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Digital female leadership: how much progress have we made?

Women are the figureheads of the digital industry, but female leadership is still a rarity.
Image: © CoWomen / Unsplash

Female digital leaders: only visible because they are rare?

When you take a look at the figures from the recent Female Founders Monitor 2020, it becomes obvious that the gender split in founding teams of the ICT industry is relatively one-sided:

3.5%
of founding teams are made up of women only.
14.2%
are mixed teams.
82.6%
are exclusively male teams.

Founding teams are therefore currently far from diverse. Male teams mainly dominate the IT and deep tech sectors, while companies founded by women focus more on online retail.

But it’s not just about founders. In the current debate on more visibility for women, numerous examples of successful digital female leaders are being brought into the public eye and highlighted as inspiring positive role models. And rightly so. People ultimately need to be made aware that women can make a real difference in the digital industry, and the young generation should be encouraged to pursue related professional fields. That’s exactly what events such as the Digital Female Leader Award (DFLA) initiated by Tijen Onaran and the Global Digital Women network are aiming to do.

In view of all this, the female driving forces of the digital industry have been present in our minds for a long time now, whether they’re making their mark in startups, the media industry, or large corporations. The awareness is high, but the number of female digital leaders remains low.

How do successful women from the digital industry see the situation from their perspective? What has been achieved and what is the end goal? We put these questions to Sigrid Dalberg-Krajewski, Director of Global Corporate Communications at Delivery Hero.

“What is evident for most industries still holds true for the digital economy: there is not enough diversity in terms of gender. We have a great opportunity to improve, especially when it comes to women in leadership. We should move towards a place where as a woman, or another minority, you’re no longer the ‘only’ in the room, but part of the norm.”

Sigrid Dalberg-Krajewski, Director of Global Corporate Communications, Delivery Hero

Will digitalization and New Work give the final push?

Is digitalization maybe even the key to more gender equality? The digital transformation is radically and permanently changing the world of work. Do these changes from New Work and Work 4.0 offer an opportunity for women to seize management roles in the digital economy and become digital leaders? For Sigrid Dalberg-Krajewski, it is especially the ability to work remotely and flexibly that is opening up horizons that were previously blocked off:

When you can offer more flexibility to plan your work/life balance, I believe that we will be able to secure more women in leadership positions. This needs to be complemented by a targeted effort of hiring more women across the scope, enhancing equitable systems, and growing inclusive behavior.”

Consequently, the shift in working habits and culture alone will not be enough. From Dalberg-Krajewski’s experience, active efforts to establish rules and practices are additionally required to make it easier for women to access leadership positions.

For Tatjana Biallas, International Managing Director at gofeminin.de GmbH, it is also mainly the shift in working culture – recently intensified by the unusual circumstances and magnifying glass effect brought about by the coronavirus pandemic – that is increasingly giving young women the opportunity to simultaneously fulfill both personal and professional roles:

“The last months have taught us that working from home can be very efficient and I am hoping that this understanding is going to lead more employers to support flexible working, which young women will benefit from as soon as they reach a certain point in their career where they do want to stay in their leadership position as well as manage their family and be a mum.”

In effect, insufficient compatibility between job and family and inconvenient working hours are the main reasons why the door to the boardrooms still remains closed to women in the ICT industry, that was the finding of a survey conducted among 504 ICT companies by the digital association Bitkom in 2019. Highlighted positive role models, events such as the Female Leadership Award, and the inspiring examples of female leading figures in the digital industry that are capturing the attention of the media should therefore not obscure our vision of the sobering reality.

Establishing diversity and gender equality in leadership positions definitely does not simply come about and cannot be forced in one fell swoop. There is still a long way to go! Digital female leaders are still a rarity in the midst of the digital transformation.

What skills does it take to be a successful female digital leader?

For Sigrid Dalberg-Krajewski, it requires a mix of confidence, natural curiosity, and intrinsic motivation from a young age:

“Curiosity, an urge for adventure (leaving safe Stockholm behind), and not being afraid to get off the beaten path. So often women are expected to model a certain behavior or career/family trajectory. In my book, it’s more important to find your own way than to go with someone else’s.”

For Tatjana Biallas, International Managing Director at gofeminin.de GmbH, critical voices and doubters only spurred her even more to believe in her abilities and goals:

“From a childhood age, I was tremendously interested in books and I have enjoyed performing on stage. Inspired by my dad, I also wanted to manage a business in media and publishing. Often, I was told that my dreams are too big, or I am too eager. These kinds of comments motivated me further and encouraged me to never give up on a dream.”

We all have a responsibility: what needs to be done?

What can and should companies, politics, society, and every individual alike do better in order to improve the framework conditions for women to find their way into female leadership roles? Sigrid Dalberg-Krajewski believes it is not about defining a quota or the like, but rather a change in mindset and a correspondingly instilled working and leadership culture that determine whether up-and-coming female leaders stand a good chance:

“At Delivery Hero, we continue to hire externally to bridge the gap for female leaders in tech and throughout the business, but just as importantly, we want to empower our female employees to grow within the business and take on more leadership as well. Providing an inclusive culture will help provide space for them to grow, but as a business we also need to provide them with opportunities as well. We want to have a very diverse set of leaders because we know that diversity makes for fairer, inclusive, and innovative workplaces.”

Providing opportunities to develop and space to grow, while at the same time specifically promoting diversity as part of an inclusive corporate culture – these are the to-dos for companies. As Tatjana Biallas sees it, modern digital companies have no other choice anyway but to increasingly fill leadership positions with women. For her, things are controlled by the supply and demand of the job market:

“If a company doesn’t enable women to hold leadership positions then I believe these firms will midterm be less attractive to other skilled women to even consider the company as an exciting employer and long term these firms will have a disadvantage when it comes to access to the best talent pools and therefore might fall behind their competitors.”

Tatjana Biallas, Managing Director International, gofeminin.de GmbH

In the mid and long term, companies that want to stay competitive therefore cannot get around giving capable, competent women decision-making and influential powers at all levels. That doesn’t sound like a cry for help in a political sense, for example in the form of a mandatory female quota.

The management ranks of companies are equally responsible: since gender equality is in the economic interests of the companies themselves, their managers must also drive forward diversity and the equal involvement of women in leadership positions. Of course, that includes aspects such as:

  • Flexible working time models
  • Job sharing
  • An easier return after maternity and parental leave
  • Support with childcare

However, the political sphere can and should obviously play its part by improving the conditions for female founders, promoting compatibility between job and family, and restructuring the education system so that girls are excited and inspired by digitalization and IT and are prepared for specific career paths.

Companies have no choice: they cannot be viable without female digital leaders

Does a modern company need female leaders to get through the digital transformation as a winner? In Sigrid Dalberg-Krajewski’s opinion, this question should not be asked in the first place.

 

“We should not have to defend diversity – it is good in its own right, makes for a higher business success, and mirrors our customer base. We need to have different perspectives at the table, because not only will it provide a better product to our consumers, it will also create a better environment for all our teams.”

Sigrid Dalberg-Krajewski

The corporate culture and structure should be aligned with the needs of the target group, i.e. potential customers. It is therefore only logical to reflect all the views, perspectives, and needs of the target group within the company as well. Your team should be put together and built up as diversely as the real life of your customers and the composition of your target group – at every level of the company.

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