personal finance

How Fairphone's social mission created gender balance… without really trying

Eva Gouwens had heard that the tech industry was male-dominated, but it wasn’t until she attended the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona for the first time that the extent of the gender imbalance really hit her.

“I hadn’t really noticed it as an issue until I saw the line for the toilets,” says Gouwens, chief executive of the ethical phone manufacturer Fairphone, which creates phones with no “conflict minerals” (ie from areas of the world with violence and human rights abuses), manufactured in a factory where workers are fairly paid. “It’s the first event I’ve been to where the queue was longer for the men than for the women.”

Her initial lack of awareness has its reasons. For one, Gouwens is relatively new to the sector. A veteran of the food industry, the 44-year-old business development expert only switched to tech two years ago – first as managing director of Amsterdam-based Fairphone and then, since last October, as its chief executive.

Second, she stepped in at the helm of what was already a fairly egalitarian ship. The gender split of Fairphone’s 75-person workforce is almost straight down the middle (52% male, 48% female). On the firm’s executive management team, meanwhile, six of the eight members are women (including the commercial and operations directors).

Such atypical parity partly owes to the Dutch way of doing things, according to Gouwens. Rules on shared parental leave, childcare and other types of care provision are “quite progressive”, she says. That said, the Netherlands only ranks 19th on the Women in Work Index (six places behind the UK). The report also points out that females make up a mere 14% of ICT specialists in the Netherlands.

So, is Fairphone doing something especially different? Not really, Gouwens admits sheepishly. Sure, the firm is gender-blind with respect to pay and promotion, but it doesn’t go the extra mile to accommodate childcare needs, say, or to extend maternity pay.

More influential in creating a balanced workforce, she conjectures, is the phone manufacturer’s mission and backstory. The firm’s origins date back to the hackers’ movement and a long-running activist campaign around human rights abuses in the supply chains of large mobile phone manufacturers.

In 2013, the organisation switched focus, she explains: “At the beginning, our focus was on disclosing the influence of mobile phones on society and on your life, but we realised that, while we were raising awareness, we weren’t offering solutions, which is why we decided to make our own ethical phone.”

It is this singular purpose (“dare to care” is how Gouwens phrases it) that resonates so powerfully with Fairphone’s female workforce, she argues: “I think adding this angle to tech might well attract more women to Fairphone than to other tech companies.”

The testimonials of Fairphone’s website give credence to the claim. Finance manager Mariana da Costa credits her job to her sense that “positive changes are possible”, while supply chain expert (and ex-human rights worker) Laura Gerritsen is cited as saying that the firm’s ethical ambitions make her “happy to work crazy hours”.

Evidence of the positive effects that an overt social mission can have on gender balance extends beyond just Fairphone. According to research by the British Council, women make up 66% of the workforce in UK social enterprises and 65% in US ones, while making only 46% of the working population as a whole in both nations.

When it comes to women and tech, Gouwens’ chief challenge focuses less on her workforce and more on consumers. At present, about two-thirds (65%) of Fairphone’s retail customers are men – a disparity that bucks the trend for the firm’s target market of “conscious consumers”, which, according to Gouwens, is “quite balanced”.

It’s not entirely clear what the sticking point is here. One reason could be price. Women on average spend 10% less on consumer electronics than men and so might feasibly be more averse to paying an ethical “premium” for a Fairphone device (its newest device, the Fairphone 3, costs £420, which is £200 more than a similar, non-ethical, smartphone).

Gouwens is quick on the defence here. The overall cost of ownership of a Fairphone, she maintains, is “cheaper than many comparable phones”. How so? It’s all to do with the “modular” nature of the phone’s design, apparently. Unlike standard mobile phones, Fairphones are easy to dismantle and update as new technology comes in. Fairphone also offers three years of software support and repairs – for free.

Welcome as it is to fix your phone rather than fling it, having a device that you can dissemble also leaves it feeling a little chunky and over-complicated. A study suggests that while men and women place similar importance on a phone’s design, male consumers tend to be more interested in the phone’s technical characteristics.

Language plays a vital role in resolving this hurdle, Gouwens insists. Tech engineers operate in a world of jargon, which, to the untrained ear, can make mobile technology feel inaccessible and off-putting, she says. Gouwens speaks from experience. In her early days at Fairphone, conversations with the firm’s product engineers felt to her like “listening to a different language”.

She had the same sensation when she first disassembled her phone, admitting a sense of “nervousness” the initial time she tried. Those fears didn’t last long. Indeed, today she lauds the ability to tinker with Fairphone’s internal mechanics as one of the phone’s prize assets, arguing that it provides people with a stellar introduction into the world of technology.

“We want people to open up the world behind our phones. That’s why all our sets come with screwdrivers. I think it’s especially important for young people, and girls in particular, who might think that technology is not really for them.”

This minnow Dutch brand isn’t about to dent the sales of the smartphone giants – Fairphone’s first two models sold 175,000 units though the company hopes to ship 42,000 units of its latest phone by the end of the year – but Gouwens hopes they might see in Fairphone a model of doing tech differently, including with respect to gender.

She takes encouragement here from Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, who, when challenged about being too small to have an impact, liked to retort: “Try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” In the smartphone industry, Gouwens quips, “Fairphone is that mosquito.”


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