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Singapore's female tech stars battle gender gap

(L to R) Lynette Seah, CEO and founder of Alpha7; Roshni Mahtani, CEO and founder of Female Founders Network, and Mouna Aouri Langendorf, CEO & founder of Woomentum.
Alpha7, Asian Parent and Woomentum
(L to R) Lynette Seah, CEO and founder of Alpha7; Roshni Mahtani, CEO and founder of Female Founders Network, and Mouna Aouri Langendorf, CEO & founder of Woomentum.

Pro-business policies and a flourishing venture capital (VC) market have made Singapore an ideal destination for start-ups, but more needs to be done to eradicate a long-standing gender imbalance in the tech industry where women entrepreneurs remain a rare breed.

In the Southeast Asian city-state, merely 5 percent of tech start-ups are headed by women, according to the World Economic Forum's "Global Gender Gap Report" released in October 2014.

"Singapore is a fantastic place for entrepreneurs… The government has put in a lot of effort to provide entrepreneurs [with] everything they need, from grants, co-working spaces and a network of international investors," Mouna Aouri Langendorf, founder of women entrepreneur community and crowdfunding platform Woomentum, told CNBC. "But there is something holding women back from putting themselves forward in a male-dominated space like tech. Just look at the numbers."

Anecdotal evidence also paints a picture where males outnumber women significantly at start-up industry networking events and pitching sessions. "From my experience, if you see 1 to 2 females when you go to pitch events or meetings with accelerators, you'll be lucky," Langendorf, a Tunisia-born civil engineer who relocated to Singapore in 2011, added.

To be sure, Singapore is no anomaly.

Despite the rise of female tech icons such as Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, global tech giants continue to grapple with the issue of female underrepresentation in their workforce. For instance, statistics from Twitter in 2014 revealed that only 28 percent of its employees are women, while Facebook and Apple stand slightly higher at 29 percent each.

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Holding women back

Women keen to pursue entrepreneurial dreams in tech have to overcome traditional views of their roles as wives and mothers, founders told CNBC. This is especially so in Asian countries such as Singapore.

Meanwhile, female founders also face a harder time with funding, despite Singapore receiving rising interests from VC firms such as Golden Gate Ventures (GGV).

"The truth is that the early-stage VC and angel markets are dominated by men, and men may not understand the true potential of women-focused businesses. They will choose to pass up on the opportunity so many women entrepreneurs I know here in Singapore struggle to get that first round of funding," Roshni Mahtani, CEO and founder of Female Founders Network, told CNBC by phone. The 31-year-old is also the founder of five-year-old online publishing house Tickled Media, which reaches more than 6 million mothers through her three parenting sites.

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A lack of supportive networks also means that women are more likely to launch companies alone as opposed to having co-founders, rendering women-led firms at a disadvantage in the start-up world where investors prefer more than one founder.

"The problem of co-founders is a chicken and egg issue. Firstly, there are not enough females and secondly, the way males network is different from us. Not all females want to go out and network over a beer, and that limits them a lot in accessing networks that may be helpful in starting a start-up," Woomentum's Langendorf noted.

While the entrepreneurs whom CNBC spoke to say that gender-based discrimination is limited in Singapore's tech start-up space, they admit to having "unladylike" personalities which helped them in the initial stages of entrepreneurship.

"I've never felt discriminated, but I've heard things that perhaps are said in jest. I have a strong character that is unlike other women so I've had men tell me to 'relax a bit.' I've also been told in the face that they expected someone younger," said Lynette Seah, founder & CEO of Alpha7. Prior to starting the business cloud enabler in 2014, Seah spent more than 30 years in multinational firms such as PwC and most recently held the position of APAC Vice President of Finance at Salesforce.com.

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Dismantling the gender gap

To overcome hurdles, many female founders in Singapore have taken proactive steps to rally around one another by launching women-focused workspaces, providing training via female-focused accelerators and linking up promising entrepreneurs to the right backers.

Others hope empirical research can help to facilitate understanding as to why women in tech remain seen as anomalies. Female Founders Network, for one, aims to release a research paper next year that maps out theories behind the gender gap, not just in Singapore, but other countries such as India.

"We want to improve gender equality in tech leadership in Singapore by increasing female-led organizations to 20 percent in 2020. We hope conclusive results from our paper can help us to achieve that," Mahtani said. "There are 5,200 tech founders in Singapore who have either completed their fundraising or hit a certain milestone and we also want to work closely with media organizations to bring these female founders to the limelight."

Meanwhile, founders who spoke to CNBC also believe that a new cohort of young women —members of the millennial generation born between 1980 and 2000 — who grew up with a surfeit of technology will pose as a formidable force in challenging the notion of gender entitlement in the tech industry.

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"Unlike today, tech was not something that was aggressively promoted 30 years ago so I think under the current education system and overall environment; it's very likely we see a rise in female tech founders. After my experience with them, I find the millennials to be confident and motivated by challenges," Alpha7's Seah said.

According to a PwC report released in March 2015, the millennial generation grew up with an affinity for a highly-digitized world and is seen as having more egalitarian views about the roles of women, especially female millennials who grew up in an era where women had greater access to jobs and tertiary education. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the millenials "consider gender diversity as passé," the report said.

As such, this push for gender-inclusiveness, alongside qualities such as the search for challenges, will help to propel more females into the tech start-up scene, Seah added.

For now, however, the days when technology will no longer be considered a boys' club remain somewhat distant.

"I hope [equality] happens sooner rather than later because why should women in tech stick out like a sore thumb? We can bring diversity to thinking and if you are creating a product for women, it will definitely help to have a female perspective," Female Founders Network's Mahtani told CNBC.