At an industry conference held last month in Las Vegas, Alyssa Richard stood out so much she felt as though she was "walking around with flashing yellow lights" stuck to her head.
Ms. Richard, the Toronto-based founder of mortgage comparison website RateHub.ca, wasn't doing anything in particular to attract attention at LeadsCon, a networking conference for online lead generation companies. She was simply being herself: a woman who runs a successful, 18-month-old technology company.
In the male-dominated world of tech entrepreneurs, that's enough to make her stand out among her peers.
"I have never seen ratios of women as bad before," Ms. Richard says. "At the conference I was like, 'Wow, there isn't one female speaker' – a reality that's unfortunately also reflected in the tech industry as a whole."
Industry statistics and anecdotal evidence certainly support Ms. Richard's observations. Only about eight per cent of venture-backed tech start-ups in the United States are led by women, according to San Francisco-based Astia Inc., a non-profit organization that supports female-owned tech start-ups. At Founder Institute Inc., a business incubator based in Palo Alto, Calif., just over 21 per cent of the 415 technology companies launched over the past three years were founded by women.
Female leaders are also underrepresented beyond the start-up stage in technology. The National Centre for Women and Information Technology, based in Boulder, Colo., says just six of the top 100 tech companies are led by female CEOs. In Canada, only 14 of the companies included in Deloitte's list of 50 fastest growing technology firms had women in their executive ranks.
With almost half of all small- and mid-sized business in Canada owned wholly or partly by women, the small number of women in technology start-ups can't be attributed to a lack of entrepreneurial spirit or ability. So why aren't more women in the tech start-up community?
Barbara Orser, professor and Deloitte chair in the management of growth enterprises at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, says the image and culture of the technology enterprise have failed to appeal to women, who often view the prototypical tech business owner as masculine, aggressive and obsessive.
Women as a group also have fewer technology credentials than men; female students account for only 20 to 25 per cent of all computer science students in Canada. And while overall the percentage of female university graduates rose steadily between 1992 and 2007, the number of women graduating from mathematics, computer and information sciences programs actually dropped during this period, from 35 per cent to 30 per cent of total graduates.
"Even when they're credentialed, women are less likely than men to undertake entrepreneurship in technology," Dr. Orser says. "It's also interesting that women who are already working in technology are less likely to leave their employer to commercialize their own IT, perhaps because women in technology companies are often in the soft jobs like marketing or sales, as opposed to programming or hardware, and few make it to upper management."
Barbara MacDonald, co-founder of Willett Inc., a Waterloo, Ont., company that develops e-commerce applications, says technology's reputation as a boring, geeky space may also be keeping women away.
"Women are inherently social, so they may view a tech start-up as being non-social – a bunch of guys in a basement sitting in front of a computer all day and all night eating day-old pizza," she says. "The reality is, there's a huge social aspect because there's a lot of collaboration within technical teams, and there's a lot of interaction with the clients who are driving the product."
But the industry also stands to gain from the influx of women-led start-ups.
Ingrid Vanderveldt, entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell Inc. – a role that allows her to connect entrepreneurs to technology opportunities – says it's not that women are better entrepreneurs than men; they just bring a different style to the business of running a tech business.
"What is different is our approach to getting things done," says Ms. Vanderveldt, who is also a board member of Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network. "Men tend to see business in a linear fashion whereas women have a more holistic view."
As an example of this difference in approach, Ms. Vanderveldt cites a previous start-up she was involved in, where her partners – all men – wanted to focus on how the new venture was going to bring in revenue from sales. Ms. Vanderveldt, on the other hand, was thinking about ways to boost the overall value of the business.
"I was looking at it from the point of view of, wait a minute, we're a young company, how can we work with potential customers so they don't necessarily have to pay something up front but will agree to sign up for a long-term agreement?" Ms. Vanderveldt says. "Then when we have these customer agreements in place, we can take that to the investment market."
Axle Davids, CEO and brand technologist at Toronto-based Distility Branding, says having more women in technology can create a much-needed balance in the often uncertain existence of a tech start-up. Mr. Davids started the company several years ago, but in late 2010 welcomed a partner, Margaret Sims, as president of Distility.
"I think men tend to have a sprinting mentality while women are a bit more grounded," Mr. Davids says. "My partner often reminds me we're in a start-up, it's a marathon not a sprint."
Drawing more women into tech start-ups is a significant challenge that calls for a multitude of solutions, Dr. Orser says. Mentoring programs are especially effective, she says, as are support networks such as Canadian Women in Technology, a national organization with chapters in various parts of the country.
Getting young girls interested in technology is also a step in the right direction, says Melissa Dominguez, a Google Canada software engineer who leads outreach programs and participates in "engineering weekends" for high school girls.
It all sounds good to Ms. Richard at RateHub.ca, who says young girls need to see more role models to show them that being a tech entrepreneur is "fun and cool."
"We need to get the word out that, whether you're male or female, this is an exciting field with limitless opportunities," she says.
No woman is an island
Organizations and programs that support women in technology:
Canadian Women in Technology: www.catawit.ca
Ladies Learning Code: www.ladieslearningcode.com
Wired Woman: www.wiredwoman.com
Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology: www.scwist.ca
Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network: http://content.dell.com/us/en/business/women-powering-business.aspx
Tech Chics YYZ: http://tcyyz-eorg.eventbrite.com/