It cannot be traced to any lack of computing skills or tech talents in women, because such allegations have been disproven by scientific research.

Neither can one blame the problem on imaginary issues by postulating something inane such as feminine disinterest in leadership and enterprise management. Any sincere observation of the Lebanese entrepreneurship case proves that women play decisive roles in the growing ecosystem, and in many fields of entrepreneurship, they seem to account for much higher proportions of risk embracing, future minded enterprise builders when compared with the narrow high tech sector.

One might want to dismiss the misogynist aberrations found in the tech environment as simple backwardness, but it has clear and negative economic consequences. If we pretend that our tech entrepreneurship can develop without a greater participation of women while other, competing ecosystems are brimming with initiatives and efforts to address this imbalance, we will deprive Lebanon of at least 50 percent of its human growth capital in the sector.

If denied opportunities in Lebanon’s tech sector, top female talents will take their skills and passions elsewhere — to other industries or other geographies. This cannot happen. Instead, tech leaders must use the time when this ecosystem is still young and elastic to forge a more inclusive, forward thinking approach towards women tech entrepreneurs.