Recent data from HolonIQ has revealed just 13% of EdTech CEOs and leaders are female, despite 75% of public-school teachers and 54% of public-school principals being women. In Fintech and HealthTech, the percentage of female CEOs and leaders stands at 5% and 10% respectively.
A recent Forbes article suggested that “over time, education’s movement towards being a more feminized pursuit may have devalued the profession, which is a definite (and unfair and unwarranted) downside, but the upside may be that it is setting the foundation for a groundswell of female entrepreneurs”.
For this reason, detailing exemplary cases of women who have made the transition from the stability of teaching to the arguably just-as-demanding nature of EdTech start-ups can shed light on the nuanced experience of being female and an EdTech leader in 2021.
The past academic year has seen numerous educators having to overhaul entire curricula and spin content for online consumption under immense pressure and facing an uncertain future. Yet with so many female educators, why do the figures reveal so few have become EdTech leaders? Some argue the figures are indeed promising and not what they seem, despite their objective unfairness.
EdTechX CEO Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet argued in a Guardian article that EdTech stands out among technology sectors as there are “comparatively more female-led investment companies (such as GSV Labs and Educapital)” which offer a comparative advantage whereby women can get “closer to the opportunities of innovation and disruption”.
Stepping outside of the booming EdTech bubble, funding for female-led ventures is bleak. A recent study found that “between 2 to 6 percent of companies started by women receive venture capital funding. For women of color, the statistics are even more sobering: Roughly 0.32 percent of the funding awarded over the past decade went to Latin American women; and for African American women, the number was an infinitesimal 0.0006 percent”.
However, these figures are merely unhelpful background noises to some. A Cambridge graduate from Shanghai spoke of her ambitious EdTech plans with gusto. She explained, “I do not see my gender as a barrier between myself and a successful EdTech career. I believe my product fills a gap in the market and that is all investors and consumers should really care about. If anything, it is generally women who are educators in China so this should play to my advantage as people may respect my experience both in research and practice –the fact I am a woman has nothing to do with my ability to take my EdTech company to new heights”.
There are numerous accounts of women carving a successful career in education, however striking a balance between a business that leverages systematic education improvements and achieves financial success is not easy. Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952), the famous Italian educator who developed education methodology advocating collaborative play, self-directed activity, and hands-on approaches to learning is an exemplary figure in education innovation. Today it is estimated there are around 20,000 Montessori schools around the world. According to the Global Montessori Academy, the registration fee to attend one of the famous schools is $300 (per student) and enrollment for upper and lower elementary programs for five full days a week is $10,600 for the academic year 2020-21.
Data collected by the same HolonIQ report found the sector with the highest percentage of female leaders was preK at 24%, and the lowest was digital content at 3%. In spite of these figures, HolonIQ has collated a list of the top 200 female EdTech leaders, which provides a useful starting point to explore the journeys of successful women in the field.
In China, Li Yuan is one among many female successes. In 2014, she founded Wolearn, an online learning platform to provide support to UK universities and academics to engage with Chinese universities and students through open online courses and digital technologies.
Talking of her experience in the industry spanning 20 years, she said, “My career path began as a schoolteacher in China and as my interest in improving education quality and opportunity grew, I moved on to posts as an educational researcher, an educational technology advisor and innovator. Wolearn’s blended learning courses serve two mutually beneficial aims: helping Chinese students to improve their academic English and gain UK education experiences and helping UK universities promote their courses in China and to better market their degree programs to potential students through partnerships with Chinese universities.”
Aside from their demonstrable success as businesses (whether for profit or not), the common denominator in successful, female-led EdTech companies seems to be their priority in addressing real, relatable and raw issues in education– from female tech empowerment (Reshma Saujani’s Girls Who Code founded in 2012), better student engagement and revision techniques for examinations (Divya Gokulnath’s ByJu’s founded in 2011), or leveraging empathy and emotion to better storytelling (Dr Carol Barash’s Story2 founded in 2011).
Forbes elaborated, “another stereotype that may have some merit is that women generally like to solve problems that have not only a tangible impact, but also a meaningful one. This may be another reason why EdTech is attractive”.
According to HolonIQ, regional differences do exist. When we break down EdTech CEO Gender diversity by region, we see that Nordic Nations, Africa as well as Australasia come out with 28%, 20% and 18%of leaders being female. The data collates CEOs only however, and does not take into account co-CEOs, founders nor co-founders. The region with the fewest female EdTech CEOs was Europe at 6%, yet when co-CEOs were included in the data, this figure shuffled slightly to 10%.
Future EdTech leaders ought to be prioritizing how millions of students around the world, from toddlers to teens and working professionals, can get back on track with their education amid the chaos of the past year. When making funding decisions, investment bodies ought to recognize the value attributed to female EdTech leaders with classroom experience, a knack for empathy-driven leadership, and experience in rapid decision-making. An EdTech start-up cannot succeed unless its products are placed at the forefront of social issues, paving the way for progressively innovative and forward-thinking EdTech ventures.
Resources for women within and beyond China who are interested in launching their own EdTech venture: