International Women’s Day 2021: What needs to be challenged in the fintech industry

Mar 08, 2021
SeedSpace Team

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, Seed Space spoke to six influential women in the Australian fintech startup scene about what specific idea they #ChooseToChallenge this year. Some of them may surprise you.

Lynda Coker is an adviser and director of several fintech companies and incubators in Australia. She chooses to challenge women to lose the “Women in …” label for forums and panels.

I love women-only initiatives in that they are about better supporting and promoting women. I am involved in several of them, including Scale Investors which is an angel investor network that only invests in female founders. I believe we need to single out and invest in females in tech because there is an imbalance in the population that needs correcting.

However, that said, we also need to work to change men’s perceptions, and if you’re having all these women-only huddles, you won’t. Men are half the population, and until they start hearing and seeing and believing in what women are doing, nothing is going to change. For clarity at Scale, we welcome male investors as members!

I don’t want to insinuate that women-only things are bad or not necessary and there are sometimes forums where females feel more safe to work and discuss things with other females — women support other women! However I want to encourage us to not only host these events to the exclusion of men or host them in isolation.

There are many amazing female-focussed programs where some of these initiatives need to start working together where there are synergies and alignment on purpose. We then need to start having these programs interact and start working with similar programs that are not gender focused, to assist that integration, otherwise you’re operating in a microcosm.

There’s a need and a warrant for it now to balance the inequality in the population of female founders, but it’s not until you start engaging and working out ways you can work together and have male champions of change that things will change and we achieve more gender parity.

I think one issue is that sometimes men are simply not hearing or across what women are doing and building. I’m involved in a lot of women-only panels and forums, but I rarely brand them “Women in…” anymore. I’d rather brand them the topic we are talking about. Then men will then come and listen because they’re interested in the topic. If you brand it “Women in X” or “Women in Y” they are not going to come, because they think it’s not appropriate for them to attend.

Or they think that the discussion is solely about gender-specific issues, not the technical topic. But if you brand it “Fintech in 2021 and Beyond” or whatever the topic is, they come if they’re interested in that topic, and see amazing women contributing thought leadership. They then go away and whether it’s subliminal or not, they’ll shift their thinking and recognise what women can contribute. Ultimately you want men hearing that, seeing that, and talking about that, and it’s not going to happen until you invite them in.

Cathryn Lyall is an adviser and board member in a range of companies in the financial services and fintech industries in Australia and the UK. She chooses to challenge herself and others to speak up more about gender diversity.

I’m always asking myself whether I’m too comfortable. I am fortunate to have a platform, and I try to challenge myself every day to talk about gender issues every time I see them at play. It’s obvious when there aren’t enough women around the table at a governance level; or deploying capital; or making business decisions. Speaking up about those things in a way that’s positive and constructive keeps opening the door for change, which we desperately need.

In the UK over the past decade, 89% of startup funding has gone to all-male founding teams, 10% to mixed teams and just 1% to all-female founders. Having been involved in VC here in Australia as well I am sure that the numbers would be similar or even more disheartening.

As an industry it’s well past time to challenge ourselves to do better. People can be supportive but still do nothing or very little — we must address allocation of capital and what that means for economic equality, and push that forward little bit by little bit every opportunity that we get.

One way we are able to action this at Seed Space is to seek out purpose driven start-ups for early stage investment and we’re proud to support female-founded companies like Kristy Ourwerkerk’s Veilability and Linda Woodford’s Axichain.

As Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women — Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, says, gender blindness in areas like tech and medicine just produces a ‘one-size-fits-men’ culture. That’s why we see systems and even individual products failing women — they’re simply not included in the development of the original ideas.

The good news is that women who do get that support are knocking it out of the park. The data shows us that women return greater ROI more quickly — 6.7 years for female founders vs 7.6 years for men. Female founders have to be so excellent to even get a foot in the door, and have to compete so hard for every dollar, they’re just stronger overall. Data also very clearly shows that diversity leads to improved bottom line results for companies that choose that path.

So for anyone reading this who knows there aren’t enough women in their room, it’s time to change. You’ll be so glad you did.

