It doesn’t pay to be a female soothsayer, even in edtech

It’s sobering to think that in the 16th century the University of Oxford Professor Sarah Gilbert’s leadership in developing a vaccine against COVID-19 would have been likely to see her accused of high treason and burnt at the stake.

In 1591 David Seaton accused Geillis Duncan of having miraculous healing abilities and she was tortured until she confessed to being a witch before being put to death. I would like to thank Rachael Green Roche for her insight on the North Berwick Witch Trials.

Happily, the fact that Professor Gilbert has become a Dame of the British Empire and been immortalised with a Barbie doll shows that we have come a long way, but also reveals how far we have to go in recognising the contribution of women to science and society.

The international recognition of Professor Gilbert is heartening, especially when one considers that, with the exception of Maria Ressa “for her efforts to safeguard freedom of expression”, female Nobel Prize winners this year were nowhere to be seen.

In fact, since its inception in 1901 there have only been 59 female winners, which equates to 3% of total winners.

My own recognition of the undervaluing of women in science and academia came when I learnt the story of geologist and oceanic cartographer Marie Tharp while studying economics and geography at the University of Exeter as an undergraduate.

Her ground-breaking work mapping the Mid-Atlantic Ridge led her to propose that the presence of a rift valley was caused by the oceanic surface being pulled apart.

It was an insight that led to acceptance of theories of plate tectonics and continental drift, but her main academic partner, Bruce Heezen, dismissed it as “girl talk”. The injustice of this struck me deeply, but Marie Tharp is just one of countless female scientists that have been dismissed by male academics through the ages.

In addition to research in their field, female academics are also consistently blocked from progressing in their careers and black women academics face even greater hurdles.

Research carried out by Professor Nicola Rollock in the United Kingdom in 2019 concluded that “black female academics report being repeatedly overlooked for promotions, regularly confused for administrative staff and unsupported by other colleagues including women”.

Discrimination against female academics is likely to be exacerbated over the next years as many more female academics work within the humanities, which have, to my dismay, been singled out by politicians of all parties as not catering to labour market needs.

Will the COVID pandemic in which women took on the lion’s share of the caring burden set women further back?

Innovation and enterprise

The same barriers are faced by female academics and students taking part in university incubators. In the United States, for instance, Mara Lewis, a serial entrepreneur and managing director of Start Co’s Upstart Accelerator in Memphis, Tennessee, said: “I can’t list more than two or three women whom I engaged with during my entire run of building my start-up companies.”

With some notable exceptions like the Women’s Business Center of North Carolina, there is very little specific support for female entrepreneurs within universities or beyond.

As we see from incubators, discrimination is not just the preserve of academic institutions; it is also widespread in the business community at large.

A UK-wide study in 2020 showed that just 32.37% of business founders are female. This has improved from four years ago when female start-ups were languishing at 17% – no wonder, when 35% of women-led businesses face gender bias when raising business capital and, in the United States, loan approvals for female business owners are 20% lower than for men.

Candida Brush, a professor of entrepreneurship, feels this is mainly due to the widely promoted profile of a successful entrepreneur being male. If asked to name an entrepreneur people are likely to say Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, not Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx, or Rachel Romer Carlson, founder of Guild Education, whose profiles are somewhat less prominent.

While female entrepreneurs are low profile when things are going right, this is not the case when it all goes horribly wrong. No one can have missed the start of the sensational Theranos trial and the fact that Elizabeth Holmes, its female founder, could face up to 20 years in prison for fraud. In 2014 Theranos launched a supposedly revolutionary blood testing technology, and raised US$700 million in investment, leading to her company being valued at US$9 billion.

Where corporate wrongs are being done, it is entirely right that they should be litigated and dealt with severely, but in Psychology Today’s report Holmes seems to stand accused of deliberately dressing like Steve Jobs, speaking in a low voice and having body language like a man.

She is also accused of bamboozling, or somehow bewitching, members of a board, including names like Henry Kissinger, James Mattis and William Perry who surely cannot be considered as lacking in experience when it comes to exercising oversight while dealing with powerful people.

We are reminded that, in 1431, Joan of Arc was ordered to answer 70 charges, including accusations of witchcraft and the heresy of wearing men’s clothes.

One person who saw through the Theranos hype was Dr Phyllis Gardner, a Stanford Medical School professor, who was sceptical of Holmes’ claims early on. She commented on the record for The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, whose 2015 article challenged the Theranos technology and set the seeds for the company’s downfall.

Gardner has also founded several businesses and held senior positions, including board level seats, with commercial biopharmaceutical companies.

Women entrepreneurs

My own experience as a female entrepreneur swimming in the patriarchal sea of edtech business is in no way as sensational, but it is clear that the currents do not favour women.

The Harvard Business Review has explored “How the VC pitch process is failing female entrepreneurs” and notes that in 2018 only 3% of venture capital in the US went to companies with a female CEO. The conclusion is that gender bias causes male-dominated funding organisations to invest in businesses that will not generate the best return.

Experiences with sector bodies and public servants are also frustrating, with a sense of social and gender bias pervading that acts insidiously against a fair hearing for women entrepreneurs, particularly if they come from outside a certain social background.

The vast majority (72%) of senior civil servants in the UK come from a privileged background, according to research from the Social Mobility Commission, and, while there has been some progress on gender balance, there has never, in over 100 years, been a woman in the most senior position as Secretary to the Cabinet.

The really sad fact is that even when an idea is pitched in terms, for example, of the manifest need expressed by students, politicians and businesses to track employability, it gets limited attention if the author is a middle-aged, neurodiverse female who doesn’t look like ‘part of the club’.

Just last year the Women’s Enterprise Policy Group wrote to the UK Chancellor seeking more gender aware policies to support female entrepreneurs and women-led businesses, reflecting an underlying lack of attention, understanding or empathy from the higher education establishment, advisers to government and the policy-making machinery.

These problems are systemic and are taking far too long to put right.

From witches to edtech start-ups, the road for pioneering women through the ages has been a rocky one, with obstacles at every turn. Calling out unconscious bias, examples of discrimination and the continuing lack of progress are steps that must be taken to level the playing field for female academics and entrepreneurs.

More importantly, it’s a route to making the most of the talent that is available to drive economic growth and solve the great challenges facing humankind.

Louise Nicol is the founder and director of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD, an edtech company that tracks the graduate outcomes and career progression of international students globally.