Africa: Getting Better? More Women in Tech but Not At the Top

Lisbon — The tech sector has long come under scrutiny for inequality and for its 'bro-gamer' culture, referring to men who play video games

Technology firms are hiring more women and narrowing the gender gap, a poll by Europe's largest technology conference found on Wednesday, but female leaders said the multi-trillion dollar industry was still failing to put them in its boardrooms.

A poll of 600 women in tech by the Web Summit showed nearly half, or 42%, believed gender ratios had improved in the last year. One in three were "unsure" if representation was better.

The findings from the conference suggest the sector is starting to respond to allegations last year of sexism at tech firms such as Facebook and walkouts by Google employees in response to claims of inequality and sexual misconduct.

"It's great to hear that women in tech feel that they are becoming better represented," said Winnie Lee, chief operating officer of Taiwanese artificial intelligence (AI) startup Appier.

Lee said both men and women needed to be involved in AI to make sure the technology is "applied in the most creative ways to benefit society".

About 70,000 people from 163 nations attended the conference, whose organisers said the number of women attendees had risen to about 46 percent from 25 percent in 2013, boosted by ticket discounts.

Other women tech leaders, though, were less sanguine.

"Yes there are more women in tech, but until women are around the table making decisions, it really doesn't matter that there are more of us," said Laurel Touby, who runs a New York-based venture capital fund, Supernode.

"When you have 30% representation by women, women start to feel comfortable enough to make themselves heard and to express their opinions. In tech we definitely haven't hit that percentage yet."

LACKING IN LEADERSHIP

The tech sector has long come under scrutiny for inequality and for its "bro-gamer" culture, referring to men who play video games.

Global organisations including the United Nations have spoken out about under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

A 2016 report by the global consultancy McKinsey found women made up 37 percent of entry-level roles in technology, but only one in four senior management roles.

About half the women polled at the Web Summit believed their salaries were in line with those of their male counterparts, up from 37% in a similar study last year.

Nonetheless, four in 10 respondents agreed with the statement: "Many women are offered leadership roles just to fill quotas".

Boosting gender equality was a key theme at this year's Web Summit in Portugal, where company representatives spoke of training staff in unconscious bias, deleting sex from CVs, having women on all shortlists and improving maternity rights.

Even the resident robot was on message.

Asked by a journalist if she would like to inspire women in AI, Sonia, a social humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong based company Hanson Robotics, said:

"Girls are one of the most valuable natural resources this planet has to offer being so full of potential, thinking brilliantly. And yet they are mistreated all over the world. There is definitely an apartheid of gender."

- Reporting by Tom Finn, Editing by Claire Cozens

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