Karoli Hindriks, 34, of Estonia, started her first company when she was 16. At 19, she spoke before the European Parliament about young entrepreneurs. And she didn’t consider herself a feminist.
“I thought, if you’re good enough, you’ll get the position,” she said. Then, she was propositioned by a possible investor. Writing about the episode in her blog, she described it as “the most humiliating situation imaginable.” She also said that when she was applying for an accelerator program for the company she currently heads, Jobbatical, she was told she should leave the fact that she had a child off the application. (Jobbatical matches global companies and job-seekers in technology, business and creative fields.)
“I was very full of myself when younger,” she said. “It has been eye-opening.”
But one thing making her life easier is “that the state is supporting family so strongly,” Ms. Hindriks said. “We have 18 months’ paid paternity and maternity leave. Preschool costs nothing. Taking care of a child is not an issue.”
Geraldine Le Meur, 45, moved from Paris to San Francisco a decade ago to be, as she put it, “in the center of the jet engine. It was and is the place to be when you are in the digital and tech space.”
One the biggest cultural differences she found is how surprised people were that, as a mother of three, she opted to work full-time.
“It was almost shocking to people that I continue working rather than stay at home with the boys,” said Ms. Le Meur, who started the Refiners, a San Francisco-based seed fund program to help foreign tech start-ups go global. “It wouldn’t be the same in France; it wouldn’t be that surprising.” And she also attributes the differing attitudes to state-subsidized day care and to an earlier starting age for school – 3 years old rather than 5 in the United States.
“You know that the people taking care of your babies while you work are professionals,” she said. “I see friends here who have little kids who are super-conflicted. If they’re financially well-off, it doesn’t seem right not to take care of the kids yourself. My kids are the best part of my life, but not the only part.”
Shira Kaplan, 34, who moved with her husband from Israel to Zurich for his job, found that the message about combining motherhood and work was very different in Switzerland than in her native Israel. She served in the elite cybersecurity intelligence unit in the Israeli military, but when she became pregnant with her first child while working at a private Swiss bank, she said she was constantly asked: “ ‘Are you coming back? Are you coming back 100 percent?’ In the end, they restructured my team while I was on maternity leave and it was a very strong signal.”
She then started and now runs Cyverse, a firm that brings Israeli cybersecurity expertise to Europe. Yet, even as the industry is increasingly eager to show diversity by bringing on women — “we’re the new hot thing” — she still feels different, not just about being a woman, but a young woman, she said.
In Israel, perhaps because military service is mandatory for women and men, there is a greater sense of equality, she said, and there are more women entrepreneurs in technology. In Switzerland, walking into a technology conference, “almost everyone one around you is a gray-haired male in a suit,” she said. “It’s difficult, because when doing business with someone, you look for something in common, and we’re asymmetrical — ‘I’m young, they’re old, I’m a woman, they’re male, I’m short they’re tall.’ ”
Ms. Imafidon, 28, agreed. “I’m young, a person of color, a woman and I talk like a person from East London — you could discriminate against me for a number of reasons.”
She said she hasn’t experienced much gender bias, probably because, she said, she is very confident and not especially perceptive about what other people think of her. At 20 she was one of the youngest people ever to be awarded a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science by the University of Oxford, and in 2013 the British Computer Society, a professional organization, named her its young information technology professional of the year.
But she is worried about the small number of young women entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM, and the messages they’re getting about women in technology.
Her concern led her to start Stemettes, which offers workshops, classes and summer programs designed to expose all girls and young women to science, technology and engineering. For example, at a recent event, 60 girls ages 5 through 19 showed up to build their own apps.
The different educational systems in the United States and Britain mean that each has its own strengths and weaknesses when teaching STEM, she said; British schools, unlike schools in the United States, have a national curriculum; STEM teaching in the United States, on the other hand, “might be more patchy, but it can also be more creative.”
Vanessa Evers, a professor of computer science at the University of Twente in the Netherlands who was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and who worked for Boston Consulting Group in London, said the United States offers more women role models in technology and science than her country does. “In America, it is easier to find support,” said Prof. Evers, who specializes in human-computer interactions. “I had women mentors who were willing to allow me to be there to observe and come along to important meetings. I learned so much just from being there. It’s not so common here — there’s more of a class system, a sense that ‘you don’t crash the party.’”
She feels, she said, a “basic condescension” as a woman in tech. “I feel I have to convince them that I know the technology, and they’re surprised when I do.”
Prof. Evers has had her share of inappropriate remarks and experiences, she said. One time, a more senior male colleague was interested in whether she shaved her armpits and pulled at her shirt to take a look.
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