Silicon ceilings

Silicon ceilings

The world has come a long way in a short time when it comes to providing senior executive opportunities for women in IT, but it still has a long way to go and many benefits are yet to be seen.

WHEN AMP chief information officer Lee Barnett entered the IT industry more than three decades ago, the Anti-Discrimination Act had not been passed into legislation and some female employees at her company were entered into the payroll system as male. Since then, she and her peers have seen the industry become a much more welcoming place for women who choose a career in technology, and one where high-profile CIO roles are increasingly being filled by women.

They are also being encouraged by a range of programs, including a Women in IT Executive Mentoring program run by the Australian Government Information Management Office.

Recently, the fight against "gender fatigue" has received a massive boost from moves by the Australian Securities Exchange to require companies to report on gender diversity. They must also set target figures.

However, practitioners believe the low rates of women in the IT workforce ­demonstrate there is still more work to be done in order to win the hearts and minds of young women.

Barnett is a strong believer in gender diversity's power to promote risk management and innovation. She says AMP's IT gender diversity rate is between 35 and 45 per cent, above the industry average.

Over the last five years there has been a greater acceptance of women in the workplace, she says, and the information technology industry is almost unrecognisable compared with the way it was when she first entered the sector more than 30 years ago.

"I started work before the Anti-Discrimination Act, at a time when there were clerks and officers: clerks were female, the officers were male," she recalls.

"It was the really early days of IT, when a lot of talent had to be brought in largely from South Africa and the UK. At the ­company I was working for, they brought in a senior programmer, and in order to pay her appropriately, they had to code her in the payroll as male.

"There were also issues just generally – even in terms of getting a mortgage or home loan, it was extremely difficult. While there's a way to go, things have ­certainly changed."

She says the recent skills shortage has again opened the door for talented migrants to enter the local IT workforce. In the past, companies also had a pressing need for technical staff, which meant they could not afford to discriminate against women.

"Particularly in the early days, there was a real skills shortage, so people did not apply so much bias. I was always given so many great opportunities," Barnett says.

"At a senior level [today] I think opportunities are better than ever. This is a good time to be a woman, for the next 10 years. Technology is a good career choice."

Barnett praises consulting firm Deloitte for being a thought leader in the space and publishing a broad library of resource material on the issue of gender diversity, most recently publishing the report Only skin deep? Re-examining the business case for diversity.

Deloitte partner Juliet Bourke says a "perfect storm of factors" is driving ­diversity in industries such as information technology and mining.

"In a way, we do have these business pressures in certain industries that are making us focus on finding as much talent as we can and keeping that talent, especially when there's a skills shortage," she says. "Necessity has become the mother of invention. We're thinking much more laterally about what we do to find talent and keep it."

However, she emphasises this is not the case across an organisation, especially in the back office, where ample staff resources are available and management is primarily concerned with cutting costs and increasing productivity. An attitude of promoting diversity will allow organisations to move away from the churn-and-burn mentality of getting ­people through the door and develop greater focus on attracting the best talent and nurturing it into senior levels of management.

"It's not about bringing people in and accepting that we're going to lose so many," Bourke says. "It's about bringing them in, adjusting the workplace so we can keep them and not doing this constant churn so we're always looking in new markets."

This thinking isn't limited to the private sector. The Australian Public Service (APS) is exploring ways it can expand the pipeline of women in IT to senior levels of leadership.

The Australian government CIO Ann Steward says the government provides a unique opportunity for women in IT through the wide range of agencies and services the government provides, national reach and portability.

"It reflects the diversity of the APS, both in the experience they can have, but also the portability of the ICT skill set and strong leadership capabilities across the service," Steward says. "There's a wide range of them, not just on larger agencies but across the broad spectrum. They can see a career not just in their own agency but also across 100-odd agencies."

To facilitate this, Steward initiated the Women in IT Executive Mentoring program, which is being performed in partnership with Dell Australia and involves technology professionals working at the executive level.

She says it has grown from humble beginnings since being founded five years ago and has already mentored more than 50 participants, promoting the role that women can play in senior IT executive ranks. Numerous participants have successfully made that journey.

Mentors, both male and female, together with the contributions of government agencies and the private sector, have made a vital contribution to the success of the program.

"In the first round, I put myself forward as a mentor, not only to show my commitment but also [in recognition that it was] a good opportunity for me to understand what it took to make sure you allocated sufficient time and attention to this.