Katrina Donaghy is co-founder and CEO of Civic Ledger, providing blockchain solutions for government and industry ecosystems. She chooses to challenge the fintech industry to point the finger at itself to prevent a GFC-style crisis in years to come.

This is an every day of the year message, rather than a one day of the year message. It’s lovely to have this one day, but we need to talk about this stuff every day.

What we need to talk about in fintech is the business models that are doing people — especially women, specifically women of a certain age and class — actual harm. Many of these companies are unicorns, they’re making tons of money, but they’re making their wealth on consumer debt, largely female consumer debt, and we’re turning a blind eye to it.

We bestow awards upon them, bow down to them, but they’re creating real challenges in society that are likely to bring us to another financial crisis. These issues are going take a long time to address and will ultimately be delegated to social institutions — not-for-profits and government programs — to resolve.

When we look at a certain vertical of startups, you see a lot of men who have come out of banking, who are very vocally critical of traditional banks. And there’s all this hype around the tech but they’re not actually addressing any of the systemic issues they’re so critical of.

In fact, they’re perpetuating them, and embedding them back into these groovy new products that paint a picture of female spending as frivolous and uncontrolled. Which also, in addition to perpetuating the debt cycle, tells young women and girls that they can’t have a responsible relationship with their finances. And that’s not ok.

We have a responsibility to self-regulate, and figure out how to do no harm. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should and it’s time for the fintech industry to do much better, because right now we’re no better than the systems we purport to be ‘disrupting.’

In blockchain one of the things that’s great is that we do have very strong female participation, very strong engagement and very strong representation in the global movement. We have pledges we make, and maybe it’s time to make some pledges as a wider fintech industry in this country, to run the lens over ourselves, and hold ourselves accountable in the way we conceive and market our products.

Bianca Hartge-Hazelman is founder of the Financy Women’s Index, which measures the financial progress of women in Australia. She chooses to challenge the way we think and talk about women at work.

In my previous life I was a journalist with the Australian Financial Review, but I left to write exclusively on women’s money, as I felt there wasn’t enough out there in that space — mainly because editors were largely uninterested back then. I quickly found that there was a terrible lack of data about women’s finances — I couldn’t even work out whether women were going forward or backward in terms of financial equality.

So I created the Women’s Index. It’s drawn from official data that already exists, drawn together to create a benchmark that measures the financial progress of women over six areas: education, employment, underemployment, wages, unpaid work, leadership and wealth.

Each quarter we have about half a million people looking at the Index, and it’s growing all the time. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s a persistent trend in things not changing.

Education is a big one — the relationship between what women choose to study, the careers they go into and the financial status they achieve hasn’t changed in 20 years. And that flows on to the issues we see now with older women suffering from financial difficulties.

Until we choose to challenge how we value women and work; and how we talk to girls about what careers they can choose; we are not going to see the needle move in my lifetime.

It really irks me that plumbers, for example, get paid so much more than NICU nurses. We don’t value ourselves or demand enough. We need to go into the schools and talk more about the roles women and men play in society — in terms of work but also family and parenting. With COVID, we have huge new opportunities because it’s delivered us wonderful insights into the use of technology how we can work differently but still effectively.

I hope we can use this moment in time to enable greater flexibility across the world of work, and encourage participation in careers that have been male dominated but can be more flexible.

Kristy Ouwerkerk is the founder of wedding-tech startup Veilability. She chooses to challenge the way we talk about STEM to girls and young women, as well as our definition of what a tech entrepreneur looks like.

It’s been such an interesting journey, being a female founder. Weddings are a huge industry, $300 billion a year globally, and it’s full of opacity and inefficiency and crying out for change. With women being the primary decision makers on everything wedding, it’s an ideal industry for female founders. Yet, bewilderingly, most wedding-tech startup founders are still men, or women who aren’t married themselves!

I’m a huge believer that the very best companies in the world are founded by those with an authentic connection to the problem and solution. So in weddings, as with many other female-focussed tech startups, there is a huge opportunity to create an unparalleled experience focused on women, with women at the helm who are crafting solutions to problems they have personally lived and breathed.

