women++ is a Swiss non-profit association delivering a range of initiatives focused on improving gender diversity in tech.  We spoke to CEO Luisa Contreras about the organisation’s pioneering work and how it’s changing not only the tech space, but the world we live in.

Gender inequalities in the tech space have been well documented. According to groups like the Women in Tech Network, it will take around 133 years for women in the industry to be paid the same as their male counterparts. 

Research has shown that the problem starts early; children are taught that subjects such as mathematics, science and technology are for boys, while girls are encouraged to follow the arts and humanities. In the USA alone, just 28% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) jobs are held by women. It’s a serious problem with huge implications not only for girls, but for society as a whole. Making STEM more accessible is only part of the challenge. For girls to achieve in this field, they need exposure to strong role models and learning programs that can empower them make a real difference in the world. 

Smashing the glass ceiling 

Swiss non-profit women++ is on a mission to smash the glass ceiling and finally bring gender equality to the tech space. The pioneering organisation offers a range of female-friendly projects that are inclusive to all genders but designed to attract women to the industry, support their transition into new roles, and promote female leadership. 

Founded in 2017, the organisation is dedicated to fixing the “the leaky pipeline” and increasing the number of women working in STEM, by focusing on applied learning, collaboration and a strong community of pioneering partners. Luisa Contreras took the helm as CEO in January 2021. 

Award-winning leadership and industry leading partnerships

The term “disruptive” is often overused in business, but women ++ has truly set itself apart as an organisation that’s stirring things up and making people sit up and take notice. So much so that the company has managed to reach an 80% female participation rate – a huge feat in this male dominated space – and gained an array of big-name partners including  Microsoft and Thomson Reuters. This has led to Luisa being named Business Worldwide Magazine’s “Global tech non-profit CEO of the Year”. 

The judging panel were impressed by Luisa’s dedication and achievements, which many would have struggled to reach even with experience in the industry. What makes Luisa’s story even more exceptional is that before joining women++ she had never worked in tech, or studied in the area. We were keen to find out more about her journey and what led her to become one of the tech world’s brightest new stars.

Can you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to your position as CEO with women++?

I was born in Colombia and moved to Spain at 8 years of age. I’ve also lived in France, the UK and the United States, before settling in Switzerland. I come from a hospitality background, completing my degree in Tourism, and had never had much in the way of knowledge or a connection to IT. 

When I moved to Switzerland I met the founder of women++, Dr Alexandra Sokolowska, and started volunteering for the organisation. In the process I felt in love with technology’s power to improve the world, and the importance of gender diversity in influencing that power for good. When the organization faced turbulent structural issues, I took over the leadership to ensure it would both continue and grow. 

You’ve achieved a huge amount in a short space of time. Can you tell us more about your vision and what it means for the industry?

My vision for women++ is to have a tangible impact on the percentage of women working in the tech industry, and in turn for our industry to reap the benefits of that increased diversity. Studies have consistently shown that when companies harness diversity, they create better products and have stronger teams working in more collaborative, happier environments. Ultimately, this delivers better financial yields for those businesses while having a positive impact on the world we live in.

How did you set about making this vision a reality?

We began by implementing programs and initiatives that bring together women transitioning into tech with anyone interested in advancing their careers in tech, companies supporting diversity and other non-profits. Our initiatives, such as Deploy(impact) and Hack’n’Lead provide platforms for applied learning in which tech enthusiasts with different experience levels come together to solve real-life problems with technical solutions. Participants are mentored by companies and can experience the whole life cycle of a software solution, and it’s a supportive, collaborative environment where people learn together. 

When harnessed for good, technology offers huge benefits to the world around us. What part does the work of women++ play?

One of the big social benefits of our initiatives is that we focus on solving real-life problems faced by non-profits. We have helped all kinds of charitable organisations do their work, such as creating solutions for providing education to refugees in Africa and the Middle East, educating children across the globe and helping victims of domestic violence access legal aid – to name just a few.

Many of the organisations supported by women++ work in education. What have you learnt since you joined?

When I started on this journey, I was nowhere near where I am today in terms of the skills and confidence needed to take on this challenge. However, along the way, my passion for this cause drove me to continuously improve myself on the job. Sometimes I had to jump into cold water, not knowing whether I could swim, but that was an essential part of my learning process which ultimately taught me the importance of action rather than overthinking. 

I’ve also learnt that to be a leader, you don’t need to know everything. What you do need is a great team full of experts and passionate people who share your vision and values. It’s important to know your own limits and understand when you need to be led by the people around you, and I believe my biggest skills lie in getting the best out of people and bringing them together towards a shared goal. This is particularly important in the non-profit sector, where much of the work is being carried out by volunteers with limited resources.

You work with some big names; can you tell us about that?

I’m proud to say that we partner with a variety of influential companies, such as Microsoft, Thomson Reuters, Accenture and Wikimedia. We are lucky to have been able to both learn from these organisations and also have a positive influence on their cultures. 

What sets women++ apart from other non-profits?

One thing that makes us different is the focus on the untapped talent pool of working professionals who have the potential and passion to work in tech but don’t know how to take their first steps into the industry. 

Another thing is that we are a research-based non-profit focusing on applied learning programs. For example, the methodology on which deploy(impact) is based was co-conceived and tested by our own Dr. Chris Gwilliams as part of a research group at Cardiff University. Hack’n’Lead, Switzerland’s first women-friendly hackathon, was created based on research by our founder Dr. Aleksandra Sokolowska who looked into making hackathons more accessible and inclusive to women. As a direct result, our programs are usually filled with around 80% women and 20% men.

Your organisation obviously has a big emphasis on getting women into the tech space. What does this mean for other genders?

We wholeheartedly believe that advancing gender diversity is a matter of inclusion. This means we actively want to include men and all genders in the process and we ourselves seek to be a diverse team that advances the opinions, ideas and values of the full spectrum of society. For us, that means taking everyone seriously. 

To find out more about how women++ is changing the tech landscape, along with full details of programs and sponsorship opportunities, visit https://www.womenplusplus.ch/