Women and the Digital Age: a tale of I love you, but I don't love you

Written by Radostina Kostova, on 17 November 2021

Ada Lovelace, the pioneer who created the analytical engine... Grace Hopper, "the Queen of software" witness to the first computer "bug"... Margaret Hamilton, the Woman whose computer code sent Man to the Moon... and Roberta Williams, the "Gamer" who designed the first graphical adventure game...

The list is long of impressive women who have shaped the history of computing. The pioneers were indeed women... In the 1960s, they represented nearly half of the workforce in computing. And by 1978, women made up half of the students studying computer science... However, gradually, over the years as this field of activity gained importance and prestige, women lost ground to their male counterparts.

Is this an inevitable trend? Or can women regain prominence in the digital spotlight in the future?

Has the digital world become a no-women’s land?

The European Commission publishes an indicator each year measuring the presence of women in the digital economy (Women In Digital scoreboard). Their dashboard evaluates the performances of Member States in the areas of internet use, internet user skills, specialized digital skills, and employment, based on 12 indicators.

According to the 2020 data, women are less likely than men to have specialized digital skills and to work in this field, as only 18% of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) specialists in the EU are women. In France, this figure stands at 21%.

And what about the presence of women in digital entrepreneurship today? Are women and men on equal footing when it comes to accessing funding to start a digital startup?

The recent barometer on access to financing for women startup leaders, published by SISTA/CNNum/BCG, shows that in 2020 in France, startups founded by women or mixed leadership teams represented only 21% of the total. The 4-point increase compared to 2019 gives some hope. However, this result shows that today, men largely dominate the startup world. Similarly, in terms of funding, in 2020 investors predominantly turned to male teams, as they represented 85% of funded startups.

Yet, investing in a startup co-founded by women ensures promising prospects in terms of results: the BCG firm notes that in terms of return on investment (ROI), for every dollar invested, funds would recover 0.78 cents for a female or mixed startup compared to 0.32 cents for a male startup.

Unequal media coverage impacting women's vocations

The reality is indeed one of underrepresentation of women in the digital sector. They are minorities, but not non-existent. To combat this deficit of women, numerous associations, foundations, and collectives have been created to highlight or promote the role of women in the digital world. This is the case with "JFD": the Digital Women's Day. The latter, co-founded by Delphine Remy-Boutang, presents itself as a "growth accelerator." Last April, JFD, in collaboration with Madame Figaro, published the 2021 edition of digital entrepreneurs "who are committed to new generations," shining the spotlight on eight digital entrepreneurs.

The numbers show that women are still too much in the minority compared to men in the digital world. However, the problem is not so much the absence of women in IT, or a lack of interest on their part. It is rather a lack of visibility of these women entrepreneurs.

A lack of visibility of women in digital

The media indeed have a responsibility in how female presence in the digital sector is portrayed. We remember, for example, the outcry caused by the cover of the magazine Capital in 2017. Indeed, it was dedicated to French IT startup founders who export their products... The problem: among the mentioned leaders, not a single woman was included! In response to this, a tribune was published by a collective of French female digital entrepreneurs to highlight their success, which is just as significant as that of their male counterparts.

This very patchy media coverage consequently leads to a lack of knowledge about inspiring personalities who could spark vocations... In other words, to attract women, the digital sector needs to showcase some successful role models. And, as we have seen, these successful female role models do exist. It's all a matter of putting them in the spotlight at the right time. Some will even say that here, it should be a matter of "positive discrimination." Because the fact is that if there are fewer women in the digital sector today, it is primarily due to a lack of vocations at the base...

Are women less inclined to pursue a career in digital?

This is the "problem," if there is one, that needs to be addressed at its root... at the time when young female students are making their career choices. Within the EU, the observed trend is that the digital sector attracts fewer women than men. According to the European Commission, in 2015, among female graduates, only 25% graduated in digital fields. Moreover, only 13% of these female graduates would currently work in the digital sector. According to the same study, in France, in ten years, the percentage of girls in scientific and technical fields has only increased by two points.

In the 2019 school year in general, according to figures from the French Ministry of National Education, the "Digital and Computer Science" specialty was chosen by 2.6% of all girls, compared to 15.2% for boys. While the subjects in which girls are most in the majority, at 85%, are "humanities, literature and philosophy, languages, SES."

Is this lack of female vocations towards education in digital professions inevitable?

As Isabelle Collet points out in her book "Les Oubliées du Numérique" (2019), a study conducted in Malaysia in the early 2000s at the Faculty of Computer Science in Kuala Lumpur, by Norwegian researcher Vivian Lagesen, is quite enlightening. In this institution, all department heads and the dean are women. Similarly, in the state of Penang, the number of female computer science students is 65%. Moreover, 70% of computer science professors are women, as well as the dean of the faculty. At the same time, in France, the number of women in computer engineering schools barely reached 10%. As Isabelle Collet points out, the researcher speaks, not without humor, of the realization of a cyber-feminist utopia!

How to explain such encouraging results?

The reasons are both political and cultural. In Malaysia, since the 1970s, the government has implemented laws to encourage women's access and participation in education, science, and technology. Furthermore, according to Vivian Lagesen's study, when Malaysian computer science students are asked about their career choice, they mention cultural reasons: according to them, computer science is not physically demanding and can be done from home, which is compatible with being a mother.

"The Amazons of Digital": will these women make a comeback?

In Europe, various reasons explain the deficit of women in digital. The most commonly cited are the persistence of gender stereotypes, women's self-censorship, and above all, the infamous "glass ceiling." Indeed, this exists in all sectors and hinders women's progress into leadership positions.

However, a study published in Harvard Business Review in 2011 indicates that groups composed predominantly of women are apparently more intelligent than others! Professor Michael Ferrary studied the feminization of French companies through a portfolio consisting of 15 CAC40 companies. Their hierarchy is feminized to at least 35%, and they operate in very diverse sectors. These include Luxury, Communication, Health, and Finance. He studied this portfolio of values over a period of 10 years, between 2006 and 2016.

What did he find? This "feminized" portfolio gained 60% in value. And this, regardless of the context, while the value of the entire CAC 40 was down by 4%. Other studies have been conducted on around a hundred companies in Spain, China, Denmark, and the United States. These tend to show that female-led companies are more innovative in terms of Products and Management. Indeed, feminization encourages an additional collective intelligence through emotional intelligence, expressed by a capacity for listening, empathy, and respect for others' contributions.

In digital as elsewhere, women have their role to play in shaping the future. This would allow us to make the best use of our collective intelligence potential.


[1] https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/library/country-reports-women-digital-scoreboard

[2] https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/why-women-owned-startups-are-better-bet

[3] https://www.frenchweb.fr/un-oubli-capital/301692

[4] https://www.education.gouv.fr/choix-de-trois-specialites-en-premiere-generale-la-rentree-2019-15-combinaisons-pour-80-des-eleves-3245

[5] https://www.latribune.fr/actualites/economie/international/20110707trib000634787/les-femmes-bientot-plus-puissantes-en-malaisie-.html

[6] Les Oubliées du Numérique, d’Isabelle Collet (Editions Le Passeur, 2019)

[7] Supercollectif : la nouvelle puissance de nos intelligences, Emile Servan – Schreiber (Editions Fayard, 2018)