With over two decades knee-deep into the 21st century, issues regarding the equal opportunities and representation of women in our workplaces are still making headlines around the world. While some are quick to dismiss these claims as belonging to the developing countries or, not at least, within their companies, reality suggests otherwise. Even within the Nordics, which are widely considered the leaders in minimising the gender gap, women still lag behind men in pay, management positions and company ownership. On International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at the progress made regarding inclusivity and diversity in higher positions in Nordic companies in the past decade or so.
As Seen Through Wellstreet’s Lense
Since its launch in 2016, Wellstreet has made significant strides on the Nordic startup scene. With the aim to build and support sustainable tech companies that will change how we come to understand the world around us, Wellstreet has managed to impact the industry in more ways than one. But, as Wellstreet celebrates the 5th year mark since its foundation, it is important to reflect and evaluate our actions and standpoints as pioneers. Are we taking the necessary steps to create the change we seek in the world?
Up until mid-2018, 10,7 per cent of Wellstreet’s portfolio companies were led by female founders or CEOs. In 2019, Jessica Rameau joined the team as Portfolio Manager, and in less than six months, she became a partner and Chief Investment Officer. Since then, 5 of 11 investments Wellstreet made since Jessica joined had women in the leadership teams. This helped double Wellstreet’s percentage of female-led portfolio companies from 10,7 per cent to 21,5 per cent. The changes in the diversity of Wellstreet’s portfolio are noticeable for several reasons. Still, Jessica was outspoken from the start about the need to include more women in higher positions and willingness to hear more women’s pitches.
Every day actions
When it comes to female leadership, It is an everyday fight against our own and our peers’ biases. It takes attention and effort and can be done at a micro-level in our every day.
Jessica, now Wellstreet’s Fund Manager, aims to redress the imbalance of female founders’ access to capital by typically having a lower threshold for meeting female founders. “If a female founder approaches us for investment, as long as the company is broadly within our criteria, I will always take a first meeting face to face. I also typically expand more on my feedback and offer further input and introductions. This, I believe, helps redress some of the imbalances in accessing capital, access to knowledge and a valuable network, which we know is the biggest barrier to seeing women in leadership positions. I have female founders who we have said no to still call me for advice and input.”
At the portfolio level, we also encourage and celebrate female hires across the board. When we hear the news that a woman has joined the team, we communicate to the founders how excited we are so they know these actions matter.
Finally, we keep an eye for any bias, whether actually damaging or perceived as “benign”, when it comes to female leaders in our portfolio. “A good way I have found of approaching it in a non-confrontational way, with myself or others, is asking, ‘would you have done that / assumed that / said that to her if she were a man?’ and the reaction is often ‘no’”, comments Jessica.
While the increase in the percentage of companies with women in leadership positions shows that the tweaks in our diversity mentality are headed in the right direction, the lack of diverse teams in the Wellstreet pipeline still remained significative. In order to make it easier for women to gain access and connections to found startups, Wellstreet believes that inspiration, role models and encouragement are key to creating more diverse teams.
Specific experiences and actions
Over its five years of existence, Wellstreet has strived for improving equality in the industry also on occasions when we go beyond our day-to-day efforts and seek to point out, speak up and act towards broadening women’s space and voice.
One example prior to the pandemic is to create events and forums for creating meaningful connections. In 2019, as a part of the Sthlm Tech Fest, Wellstreet hosted the Bee Hive - a female version of a Shark Tank. During the event, six companies pitched their business idea before the panel, which consisted of 5 prominent female investors: Ashley Lundström, Sanna Westman, Louise Samet, Sophia Bendz and our own Jessica Rameau. And although the event was a success, what the Bee Hive demonstrated was much more valuable - we don’t have to look far out of our surroundings to find the role models to inspire us. We had such a great response from the Swedish tech scene, both from peers in the investment community and from the startups and female entrepreneurs community. This is one way to make role models visible and, due to popular demand, we are currently evaluating revisiting the concept in a new—COVID-safe—format (keep an eye out for it!).
