This huge shift is apparent throughout society, starting at university level with the number of females now choosing to pursue science and business courses. More women are also now getting actively involved in entrepreneurship student clubs and technology associations, previously deemed the realm of geeky, strictly male individuals. And, most importantly, this trend is becoming visible at the highest levels of decision making in the country – in the technological and entrepreneurial aspects of politics, economics and commerce.
Technology has historically been a great ally to women. With the introduction of machines and home appliances beginning with the vacuum cleaner, running a household was no longer a full time job, leading to a significant shift in social norms relating to the role of women in the household, the family, and society as a whole.
Over the last few decades, the presence of women in the workplace has become less and less remarkable. As we make our way into the second decade of this century, what we are witnessing is a broadening in the range of careers women choose to pursue, with many more women entering the male-dominated realm of technology.
Cambridge is an ideal viewpoint to observe the progression of women within business, and in particular in the technology and pharmaceutical sectors. It is an internationally renowned hub of entrepreneurial activity, with its well-earned "Silicon Fen" title.
The Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club (CUTEC) is a leading student-run organisation that seeks to nurture and enhance the entrepreneurial spirit amongst academics and students. Since its inception in 2003, the Executive Committee has been male-dominated, and led by male Presidents, until 2010 when Vivian Chan became the first female President of CUTEC.
Since her election to the role, the number of women joining CUTEC has increased dramatically – could it be that women hunt in packs, or perhaps show greater empathy towards their fellow female co-workers, thus encouraging others to join when they are in a position of leadership?
That same year, Liz Williams joined the club, taking on the role of Technology Showcase lead – an exhibition and competition for promising and European start-ups as a focal point of the club’s annual flagship event, Technology Ventures Conference (TVC). In June 2011, despite a short time within the club, she was elected President. The same fast-paced progression of women within technological organisations is increasingly common, with strong leadership skills, an aptitude for interaction with all kinds of people, and an attitude, which leaves the ego out of the equation.
Over the past year the female membership of the club has risen from 10% to 40%, with the Executive Committee being an equal measure of men and women. Notably, four of the Vice Presidents of the 5 strategic teams that make up CUTEC are female. Clearly, women feel more confident to stand up and be heard when their female peers are leading the way, and as their involvement increases, it becomes easier to take on roles of responsibility, knowing that their peers in leadership positions will back them.
CUTEC is not alone in this female entrepreneur trend. Within Cambridge there are several leading women challenging this male-dominated arena, including Jennifer Hersch who is Head of the MBA programme at the prestigious Judge Business School. The closely associated Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning boasts a female ratio of 9 out of their team of 10.
Cambridge is well known for a huge output of start-ups in a geographically small area, and this tech cluster has always supported the involvement of women in business. However, the area remains strongly male, with most VCs, CEOs and investors wearing trouser suits, rather than skirts. In a city with such strong tradition – Cambridge must lead the way in creating a more equal ratio of female to male entrepreneurs. Our generation will witness this ratio rising to its highest levels yet.
Of course this change is not just happening in Cambridge. There is a growing global movement to encourage women into traditionally male dominated, high impact domains. Simone Brummelhuis is a woman with an impressive collection of ventures behind her, and is currently Vice President for Europe at Astia, a global not-for-profit venture accelerator and entrepreneur programme for women in leading high-growth companies. She tells us: “As European director of Astia, I am happy to see so many high growth female entrepreneurs, who understand that they need to work ON and IN the business, that they need to develop their network of advisors and investors and that peer-to-peer interaction with fellow entrepreneurs is highly valuable.”
Astia is active in assisting companies led by women to be the next generation of successful female entrepreneurs. Simone adds: “research proves that if women were able to fully participate in high growth entrepreneurship we would see a significant and measurable benefit to the economy, innovation, and society. Astia’s mission is to provide access to the networks and precise expertise that women high-growth entrepreneurs need to succeed, thrive in their enterprises, and ultimately impact today’s global economy.”
One female entrepreneur who is most definitely thriving is Sarah McVittie, one of The Times newspaper's “Top 35 under 35” entrepreneurs. She argues that once you have built the confidence and decided to bite the bullet in entrepreneurship, gender becomes irrelevant.
Sarah has shown that through sheer hard-work, tenacity and drive it is possible to achieve success in any sector. She tells us: “I do not think it matters whether you are male or female, but more about having the confidence to get out there and just get going. I don't think the barriers or hurdles I have faced are any different to men or because I am a woman - I think they are all part of what it takes to be an entrepreneur and build a successful business.”
And she should certainly know about successful business: at 25, she developed Texperts, the world’s first SMS question answering service, from an idea into a pioneering, industry-recognised leader in a new market segment with significant potential in mobile. Over 5 years, she raised £2.5 million in angel funding and took the company to a successful exit. In 2008, Texperts was sold to its largest competitor in a multi-million pound transaction. As the inspirational force behind Texperts, Sarah accrued an extraordinary record of business innovation and performance in a short period of time.
After selling Texperts, she started her second business in 2009. Her new business, Dressipi, is also a technology business but this time in the fashion space, focused on developing the ultimate platform for personal styling and shopping. Dressipi officially launched in November 2011 and now has over 50,000 customers.
These examples demonstrate that although there is still a gender imbalance at the higher levels, success is most definitely possible when women take responsibility for their own ambitions and drive. More than ever before, we now find ourselves surrounded by successful women, who provide inspirational role models for those who wish to follow.
We must ensure that women are encouraged and supported to get actively involved in the technology and entrepreneurship sectors – and we believe that CUTEC is leading the way! The club’s annual Technology Ventures Conference, on the 22nd of June in Cambridge, will be a testament to the hard work and vision of all its members, female and male, and will be proud to demonstrate this new reality in featuring highly successful women such as the inspirational entrepreneur Julie Meyer from Ariadne Capital.
For bios and more information on our team, please see http://cutec.org/content-team/