Deep Tech Series Vol. 3: Women and Girls in Deep Tech

March 8, 2024
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“Women and girls belong in science. It is time to recognize that inclusion fosters innovation, and let every woman and girl fulfil her true potential.”

-- António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

The status of women and girls in deep tech

The ‘wicked’ and complex challenges we face as a global community demand new ideas and new ways of thinking and working. This is where deep tech – innovations founded on extensive research and development to enable transformational change – could have a particular impact. But deep tech can only achieve this potential if it can leverage the widest possible pool of talent. The inclusion of women in deep tech remains low, highlighting a profound underutilisation of human ingenuity. In Europe, for example, women account for only 6% of founders in deep tech scaleups – almost half of the, still low, figure for ‘traditional’ technology companies.

In this context, deep tech and the broader technology and innovation ecosystem share common challenges that require focused effort. First, funding. Women-owned startups across OECD countries receive 23% less investment and face a 30% lower chance of achieving successful exits than those led by men. The underrepresentation of women among venture-backed entrepreneurs and VC investors is an important factor behind the low funding rates for women-led startups. This can be an important multiplier, as the majority of firms that end up listing on stock exchanges via an IPO have been venture-backed.

There are also important gaps in leadership and participation of women across the tech and deep tech space. As of 2022, women represented 30% of the workforce in AI globally. However, deep tech also needs to engage with specific inclusion imperatives – including developing extensive science and technology pathways for women, from foundational learning to the commercialisation of deep tech innovation. These challenges are especially relevant in the rapidly developing tech ecosystems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where empowering women and girls could lead to technological developments for those that require new ideas the most. For example, deep tech could offer innovative solutions to meet the contraceptive needs of women in LMICs, where one in four women and adolescents of reproductive age have unmet contraceptive needs. 

Deep tech needs women and girls as much as they need deep tech

Women have been at the forefront of groundbreaking innovations shaping today's technological world. Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-American inventor, played a key role in developing early "deep tech" — the foundation of modern Wi-Fi. More recently, eminent female scientists like Prof. Sarah GilbertDr. Kizzmekia Corbett, and Dr. Karikó Katalin have led ground-breaking research, particularly in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Similarly, the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology by Nobel Prize recipients Dr Jennifer Doudna, and Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier represents a significant advance in biotech, offering the potential to transform medicine and agriculture with precise genetic modifications.

The global landscape of deep tech today continues to be reshaped by outstanding female scientists and entrepreneurs. One Tunisian startup co-founded by a self-taught female entrepreneur is leveraging GPU-accelerated computing, deep learning, and reinforcement learning to drive AI-driven drug discovery and the creation of new immunotherapies and vaccines for diseases that currently lack effective treatments. Similarly, a women-led climate tech startup based in Nairobi is addressing Africa's lack of environmental data. Leveraging state-of-the-art satellite technologies and AI, it provides farmers with granular data and offers macro-level insights into natural disasters and climate effects across Africa.

Improving the inclusion of deep tech does not just benefit women. The gender disparity among tech professionals has implications that ripple out far wider than just the tech industry. Incorporating, and leading with the viewpoints, experiences, and insights of women in developing new technologies can lead to more inclusive innovations. Emphasizing gender diversity in deep tech thus becomes a strategic imperative to unleash the full potential of these advanced technologies. But it has an especially important impact on women. For example, the scarcity of female voices in genetic engineering could skew research priorities and overlook diseases or conditions that predominantly affect women, or fail to fully explore treatments tailored to women's unique physiological responses.

Empowering women and girls in deep tech

To address the challenges faced by women and girls in deep tech, it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel. Valuable learning and insights can be garnered from successful approaches within the broader tech sector – and these can be combined with the learning that is emerging globally as countries increasingly engage with deep tech. This area is brimming with new opportunities for exploration and learning, offering a rich ground for adapting and testing proven methods in the unique context of deep tech. Such an approach underscores the journey ahead—full of potential for innovation and growth, yet requiring careful navigation and adaptation to best empower women and girls in this evolving field.

