A worker at a stem cell bank. According to the United States Department of Commerce, women hold less than 25 per cent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. FILE PIC

GENDER inequality is the greatest moral and social issue of our time — and the world’s most critical economic challenge. If half of the global population cannot fulfill their human potential, the world’s economic growth will falter.

We are being robbed as we speak. If women fully participated in formal economic activity, it would add US$12 trillion (RM51.4 trillion) to the world’s coffers, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

Drill down to specific industries — the technology sector — and globally, women face the most profound imbalances. At risk are the immense contributions to innovation that women around the world could make — if simply given the chance.

We are now in what the World Economic Forum calls the “fourth industrial revolution”, an era built on technology that fuses digital, physical and biological worlds. It is imperative that women contribute to the planet’s sweeping transformation.

Imagine if women participated fully and their intellects, talents, and skills were fully used. Think of the products developed, technologies created, companies funded and discoveries found. What answers would women find for the world’s most pressing problems?

Keep in mind women’s inventions to date: Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes, who discovered radioactivity, radium and polonium; Grace Hopper, who designed Harvard’s Mark I computer; and Ann Tsukamoto, who isolated stem cells, a promising discovery that could lead to a cure for cancer.

Sadly, the numbers speak for themselves.

Globally, women are grossly underrepresented in scientific research and development (R&D). Catalyst, a global non-profit that works to accelerate women’s workplace inclusion, reports that worldwide, females account for less than 29 per cent of those employed in R&D.

In US, which prides itself as possessing the world’s most advanced tech companies, women hold less than 25 per cent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs, according to the US Department of Commerce.

When women actually do work in the tech sector, retention is an issue; negative work experiences and a lack of support spur women to depart at alarming rates. Almost one-third of women in science, technology and engineering in the US intend to leave their jobs within a year. It is worse in other parts of the world, as women in Brazil (22 per cent) and India (20 per cent) plan to quit during the same time period.

If one narrowly looks at the business case for gender, the argument is undeniable. Put simply, women boost the bottom line and add invaluable perspectives.

According to a Morgan Stanley report that polled 108 tech firms, companies with a highly gender-diverse workforce grew 5.4 per cent more revenue-wise per year.

Board representation matters, too. Companies in every sector, not just tech, perform five per cent better when they have just one woman on the board, according to Credit Suisse, which examined 3,000 companies.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics noted that out of 22,000 firms surveyed globally in tech and other, 60 per cent had no female board members. Norway, Latvia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria had only 20 per cent female representation in board members and senior executives.

In developing countries, gender parity could enable greater self-sufficiency. Consider the recent visit of Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai to Nigeria and the promise that the company will train 10 million Nigerians in the next five years, ushering them into the digital economy, a lofty goal that would open more Africans to the global marketplace. What if half — five million — of the newly trained tech workers were women?

Dr Unoma Okorafor, founder of the Nigerian-based foundation Working to Advance African Women (WAAW), is working across eight countries to increase the pipeline of females in tech. She believes that fostering gender parity is critical to poverty alleviation and Africa’s rapid development.

“Technology can empower women who are currently working in agriculture or at home. Many entrepreneurs are women. However, they are excluded from the formal system,” she said.

Could a burgeoning tech sector wean these countries off foreign aid? If countries could train workers to think for themselves, Africa could change the narrative from aid to trade.

“We could empower Africans to innovate for themselves,” said Okorafor, adding that this was part of the goal of attracting women to careers in STEM.

The problem is in training and retaining women leaders globally, but discrimination exists in the funding mechanism — venture capital (VC) — used to birth companies.

In California’s Silicon Valley, where many of the world’s largest tech companies launched — Uber, Airbnb, Google and Facebook — women face obstacles in VC. In fact, women-led companies comprised less than five per cent of all VC deals last year. Only seven per cent of partners at the leading 100 VC firms are women.

This summer’s avalanche of sexual harassment scandals at Uber and several prominent American venture capital firms have made global front-page news.

Unfortunately, for women in other countries, the story is also the same. In late July, the board of Kenyan software company Ushahidi fired Daudi Were, executive director, after an investigation of sexual harassment by a former employee. She published details online, recounting the disturbing impact of his actions. Eleven other women experienced similar incidents.

Access to capital is unmistakably powerful. Trish Costello, founder of Portfolia, a crowd-funding website that aims to create a new class of women investors, said that, “... the goal is to design spaces that work for women in terms of investment vehicles. Men say that there are no female VCs and that is why there is a leaky pipeline, but that is not true”.

Ruchira Shukla, regional lead for South Asia for the venture capital arm of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), gave hopeful news: “The number of women entrepreneurs in the tech space is rising. These women will serve as role models,” adding that she is heartened by the women entrepreneurs she is seeing, especially as the IFC invested in a fund for female founders.

Recent discussions to raise women up are encouraging. Is it lip service? Across the tech industry, it is still a man’s world. It’s up to all of us — men and women — to change the rules. Innovation and the world’s future are at stake.
ANNA SHEN is an international consultant for the United Nations, an entrepreneur and adviser to startups around the world.

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