One other way to contribute to adjusting the disparity is through partnerships. The most recent example of this type of engagement, at the end of 2020 Wellstreet became a partner of a new initiative called deb. - Diverse Executive Boards, with the desire to see more female-led companies come through the pipeline. The goal of the Diverse Executive Boards initiative, or deb., is to increase representation in executive boards, a top-down approach to engage more diversity through all the levels of the work chain by changing the mindset of the decision-makers. deb. provides study programs that focus on technology and diversity with an aim to teach and prepare women to assume board positions. It’s a fantastic initiative and we are proud to work with them. What this partnership means in practice is that it commits us to look out for any board positions that open up within our portfolio and to give priority to deb. members to be recruited for these board seats. It also means that all the board positions that our team holds are open to being shadowed by a deb. member currently taking the deb. course.
“If you are to have an influence on the strategic decisions that pave the way for what our society will look like tomorrow - then you should take a seat in the boardroom! This is where the power lies and this is where the majority of the most important decisions are made. With deb. we want to help organizations increase the diversity of expertise on boards and in all board positions. It is time for Sweden's companies to secure their boards for the future and open up for diversity from all aspects.”, says Emelie Meurk Demerud, deb. co-founder.
Around the Nordics: The Inclusion of More Diverse Leadership Teams
Although no country has yet achieved gender equality, Nordic countries are the nearest to closing the gender gap. This is thanks to a combination of several factors, including the lowest salary gaps between women and men in the world (but still existent); high female labour force participation; and abundant possibilities for women to rise to positions of leadership, the latter being introduced through legislation and several policies. In 2016, it was estimated that women accounted for 35 per cent of board members on publicly limited boards in the largest Nordic companies, while the global average was 10 per cent. Yet, the percentage of women in leadership positions in tech unicorns in Europe is only 21 per cent, while, for example, just 1 out of 5 European executives are women.
In Sweden, probably the most prominent and discussed numbers about women’s reach in society have been shared by the think tank Ownershift, which issues an annual report on the International Women’s Day with an analysis of female ownership in different areas. "We package and disseminate knowledge about women's ownership so that women have greater power over their lives and achieve economic autonomy, but also so that they can participate to a greater extent in building our society," says Linda Waxin, Secretary-General of Ownershift. The first report in 2019 was released with really disappointing numbers and soon after Di Digital released a study showing that only 1% of investment money went for women-only founded businesses.
Despite the bleak numbers, the Nordic countries are on a mission to close the gender gap in boardrooms across industries. And it appears that they are on the right track. A recent review showed that when it comes to venture capitalist companies, in just four short years, the number of female partners rose from hardly any to several, Wellstreet included. We should soon see the impact of that in the numbers of investment in women-led companies.
In preparation for this 8th of March, Dagens Industri spoke to Ownershift and gave a teaser of this year’s report, which centre’s around land ownership. "The fact that men own 2.5 times more land than women means that they have more power to decide who may use Sweden's area and what it should look like," says Emma Heikensten, PhD in economics and head of research at Ownershift.
The change in mindset is also supported by companies and organisations in tech and STEM fields, such as ImagiLabs, a female-led startup that seeks to introduce and teach girls to code in a fun and engaging way. Some of the other companies that are helping close this gap are SmartCoding and Coding Girls.
The Bottom Line
On International Women's Day this year, we want therefore to extend our thanks to the amazing women that have helped and are helping build Wellstreet and the Swedish startup and tech ecosystem. We have great role models and we acknowledge and lift them as much as possible. A few names among these incredible professionals are Anna Nordström (CEO of Pixery Media), Lisen Zenthraeus (CMO at Danads), Jenny Keisu (CEO of X Shore and Chairwoman of the Board at Wellstreet) and Emelie Strömshed (co-founder of Anatomic Studios).
Including women in leadership positions leads to better, broader perspectives and decreased risks. But if we don't take the actual risks, then we are not the leaders, much less pioneers, that we would like to see in the world. By taking the risk with female investments and being more open to listening to the female leaders that come through our pipeline, we can expect greater progress. That is not to say we can expect an overnight change, but by being more attentive and opening the space for more women to try, we are changing the overall mindset.