The Nordics are leaders in gender equality, but not in the fintech sector. It’s time to discuss unconscious bias, and bridge the gap in fintech, not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s better for business.
While the Nordic countries are leaders in gender equality on a social and political scale, this does not extend to the fintech sector. Fewer women are working in tech generally, and the numbers are even more disparate in fintech – which sits at the intersection of three male-dominated fields: finance, technology, and entrepreneurship.
“I actually know less than 10 women working in fintech and only a couple of women who have founded/co-founded a fintech company,” Louise Ferslev, CEO and founder of MyMonii, says.
Not only is it important to discuss unconscious bias and bridge the gap in fintech because it’s the right thing to do, it’s also better for business.
From the outset, the playing field starts to get reduced when female founders seek investors and venture capital (VC). Statistics show that female founders do not receive VC funding at the same rate as their male counterparts, making fintech a much less welcoming and hospitable environment. According to a 2018 report by The Nordic Web and Danske Bank, only 1 in 10 investments in the Nordic region are injected into a company that has at least one female founder – creating a disincentive to those who are considering to enter the space.
“Startup business is risky, and many women choose to not enter the space to avert risk. They’re simply being rational,” Camilla Kerlauge, CEO and founder of Spenderlog, says.
This problem is acute in Denmark, where – according to the same report – only 0.8 per cent of VC funding goes to female-founded businesses.
“It’s still only about an abysmal 2 per cent in other places, but it is certainly better,” says Sofie Blakstad, CEO of Hiveonline).
The obvious question to raise is: how do we fix this?
Diversity is better for business
Even if you’re more interested in the bottom line and making ends meet than gender equality, statistics show that companies with better diversity numbers fare better and earn more money in the long run. As in any other sphere, diversity of thought adds new perspectives and innovative approaches to longstanding problems.
“Given the lack of diversity, I believe that huge market opportunities are not being addressed – both in terms of missing out on profitable ideas and solving important problems. Adding to that, I think it’s no coincidence that most of the humanitarian fintech companies that I’m aware of are run by women. Women genuinely see market opportunities that men do not and vice versa,” says Kerlauge.
According to a report from KPMG, despite their lower numbers, females are leading the way in fintech. Compared to the industry average, fintech startups founded by women are more likely to be successful. The study, which looked at 91 fintech companies across the United Kingdom, demonstrated that those founded (or co-founded) by a woman yielded 113 per cent higher returns for investors.
Quite simply, Denmark will suffer if it doesn’t catch up. “It is ultimately a question of being competitive. In Denmark, we run the risk of losing ground to the Nordic nations and, on a Nordic level, the lack of diversity will hinder us in the long term in the global market,” says Thea Messel, founder of Unconventional Ventures.
The investor circle is the greatest obstacle for equality
As a matter of psychology and biology, we relate better to those who we perceive to be familiar and similar to ourselves. This shows itself in a variety of ways, including hiring practices and investments. Yet, the discriminatory practices in Nordic fintechs are not a matter of malicious intent, but rather unconscious bias that can be overcome with an openness to education and self-reflection.
This discrimination is perhaps most apparent through the line of questioning women often confront when they pitch their business plan. Kerlauge says:
“In many cases we are pushed much harder on negatively-loaded questions than our male peers while we are pitching. Male investors often ask how my children are coping with their mom working in a startup. And they’re not doing it on purpose, it’s just a bias. The fact is I’ve met more male investors with prejudices than without.”
Through education and reflection on unconscious biases, fintechs – and especially investors’ circles – can become fairer.
“From my experience, it’s insanely difficult as a female to get into the same space as males. We couldn’t really believe it in the beginning, that we were being met with prejudice. It’s not a question of being cruel; most people just don’t fully recognize their own biases. My best advice for a female founder would be to find the investors who are aware of their own biases and can manage them. Today, we have fantastic investors at Spenderlog but it took us a while to find them,” Kerlauge says.
How, then, can we level the playing field?
Truth be told, entrepreneurs are not protected in the same way as employees in large corporations. As an individual in a startup, you are your own human resource department. Large corporations also tend to have more diversity, because there are different roles and different levels of seniority. As a chief executive officer, there’s often no one to turn to for. So, irrespective of whether you’re a minority, being a founder can be lonely.
Mentorship and female role models are vital to level the playing field and create a platform for new voices in the fintech space. According to Blakstad, mentors, role models, peer networks, and representation are necessary to bridge the gender gap.
“Women in Fintech need role models, because (very simply) it’s hard when you don’t see people who look like you encouraging you and saying ‘you can do it!’ One of the best things you can do is ask for help – not just from women, but from men as well. If you ask, people are usually willing to help and it will likely make you feel less isolated,” Blakstad suggests.