Did you know most couples end up blowing their wedding budget by a massive 48%? That’s a huge burden to start married life, and not to mention the added stress of this over the 18 months planning process.

I started Veilability to fix that, to help couples with transparency of information to make informed decisions around every aspect of planning their wedding. I couldn’t believe nobody had done it before! A wedding is typically our first major financial investment and the process of planning a wedding is a foundational experience for how couples will interact with their finances, both individually and as a couple, for the rest of their lives.

It’s exciting to me that as entrepreneurs we’re in a privileged position to leverage technology to empower couples with the financial literacy and tools they need to make all financial decisions with confidence, for both their wedding and new life beyond that together. For me personally, I’d love to be part of the solution to create a substantial uplift in the number of women who feel a greater sense of control and resilience over their financial future.

There’s a misguided assumption that working in STEM means sitting in the dark and coding all day, or being a scientist in a lab coat. Both great career options, but not enthusing options for everyone (noting that I used to be the latter!).

I also think there is so much off putting language and culture around women starting a tech business, and I choose to challenge myself and anyone who will listen to try to change that.

I want to run into all the schools and show little girls and young women that STEM is also hugely creative, exciting, invigorating and it can make the world a better place for women and men. Tech to me is very much about people, our relationship to devices/apps/platforms we use, and creating new experiences. I’d love to see the newer STEAM acronym, which includes the creativity of the Arts element, more widely adopted. But to extend it a step further to STEAME, punctuating it with an E for Entrepreneurship in tech and science.

So many women want the fulfilment of knowing their work improves lives, so if we can encourage more of that creativity, excitement and empowerment we’d see a lot more women become comfortable with STEAME as a career.

We need to stoke demand for platforms to encourage women — not just at school but at work too. Even women in established careers might want to follow a passion project, start a side-hustle, or take the giant leap as I did. We need to treat women like we do men — encourage them to take risks, and take away the stigma of failure. And if they want to change the world, why not!

The message needs to be less ‘why would I?’ and instead ‘why wouldn’t I?!’ and ‘why not me?!’ Let’s find a collective louder voice for encouraging more women to be involved in STEAME careers, in particular in tech startups.

Linda Woodford is founder of digital supply chain startup AXIchain. She chooses to challenge women to ask more questions, listen intently, and use what they learn to their power and advantage.

Long before I started AXIchain, I tried to offer support to a guy I didn’t know very well who was looking for help with a project, by setting up a meeting between him and a long-time friend and successful businessman. Apparently it was an uncomfortable meeting — the guy was out of his depth — and he decided I was to blame. I found myself on the receiving end of an enraged phone call while I was on the train, with this guy screaming down the phone to the extent everyone in the carriage could hear. It went on for four stations.

After I got off I was standing in the middle of the station somewhat bewildered when a complete stranger passed me a note that read, “Happy International Women’s Day! Even at work do not let guys talk to you in a rude way. You are a beautiful and strong, smart, independent lady.” It was like something out of a movie! I have kept that note ever since, and I wish I knew who that mystery man was so I could thank him, because I have never let situations like that happen again.

I’m a woman with a business that spans the top three male dominated industries — technology, agriculture and shipping. I’ve found what’s always worked for me is to ask tons of questions. I never worry that people won’t take me seriously or look down on me because I don’t understand something, and it’s opened a lot of doors.

People love talking about themselves and their area of expertise, and I’ve found when I go in with all my questions the guys feel like I’m invested in them and their job or process or whatever it is I’m asking about. Don’t ever fear the imaginary failure of not understanding something — ask away!

Handwritten note received by Linda from a stranger.

The one thing that has been extremely difficult is raising capital as a woman in male dominated industries. My understanding is that only 1% of funds in capital investment goes to female founders. I know if I was a dude this wouldn’t have been so hard. Through COVID I raised $50,000 every two weeks to keep my team fed. It was a bloody hard slog but we survived, paid everyone on time every time, and grew the business, the tech and the team.

I am going to stand on top of that mountain and show that it can be done. If I’ve paved the way for the next woman, even a little bit, that makes it even more worth it.

Marked annually on March 8th, International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Read more on