Bold moves to break biases and hack the sexist algorithm

The world we live in is modern, highly connected, digital, and heavily reliant on smart solutions developed by the tech industry. In recent years, interest and investment have increased in the Philippine tech industry, particularly in the dynamic startup ecosystem. The Philippines was even named as the next startup hub in Asia due to related growth in the past decade.

Despite the excitement brought about by the Philippine startups’ great strides, the local ecosystem is still met with pressing challenges—one of which is the underrepresentation of women in the industry.


In 2020, the Philippines reportedly had over 400 registered startups and over 35 incubators and accelerators to support them. In the same year, an estimated 18% of Philippine startup founders were female, and approximately 27% to 47% of workers in the tech industry were women, with a significantly higher quit rate compared to men in the same industry. While these numbers may not be good enough, they are hardly shocking, evidenced by how 73% of the tech industry believes that the industry is sexist.

“Many people still do not appreciate the importance of having more women in tech. Whether deliberately or otherwise, women historically have been systematically excluded, or discouraged from participating in the sector” said Katrina Rausa Chan, Executive Director of QBO Innovation Hub, an organization at the forefront of the Philippine startup ecosystem. “We often talk about empathy and customer-centric design as being at the core of any successful tech product. It should be obvious that for a venture to reach its full potential, we should not be ignoring inputs from half the population, and yet the unfortunate truth is that we often do. The lack of female representation in tech and innovation, and investments in women-led startups has led to everything from gender biased AI being widely used in credit scoring and job screening, to mega-sized smartphones and medical devices that don’t really work for the female anatomy,” Chan adds.

Diversity also drives innovation. People with different backgrounds, skills, and opinions bring different perspectives on a problem—this includes keeping an eye out for biases and prejudices impacting the product. It is good to have more diverse brains, looking at the same challenge. Studies also show that diverse businesses are more successful financially.

“Part of the problem is that the algorithm is inherently sexist,” said Chan. “It is built on data from historically unequal systems, from systems that were designed predominantly by men.”

However, in the decade that Chan and QBO Innovation Hub have been involved in the Philippine startup industry, it has been made clear that it is not about fighting the system but disrupting it instead. It is about women and male allies changing the system together.

Startup PInay

For QBO Innovation Hub’s Startup Pinay initiative—a trailblazer in supporting and empowering Filipina founders, connecting and developing the local startup ecosystem into welcoming more women and allies, and forwarding women-led tech investments and innovation—this is their greatest hack. Through using technology and their platform, they face the challenge head on by hacking the sexist algorithm and making Startup Pinay and their community of empowered women visible in algorithms already targeting Filipino women.

“With Startup Pinay, our goal is to hack the conversations, the rigid ways of thinking, and the norms of startup culture that reinforce existing, and often harmful gender stereotypes and use the algorithm to our advantage,” explained Chan. “We are raising awareness on gender and diversity issues in the industry through Filipino women influencers and their social media feeds. We are educating our community on the root cause and consequences of the underrepresentation of Filipino women in STEM. Then, we get Filipino women and allies alike to actively rally for representation in tech by providing immediate opportunities. Instead of holding us back, we are using the algorithm to scale up.”

The Startup Pinay program was recognized as the Asia Pacific Champion by UN Women- Women Economic Principles Awards for the impact it was creating.


“hacking the algorithm”

QBO takes “hacking the algorithm” both literally and figuratively.

At the beginning of the year, they launched their hero videos—a series of ads that empowers Filipino women in tech to go beyond their interests, cultivate big ideas, and turn them into business opportunities through programs like Startup Pinay. The videos utilized contextual advertising, an automated process where a promotional message is matched to relevant digital content. In this case, QBO through Startup Pinay took stereotypical women’s interests and flipped them into business ideas and startup opportunities. The campaign in partnership with Investing In Women, launched on Facebook and YouTube, has collectively garnered nearly 10 million impressions and engagements.

Figuratively, it’s about hacking the old ways and carving a new path for Filipino women, the tech industry, and future generations through Startup Pinay and its vast array of programs and campaigns.

For Filipino women, it is crucial to build a safe space wherein they are encouraged and enabled to reach their full potential as important players in the country’s journey to digitalization. QBO and Startup Pinay foster this through their Startup Pinay BOOTQAMP, a four-week program that empowers women through tech by validating business ideas and gaining early traction for these female-led startups, as well as providing a series of learning and mentorship sessions focused on validating and launching a scalable business venture.

The call within the Philippine tech industry is to work together to build and develop it into the ecosystem Filipinos deserve—the call for diversity and inclusivity in the tech industry does not stop in the gender of the people in it, but continues in the ideas put out there and the needs addressed. QBO further supports the industry and fosters growth within the ecosystem through INQBATION and AQELERATION, a series of incubation and accelerator programs in partnership with organizations such as Microsoft and DTI. The programs aim to provide early- and growth-stage incubates with multiple learning sessions led by esteemed and seasoned mentors.

These efforts and goals extend beyond today—it is important to put in the work for future generations where there are no gaps, no divide but a rally for a change in mindset where everyone is on equal and equitable footing. To achieve this, QBO invests in the youth through intercollegiate competitions such as QOMPETE, or training and education sessions targeted towards students interested in startups.

“This is an uphill battle, and we’re just at the start of it,” said Chan who also shared her vision for the program“We at QBO are beating the algorithm, and empowering the startup industry today, so tomorrow we don’t have to.”