“Don’t tell girls they’re pretty. Tell them they’re smart” — tech investor Janneke Niessen

This is a guest post by the brilliant Janneke Niessen, EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year, tech industry angel investor, board member of UNICEF, former Deloitte Rising Star, and co-initiator of the InspiringFifty nonprofit celebrating women in tech leadership positions.

A recent report by Technation confirms that a lack of diversity is a concern for the UK tech community. And rightly so. There is a huge shortage of people with the right skills, but looking at the numbers, we still do not use half the population. But beyond gender, the lack of diversity in tech has even more consequences.

It’s a problem for companies. Research has shown that diverse teams perform better in all aspects and can gain up to 15% higher financial results. Also, when your customers are diverse — which most of the time they are — it makes sense to have that reflected in your company, right?

And of course it is important for women and minorities themselves. Already largely true today, but even more so in the future, all companies will be tech companies. That is where the growth will be, that is where the jobs will be. Ignoring tech can therefore have an impact on your financial independence and your chances of a job.

The rise of AI uncovers another pressing reason to take a look at diversity. Algorithms play an increasing role in everything we do. Contrary to popular belief, algorithms are not neutral. They are created by people with their own bias: the input data that is being used (in most cases) is not neutral and contains bias and stereotypes. The result is that algorithms won’t create a situation we would aim for and see as fair and desirable, but will actually amplify the current situation, making things worse.

What can we do?

But how to fix this? How to increase diversity in tech? Unfortunately, there is not one holy grail. There are a lot of bigger and smaller actions that government, companies and people need to take. One solution I strongly believe in is role models. ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’

Often, there’s an incorrect idea of what working in tech means. Ask a young girl if she wants to work in tech and chances are, she will say no. Girls often think it’s boring, difficult and worse, that they are not capable of it.

Yet ask them if they want to work at Instagram, Snap or Spotify and they say yes — which obviously means working in tech! We need to show them that technology means possibilities, innovation and creativity, that it can be used across fields. Role models help them visualise all the great things they can do in tech, and clearly show them the role technology plays in whichever industry they would like to work in.

“Being a programmer is not the only thing you can do in tech”

Early in life, girls are making important decisions about their education. By not choosing STEM subjects, they will impact their future without realising it. It limits their individual potential and the choices and opportunities they will have later in life.

While this applies to girls, it also applies to women. Being a programmer is not the only thing you can do in tech. The opportunities are endless, and role models can help you see them. That’s why we started the non-profit InspiringFifty 5 years ago with the goal to increase diversity in tech by making role models more visible.

A role model for young girls

A role model doesn’t have to be a person. We’ve just published a book called ‘Project Prep,’ which tells the story of four 13-year-old girls as they begin to discover new worlds: technology, entrepreneurship and learning how to code. It’s a story about technology but also friendship, love, fashion, New York and all the other things in the life of a 13 year old.


The girls come across all the challenges, setbacks and successes any technology entrepreneur faces. But most importantly, they discover how magical working in technology can be — that amazing feeling that comes from seeing an idea become a reality, something you can actually use that is impacting other people’s lives for the better.

And realise you play a role as well. Whether you are a man or a woman, you are an important role model for girls. Show them all the amazing things out there, encourage them to embrace STEM subjects, suggest a coding camp, buy them STEM toys.

And one thing that might seem small but has a big impact: tell them they are smart. Very often girls are referred to as pretty and boys as smart. While it is absolutely fine to tell a girl she is pretty, make sure you also tell them they are smart, amazing and can achieve anything they want in life.

Project Prep is published on 14th June by Unbound.

Want to hear more from the amazing Janneke? Follow her on Twitter here.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash