Why women are a rare breed in Hong Kong's burgeoning tech start-up field

Women are woefully under-represented in Hong Kong's burgeoning tech start-up scene

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 3:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 3:19pm

As the Hong Kong government moves more aggressively to promote technology start-ups in a bid to diversify the city's finance and property-focused economy, experts warn that women are at risk of being left out.

Female students made up only a third of those studying technology-related subjects, and role models were severely lacking for those women that did try to buck the trend and join the male-dominated industry, Karen Farzam, co-founder of start-up showcase W Hub, said.

Young women needed to hear "that they can actually go into the tech industry", she said.

"The tech industry has so many opportunities that if [young women] feel they are attracted, they should definitely go for it."

Farzam founded W Hub two years ago with Karena Belin to highlight Hong Kong start-ups and job opportunities in the technology industry in the hope of seeing a more diverse workforce in the future.

Belin believes flexible hours make entrepreneurship a great choice for women who are one half of double-career couples that juggle child care with work. The structure of start-ups also suited women.

"A start-up typically is low hierarchy, big team players and that's normally an environment where women feel more comfortable and thrive," she said.

A barrier preventing Hong Kong women from taking up careers in technology may be the low representation of women in university science courses.

Last year, women made up 33 per cent of the local first-year undergraduate intake for science, technology and engineering and maths (STEM) degrees, down from 34 per cent in 2013, Education Bureau statistics show.

"We stress that the students' choice of subjects should be on the merit of their aptitudes and aspirations, and gender is not a factor for consideration," the bureau said of promoting science in secondary schools, adding that participation in science at secondary level showed no disparity between genders.

Farzam and Michelle Sun - the founder of children's programming school First Code Academy - created Women Who Code 18 months ago to form a community for female coders, as the majority of web developers are male.

Women Who Code events now welcome a mix of about 20 women and men each month as Farzam hopes to encourage male start-up founders to see there are women with relevant skills in Hong Kong.

"It's better for the whole ecosystem to have diversity and we can learn a lot from it," Farzam said.

Sun's years of working in a bank with major technology clients piqued her curiosity about the sector. Initially, she felt intimidated by the high percentage of men in coding classes. But she overcame her hesitation to enter the male-dominated field by enrolling in a women-only bootcamp at the Hackbright Academy in San Francisco.

After working at two start-ups in the US, Sun returned to Hong Kong to launch First Code Academy in 2013. The school was designed as a coding academy for girls, but expanded to include boys at the request of parents.

First Code Academy now has 2,000 students aged six to 18 learning how to write their own Flappy Bird game clones or design and create apps tailored to their interests.

Sun said the male-female split in the academy's classes was even until the early teen years when the number of girls began to dip.

"That's why we feel so strongly about starting kids earlier," Sun said, speaking from one of the academy's bright Wan Chai classrooms.

"Primary school years are a great time to get a taste of something. Not everyone will like it but at least they can make a more informed decision."

The Women's Foundation, which will later this year launch a study into why girls in Hong Kong are not choosing STEM subjects, shares Sun's stance on instilling an interest in science and technology early on.

"Encouragement and support to study STEM needs to begin early both in school and at home," said Lisa Moore, research and advocacy manager for the foundation. "Girls who show an early interest in the field often lose interest because of pervasive but underrecognised biases in the learning environment."

It's better for the whole ecosystem to have diversity

The foundation runs a series of mentorship and workshop programmes to promote technology among girls, with volunteers from big corporations such as Goldman Sachs.

"It's a good thing for more girls to get into the tech industry, because right now I would say it's still very, very much male-dominated and we appreciate the variety of people joining. It's a huge struggle," said Victoria Li, 26, a recent graduate of educational start-up General Assembly's 12-week web development course.

Li followed a similar path to Sun, moving from banking to coding. She quit her London job with a plan to become her own boss and soon realised learning how to code would allow her to put her own ideas into practice.

Even with greater encouragement to pick STEM subjects, Noel Ho Ka-miu, external vice-chairwoman of the Computer Science Association Engineering Society at the University of Hong Kong, warned that the practical nature of the city's youth and the low status of science careers in Hong Kong society would remain a large hurdle.

"In general, in Hong Kong, our first choice is business, then to be a doctor or a lawyer and then the very last is studying science," Ho said.

She said the majority of her female classmates were put off by the perceived loneliness of programming jobs and planned to go into the business side of technology firms in marketing or other more people-oriented areas.

Ho's fellow chairman, Ron Tam Hoi-kit, agreed that societal pressure often deterred youngsters from science careers as job opportunities were limited.

Tam added the public perception of information technology-related careers put many young people, especially women, off computer science.

"In Hong Kong, if a teenager is interested in IT, they will be marked as a geek," he said. "This won't be solved by the government pushing a lot of funding to technology but by building a better image of technology and IT guys."

Tam is far from a lone male voice wanting to see more female representation in technology and start-ups.

First Code's Sun said many of her male colleagues were also eager to see more female faces in technology, explaining that one of her male tech start-up friends in New York was excited to finally welcome a woman to his medium-sized team.

As Sun put it: "Who wants to work with 15 dudes?"