"To be able to actively participate and make time available for those officers to do their 'on the job' work, as well as sign in and to do the mentoring."

The program will be expanded next year. There will also be an alumni network to strengthen connections between participants.

"We also see those women being ­champions, sponsors and advocates within their agencies," Steward says. "Oftentimes they're talking about their experience, learning and development to grow domestic interest levels within their individual agencies."

While the APS has the luxury of offering a wide range of positions across the country to prospective employees, private-sector companies can be limited by their industry, size and culture.

In part to address this, AMP's Barnett has taken a creative approach to facilitating gender diversity, promoting a culture of innovation via the company's ideas ­conference, AMPlify, held every two years.

"Through events such as AMPlify, we have really brought a level of innovation and creativity in the organisation," she says. "Within my management team, I have a reasonably high proportion of women, as well as [AMP director of innovation and social business] Annalie Killian, who is really the person behind the festival."

Barnett says diversity isn't about political correctness but, rather, improving business performance. "At a minimum, [this offers] risk management against 'groupthink' and corporate blindness. At its best, it's a strategy to drive innovation."

Her trick is to look for the best person for a team, not just the best one for the job.

"I'm focused on two angles: mindset and … creating a diversity of thought in a team," she explains.

"Targeting diversity, whether gender or demographic diversity, widens the scope in terms of how you can make the appointment.

"Look at a broader set of factors than just pure work experience," she says. "What diversity do you have in that team and a field of candidates? How can you increase that?"

Often the explanation for the imbalance in the ratio of male to female employees is reduced to factors such as maternity leave. The more recent phenomenon of gender fatigue – in which workers and managers feel overwhelmed and defeated by the glut of programs and initiatives implemented over the years that have failed to solve the problem – has also been a reason to dump the issue into the too-hard basket.

Barnett says shifting the focus to a team and the business's outcomes highlights the natural biases that are ingrained in our perspective and applied when making hiring decisions.

"Humans are almost programmed to like [similar] people, to seek out people with a similar world view," Barnett says. "When we're looking at creating teams and diversity, we have to be fighting against natural tendencies but people don't consciously do that.

"We always say, 'I've picked the best person for the job.' But really, that is the best person after we've applied our biases. Identifying those factors and mitigating them will allow us to ­harness real talent."

Gender fatigue is a key issue, according to Deloitte's Bourke, who says studies have shown this. She welcomes recent initiatives, such as the ASX gender diversity reporting requirements, as ways to elevate the issue in people's minds.

"I liken it to a mist in the distance – we can see something going on because the tops of organisations look very homogeneous," she says. "But at the beginning of an organisation, we see a high level of diversity in ethnicity and gender.

"Like a mist in the distance, something's going wrong but we can't quite put a finger on what it is.

"We need to keep people's noses to the grindstone. It may be hard and frustrating but we have to nail this and get it right. We have to go back and have a look again about what you're meant to do – the systems, processes and individual behaviour – so we get a shift."

Some may dismiss this gender diversity and fatigue as cosmetic issues and argue that the war was fought and won in the '60s. However, fighting these perceptions is key in trying to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of female IT leaders.

A huge part of the problem for the IT industry is that it is poorly perceived by girls, Barnett says. They don't see it as a ­viable career choice compared with other professions such as law, where there are more female graduates than male.

"IT is seen to some extent as a nerdy profession that doesn't have the same sort of interaction that maybe a lot of younger girls are looking for," she says. "The fact that [the proportion of uni IT graduates who are women] is still around 28 per cent … means we need to do more work. We all need to do a lot more in terms of education at the high-school level.

"Some programs, certainly in the US, are aimed at girls in high school. I did think last year about running a ­similar thing and it may be on the cards in the future."

Steward agrees, saying there are peaks and troughs in graduate numbers but the issue must be addressed much earlier.

"There's no real point in just attracting at the college level. We must continue to collectively raise the profile of effective, broad, exciting careers in tech, right from primary school levels," she says.

Both women are firm believers that there is an opportunity to tap into the ­culture shift that smartphone applications and games have driven – the penetration of social networking, and the mainstream adoption of technology.

"Technology is so pervasive, children are very active consumers, natural ­consumers," Steward says. "We have to be able to show them how they can continue to enjoy that, even as they work." MIS Australia

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