Why are there so few women in French tech? The causes and the cures

France's figures for women in tech roles are disappointing but initiatives are underway to help change that situation.
Written by Frances Marcellin, Contributor

Google France senior public policy manager Elisabeth Bargès: "It's a cultural and gender limitation that our parents and society unconsciously communicate."

Image: Google France

In the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking, Paris ranks ahead of Tel Aviv as the sixth city in the world with the most female entrepreneurs.

But a closer look at the French figures reveals that just 21 percent of entrepreneurs are women. Even Chicago, the city ranked top for women in startups, can muster a figure of only 30 percent.

It's a global problem. The business and economic case for gender diversity has been proved in studies such as McKinsey's Women Matter, which shows that, "$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women's equality".

A study on women in Europe's IT and comms sectors found there may be a shortfall of 900,000 skilled workers by 2020, and more women entering the field in these sectors alone could create an annual €9bn ($10.2bn) GDP boost.

In France, a recent analysis of 375 startups in Paris by leading French accelerator NUMA and Roland Berger shows that 81 percent of respondents are male, typically young, and elite-school educated -- and 19 percent are female.

In terms of tech, a recent report from L'Observatoire Paritaire de l'Informatique, de l'Ingénierie, des Etudes et du Conseilstates that while 33 percent of jobs are held by women in France, vast imbalances exist within the sector.

Women score high percentages in secretarial and administrative roles, but only 16 percent of computer technician jobs and 20 percent of IT project manager roles are held by women.

So what are some of the biggest obstacles to achieving gender parity in tech in France? "Barriers come from the beliefs of parents and probably from education as schools, obviously, have a major role to play," says Elisabeth Bargès, senior public policy manager at Google France, while admitting she grew up convinced that mathematics is harder to understand for girls.

"It's probably deeply instilled in a lot of women's and young girls' minds that sciences and computer sciences are not meant for a girl. This is a cultural and gender limitation that our parents and society unconsciously communicate."

Roxanne Varza, co-founder of Girls in Tech Paris and director of Halle Freyssinet, the world's biggest startup incubator launching in Paris in 2017, also believes that the issue has much to do with the current education system and cultural stereotypes.

Previously running Microsoft France's startup initiatives, she was shocked to discover that at a DigiGirlz event, where hundreds of 12- to 13-year-old girls were brought in to learn about tech, not one girl wanted to work in the IT industry.

"They felt that being in tech meant not interacting with humans and being stuck in front of a screen all day," Varza says. "I realized the tech they're learning in school is not getting them excited or showing them how creative an industry it is."

She believes that helping younger generations discover tech in a more creative way will lead to increased interest and a positive change in gender-parity figures.

Exposing women to positive female role models is an effective way to inspire women to enter into areas stereotypically viewed as masculine.

For Marie Vorgan Le Barzic, CEO of NUMA, the largest accelerator in Paris, the lack of role models is part of the problem, and why European platforms such as Inspiring Fifty, which showcases the top 50 women in tech leadership roles, are valuable.

"Much of the resistance stems from women themselves, because they don't envision doing tech jobs," she says.

"This difficulty is also due to a shortage of role models in the industry, particularly as most of these positions are held by men, who are often quite reluctant to promote the emergence of female talent."

On this point, Google's Bargès points to the importance of projects such as Jamais sans elles, a "gentleman's club" that includes 50 male and female figures from the tech industry and promotes the representation of women at events and roundtables.

At Google itself, she says in tech 18 percent are women, although this rises to 30 percent across all sectors. The company has various groups to support women's tech careers, from Women@Google, which provides networking, mentoring, and professional development, to Women Tech Makers, which is focused on globally connecting and empowering women in tech.

Despite the industry figures, Bargès says she sees many more female entrepreneurs today than two years ago, while NUMA CEO Le Barzic says that in the year where Isabelle Kocher became the first French CEO of Paris CAC 40 company Engie, new female entrepreneurial figures are regularly emerging.

"The digital world is becoming increasingly open to women," she says. "But what's important to remember is that women, even today, are still the underdogs when it comes to competing with men in the workplace."

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