Identify and engage with the challenge. Female inclusion and leadership in the technology and deep tech ecosystems remain low. However, in many countries – particularly LMICs – being able to understand the scale of this issue is difficult. Less than half of the data needed to monitor the broader gender equality dimensions of the SDGs is available, and in many settings, gender-disaggregated data relating to technology and innovation is not collected. Strengthening core gender data systems within countries is an important part of providing policymakers, decision-makers, and innovators with the data needed to shape important and inclusive policies and strategies to catalyse deep tech – and broader innovation.

Strengthen educational and research foundations. By definition, deep tech is not a discrete intervention. It is founded on extensive pipelines of research, knowledge, and expertise. Empowering girls early in their educational journey with STEM programs could serve as a foundational step towards nurturing interest and capabilities in fields like deep tech. The story of Natacha Sangwa, a Rwandan high school graduate who created a mechanised irrigation system prototype at a UN Women-supported coding camp, showcases the transformative power of such early engagement. Moreover, partnering with, supporting, or creating online platforms that offer courses on deep tech and entrepreneurship in local languages could also promote female participation in deep tech. Various online education platforms already offer a range of self-paced deep tech courses with industry-driven curricula. These platforms have proven to be very effective in helping women around the world begin learning about deep tech, and improve and expand their current skills through interdisciplinary courses. These platforms also build a community with deep tech learners, facilitating mutual support and establishing connections with fellow learners.

Integrating women into the deep tech narrative. To foster a robust deep tech ecosystem, some developing countries like Thailand are implementing multi-year national deep tech startup plans. More broadly, dedicated support infrastructures like incubators and accelerators specifically designed to meet the needs of women-led deep tech startups could play an important role. For example, the "iHub" in Kenya, an innovation hub supporting tech entrepreneurs, has a specific “Women in Business” program. A similar approach could be effective for women in deep tech, providing spaces equipped with high-speed internet and essential deep tech tools (e.g., 3D printers, and VR headsets). These spaces would offer more than just physical resources; they would provide a supportive, women-focused environment, complete with skill-building programs and networking opportunities with multisectoral partners and investors. Emulating the Women in Technology Incubator in Kenya, which provides specific mentorship, pitch preparation bootcamp, and access to seed funding, could be a valuable model for supporting women in deep tech.

Bridging the commercialization gap. To ensure that women in deep tech not only innovate but also thrive and succeed in bringing their innovations to market, addressing the gender disparities in the funding ecosystem is crucial. Targeted initiatives such as the European Union’s "Women in Deep Tech Fund" highlight the potential of grants, investments, and in-kind support tailored to the unique needs of women-led deep tech ventures. Similarly, supporting more women to pursue financing pathways into venture capital and other investment firms could have an important multiplier effect. For instance, firms like Backstage Capital and initiatives such as All Raise aim to increase the presence and influence of women and underrepresented groups in venture capital. By addressing the broader imbalances in funding and resource allocation, a more inclusive ecosystem could actively support the commercial aspirations of women in deep tech.

Cultivating community and visibility. Community-focused initiatives like “Black in Deep Tech” exemplify how visibility and support can uplift underrepresented groups. A similar approach could be adopted for women and girls in deep tech that concentrates on STEM training, entrepreneurial support, mentorship, and recognition of local female pioneers in the field. Competitions, celebratory events, and recognition, akin to the Women in Tech® Global Awards, could serve as powerful motivators. Recognising the nascency of deep tech in many countries, regional and global networks could also result in vibrant and interconnected communities of female innovators (and policymakers). Such strategic community-building efforts could elevate women's profile in deep tech, encourage mutual support, and create inspirational role models.


How can we empower women and girls in deep tech?

Created by Author

This is the third blog of the Deep Tech Series. Click here for the full list of blogs.