Disrupting the Gender Gap: Women and Technology in Taiwan

Disrupting the Gender Gap: Women and Technology in Taiwan

Disrupting the Gender Gap: Women and Technology in Taiwan

Technology has a gender problem. It is becoming more widely acknowledged that the industry as a whole has largely developed with a huge blind spot—the near total exclusion of women, especially women of color. Unhealthy or abusive work environments, misogynist artificial intelligence, inaccurate clinical trials for medicine, and more issues have surfaced as the tech sector matures, revealing the underlying sexism of Silicon Valley that it is now trying to correct. Female entrepreneurs in Taiwan, however, are already working to prevent those mistakes from occurring as its innovative technology sector grows.

In March, Girls in Tech Taiwan, a global organization dedicated to advancing women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) hosted an event highlighting Taiwanese women in tech. In their “40 Under 40 Women in Tech” article, Girls in Tech Taiwan profiles women who are making an impact in their field. Many of the female entrepreneurs in Taiwan’s tech scene got their start in Silicon Valley. Jane Shih, managing director at Girls in Tech and director of Women Who Code Taipei, worked for eBay for most of her career before returning to Taiwan to found her company WeTogether.co and later Taipei Women in Technology. Jackey Wang, co-founder of Tickle Labs, Inc., previously worked for Microsoft before founding her first company in Silicon Valley, Wantoto Inc., which is now a leading app development software company in Taiwan.

In a phone interview, Shih told GTI that her work in Silicon Valley gave her the experience needed to set up and grow the network for women in tech in Taiwan. After her return to Taiwan, there were several smaller women’s tech communities, but Shih tapped into global networks. She emphasized the importance of connecting Silicon Valley and Taiwan by using such international networks that already existed such as Girls in Tech and Ladies that UX (UX refers to user experience). In fact, Ladies that UX will be holding its international conference, Talk UX, in Taipei in October. Talk UX will draw thousands of people to Taiwan and expand awareness of its tech industry. This is just the beginning of many international conferences, said Shih, whose next goal will be to attract TechCrunch. The ultimate aim is to make Taiwan a technology hub.

Perhaps in recognition of the impact that experience in Silicon Valley has on Taiwan’s tech ecosystem, the Executive Yuan created the Taiwan Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TEIC) which invests in Taiwanese start-ups to set up shop in California. Every year, TEIC sends 20 eligible start-ups to Silicon Valley with a USD $20,000 subsidy. With further government funding and policies, Taiwan’s tech sector is primed to take off. It already ranks 11th in global innovation according to the World Economic Forum (under the unfortunate and incorrect moniker of “Taiwan, China”). Overall, Taiwan is ranked 14th in global competitiveness.

It is critical that as Taiwan pursues innovative tech that it includes women, and one way is to start with education. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has a “Masterplan for ICT Education” to emphasize the digital skills students will need to be successful. Audrey Tang, digital minster of Taiwan, will introduce courses on information and digital literacy for all school years, as part of a larger mission to integrate technology and democracy. Girls in Tech runs “coding initiations” for girls at middle schools in Taiwan. Tickle, the app developed by Tickle Lab, provides a coding education platform and programs IoT (Internet of Things) devices. It has become wildly popular in classrooms around the world, and the company participates in programs to encourage young girls to learn coding. For adults hoping to learn new digital skills, Women Who Code Taipei, the Taiwan chapter of a global network that launched in 2016, connects women to teach and learn coding from one another. The Meetup group, Taipei Women in Technology, has over 1,400 members.

Indeed, from 2005-2014, the rate of men and women majoring in STEM fields at the university level in Taiwan has declined; for men the rate dropped from 66 to 57 percent, and for women the decline was from 31.4 to 28.7 percent (p 22). The low percentage of women studying STEM currently is reflected in their lack of representation in the sciences workforce. In Taiwan’s private research and development (R&D) field, 37,264 women are employed compared to the 143,171 men (2014, latest data available).[1] When the data is disaggregated by job title, it becomes clear which roles have greater gender disparity: 81,432 researchers are male, while 15,586 are female;  57,694 technicians are male and 16,954 are female; and 4,044 support staff are male while 4,724 are female.

Specifically at science parks in Taiwan, women represent about 40 percent of the workforce with 108,000 women to 158,000 men (p 23). However, the data did not show the actual roles of the women employed at the science parks. For West Coast US tech companies, women are 31 percent of the global workforce, with 23 percent of technical jobs. From 2001-2013, female-founded start-ups in the US received only 3 percent of venture capital funding.

The next aspect for creating an inclusive tech sector, according to Shih, is leadership training. Women lack the mentorship and leadership skills they need. Shih is in the process of planning a female entrepreneurship program to help teach women in tech how to found their own start-ups. In fact, Shih is so dedicated to paying it forward that, after 2017, she will relinquish her position as managing director at Girls in Tech to give the opportunity to someone else, in order to train future leaders.

Unlike the top companies in Silicon Valley, non-executive female professionals in Taiwan lack resources for training programs or networks. According to Shih, the bulk of Girls in Tech’s events are sponsored by US companies such as Amazon, Facebook, or Google. There is a lack of emphasis on diversity programs and corporate social responsibility within Taiwan’s corporate culture. Ultimately, Taiwan’s corporate structure needs reform, Shih said, especially to attract international talent. In addition, the government will need to reformulate visas to allow top global talent to live and work in Taiwan.

The gender gap in technology in America has led to expensive and harmful mistakes, not only for companies, but for the wider public. However, considering that moral arguments are less persuasive to corporations than the bottom line—it also pays to be more inclusive. Numerous studies have consistently found that the more diverse companies are, especially among the leadership, the better they perform in terms of revenue, reputation, and internal efficiency. McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile in terms of diverse boards (at least 30 percent female) earned 53 percent more than companies in the bottom quartile.

Focusing on inclusive innovation may be Taiwan’s ticket to competing with China in the technology sector. In terms of sheer volume, it would be impossible for Taiwan to subsidize its tech sector to the same degree as Beijing. If Taiwan can foster as much highly skilled human capital as possible and lower the barriers to market entry, it may finally produce its own global brand to rival Apple, Samsung, or Google—a feat that has thus far eluded Taiwan. Its tech developers would also do well to focus on the trustworthiness of their products, which will give them an advantage over companies from the PRC such as Huawei, which was implicated in capturing their mobile phone users’ information.

Considering the high-level of exchange and crossover between Taiwan’s entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley, there is a great opportunity for the US Department of State to solidify digital exchange in trade and education, perhaps by including the issue of women and technology under the Global Cooperation and Training Framework’s (GCTF) programs. The Tsai administration should take note of what women in tech are doing as well. President Tsai is touting the Asia Silicon Valley project, but innovators have not received much guidance from above. Instead, in true entrepreneurial fashion, women on the ground are leading the charge to create an inclusive, innovative technology sector.

The Main Point: Taiwan’s innovative tech sector is building momentum as more start-ups appear after a period of relative decline of interest in the STEM field. Female entrepreneurs in the industry are leading the way to connect Taiwan to the Silicon Valley by promoting diversity in tech. The Tsai administration should take care to foster their efforts if they wish to make Taiwan’s Asia Silicon Valley a reality.

[1]  Refer to table “III-2-7.Business Enterprise R&D Personnel (FTE) by Gender and Occupation”