CoverWomen and tech: Do we really need female founders and investors?The male point of view in the startup communities is so predominant that we often fail to realise the innovation we are missing out on.
Benedicte Tandsæther-Andersen
Benedicte Tandsæther-Andersen08 Mar, 2021

Main photo – from upper left to right: Maria Skår (investor and member of Astia Angels), Kristin Stormanger (CEO of bbhugme), Lene Elisabeth Eide (CEO and founder of CleanCup), Kristil Håland (founder of Jodacare), Maja Adriaensen (founder of Angel Challenge), and Anette Miwa Dimmen (founder of As We Are Now). These women were among the attendees and speakers at the Femtech event in 2019. Photos by: Startup Norway / Benedicte Tandsæther-Andersen

When I first was introduced to the Norwegian startup community, it was trough learning about a product created by a team where a woman was one of the founders. The woman was Christine Spiten (back then a part of Blueye), and even though the Blueye underwater drone wasn’t particularly women-oriented, I was still fascinated by the revelation that not only did a woman innovate the Norwegian tech community — she did also excel at it. As I was a young and fairly inexperienced journalist eager to learn about innovation, this founder expanded my mind and caused me to write one of my best-read articles in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

On Monday September 2nd 2019, Startup Campus was the location for an event hosted in a collaboration between Startup Norway and Innovation Norway. It was an event showcasing innovation created and driven by women — as founders, entrepreneurs, and investors — but also an event for launching the Norwegian government’s action plan for female founders: "Handlingsplan for kvinnelige gründere" ("Action Plan for Female Founders"). About 100 people had signed up to attend the event.

The turnout was good, and the action plan was launched. However, the situation still remains this: Women are often reluctant to become founders, and they are also reluctant to become investors. In 2017, almost 60.000 people established one or more companies — but only a third of these founders were women. Difficulties in getting through to (predominantly male) investors can account for at least some of the reluctance, but also failures, among female founders. Male investors usually won’t invest in products they don’t understand — and so, female-directed products are likely to fall through. This is even though women on average make more investment decisions for their families— for example what kind of food the family will eat, what clothes the kids will wear and in many cases, what kind of furniture that’ll make the home a home. So why won’t women (in general — yet) invest in businesses, and why won’t they found their own?

Ideas and echo chambers

In the "Handlingsplan for kvinnelige gründere", one of the reasons mentioned is that the Norwegian society has good opportunities for finding jobs in ordinary employment. You don’t have to take risks in order to make a living in Norway. Besides, risky behavior is (generally) not something that is encouraged — nor naturally occurring — in many women.

At the same time: The best and most valuable innovation can not be created by having only a slice of society pursue innovation. We are not fully expanding our own and others’ creativity if we don’t have a truly diverse community for innovation and startups. And so: Recruiting more women into the innovative communities will, in all likelihood, affect everybody’s creativity.

And as it was pointed out in an article published in The Guardian in 2019: Our biological sex affects our lives in ways we often don’t think of. After all, the vast majority of us live our lives identifying with only one biological sex — and so we don’t always consider the possibility that life might look, feel, and be very different for the other sex: This might even occur in ways that don’t appear to be related to biology.

The mathematics of gender

Our world is largely based on mathematics and measurements — in everything ranging from car safety, to police body armour, and the average office temperature. Some of these measurements have annoying implications for women (like not reaching the top shelf at the grocery store, or working in cold offices), but living in a world built around male data does in fact also have deadly consequences: Cars built to protect the average man will not protect the average woman, and police body armour for the average policeman will in all likelihood be too big for the average policewoman. Chemicals used in hair saloons — and nail saloons too — are ultimately so harmful to women’s (usually thinner) skin, that they may cause lasting health-related diseases. My own grandmother had to quit working as a hairdresser, simply because she was allergic to the chemicals. And that’s not even mentioning the neck- and arm-related injuries sustained from holding hairdryers, scissors, combs and other items at a certain angle all day.

If we accept this as the status quo without investigating the data any further, the harmful environment will continue to be a potentially deadly — and definitely unhealthy — misfit for women. (And this is a hidden — and mostly unknown — reason why we need women to be present and engaged in developing new products, and measurements.)

The invisible women

This article isn’t about asking for a "special treatment" of women, or that we reshape the world in ways that suddenly will mean policemen get smaller body armour, and that men in general will have a higher risk of dying in car accidents. (But then again, imagine how offensive that would be — a world based on female measurements.)

We need female founders, we need female investors — and we need an innovative business mindset to take on the public to a much greater degree than what is the current situation. We need someone to challenge the status quo that has people thinking women made no major contributions to society until the late 20th century. (Especially while considering the theory that many older inventions by women were assigned to their husbands — women had no real place in the world, after all.)

Innovation by women is far-reaching and will take on much more of society, if we encourage it — and let it. Considering bbhugme, one of the startups present at the Femtech event last week: bbhugme’s main product is a pregnancy pillow intended to offer comfort and support throughout a pregnancy. It’s an innovative product made by a woman, for women. This product wasn’t invented by a man, probably because most men truly never will feel the physical impact of a pregnancy. And yet, pregnancies have been around for far longer than the bbhugme pillow.

CleanCup is another Femtech startup created by a woman — one intended on both alleviating pain and saving the world, period by period. Created with medical silicone and much less wasteful than tampons and pads, the CleanCup wants to make sure that women are both environmentally sustainable and comfortable while they are on their periods. Once again, it’s an idea most men will never approach (or even feel compelled to think of), possibly because of the taboos linked to menstruation.

Jodacare, also one of the startups that attended the Femtech event, are aiming to better the communication between health personell and the next of kin/relatives of patients in need of care. Traditionally, the responsibility of caring for sick family members have often fallen on women — maybe because of a perception that women in general are more “nurturing”.

Innovating the world

Innovation means creating new ideas, products and methods. But to fully expand on our own innovative capabilities, we should aim to create a society where everyone can — and believe they can — contribute in creating meaningful innovation. The notions that men have the majority of good ideas, or the best resilience when founding a company, is ultimately harmful: Not only to women who end up getting fewer products targeting them and their needs, but also to society — which ends up reproducing old and outdated ideas about what men and women can do.

After my two month long time as an intern in Dagbladet (where I wrote my first article about Blueye and Christine Spiten), I got to work for the tech newspaper Shifter. And since March 2019, I have been a part of Startup Norway — where I get to deepen my learning about startups from Norway and beyond.

I cannot overestimate the importance of having a female role model when I chose to step into this largely male-dominated world of tech and innovation. With time, I have gotten more female role models in this field. Of course I do have male role models too, but none as relatable to my own life. And this is why that, when creating a better world for us all, we need everybody’s input. Drawing upon a fraction of society is just not going to cut it — especially not when we are aiming to create innovation.

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