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Leading change - Part 1

Women excel in IT careers, so why does participation remain so low?

ANZ chief information officer and [[xref:http://www.vicictforwomen.com.au/www/html/264-about-go-girl.asp|GoGirl-Go for IT]] patron, Anne Weatherstone

ANZ chief information officer and GoGirl-Go for IT patron, Anne Weatherstone

Like most Year 10 girls, Rebekah Eden never planned on a career in the IT industry. Popular culture had conditioned her to believe that IT was all about lonely individuals hunched over computers for hours and hours on end. Instead, her studies were taking her towards a preferred career in forensic science.

It was exposure to the industry through a week-long EXITE (Exploring Interest in Technology and Engineering) camp organised by IBM that changed her mind. During that week she was shown different aspects of the IT industry, from programming robots to developing websites.

The experience completely changed her mind.

“You get to see the industry,” Eden says. “You get to go to places and see the people work. And, by doing that, it removes all the stereotypical nature that is associated with IT, because you realise it is not how everybody thinks it will be. “All these movies show a person at a computer all day long with no social skills. But the idea that’s in the movies is not present today. And you need the exposure to see what it’s like.” IBM has been running the EXITE camps since 2001, and organises three camps for girls each year, and an additional camp for indigenous students.

With Australia facing a shortage of some 500,000 skilled workers by 2020, there is a desperate need to lift female participation in the IT industry above its current standing at about 20 per cent. There is some disagreement on the exact numbers — the Australian Computer Society puts female participation in the overall IT industry at 23.5 per cent, while the Australian Information Industry Association puts the participation of women in ICT roles at 18.5 per cent. Either way, the numbers are low.

The general manager for operations at Open Universities Australia, Michelle Beveridge, recalls a time only 15 years ago when she would be the only woman in a room full of 20 IT professionals.

She is not keen to see those times return.

“You weren’t expected to be there,” Beveridge says. “Now they [organisations] are all recognising that they are building systems for a population which is 50-50, and they need much higher proportions of women just to get the usability right.” She says the key to getting more women interested in IT is to reach them when they are at high school. It is a difficult task, with Charles Sturt University reporting that overall enrolments in IT degrees at Australian universities have fallen by 61 per cent in a decade.

“We’ve just lost the girls,” Beveridge says. “We lose them around Year 8; they completely lose interest in the topic and it is hard to get them back in. So we are seeing the skills shortages happening and diversity reducing because we are just not getting enough girls interested.

Read Part 2 of Leading change — women in ICT: the economic benefits of bridging the gender divide..

“People know what a lawyer does for a living, and what the profession is. IT is a relatively young industry, so how do you explain to somebody outside of IT what an IT person does?” The key is giving young people exposure to the industry. Numerous programs have been created to try to achieve this, including GoGirl-Go for IT, an initiative of the Victorian Women in ICT Network (VicICTforWomen) that features an interactive IT careers showcase for girls, held every two years since 2004.

Beveridge, who is the immediate past chair of the organisation, says the 2010 event received more support from corporate Australia than in any previous year, indicating an increasing appreciation of the gender imbalance.

And it is possible that the message might also be getting through to young women. VicICTforWomen board member and program manager in Telstra’s IT organisation, Irene Evgeniadis, points to the Victorian Government’s ICT Skill Snapshot report for 2010, which shows that the number of applications from females to study ICT related university courses has marginally increased since 2007-08.

“The number of females looking at IT as a career is starting to show a slight trend upwards,” Evgeniadis says. “Contributing factors have been things like GoGirl-Go for IT and a lot of industry investment. They are trying to dispel a lot of the myths around IT being a very boyish, geeky environment by presenting and showcasing the different roles and jobs that females can have, other than just coding and testing. But we still have a long way to go.”

ANZ Banking Group chief information officer, Anne Wetherston, is the patron for GoGirl-Go for IT in Victoria, and has recorded a video talking about her own career path and the opportunities in the industry. She regrets not having a ready pool of appropriate candidates to choose from when recruiting for senior IT positions at the bank.

“When we are recruiting to fill my vacancies we are quite keen to find senior women in IT,” Weatherston says. “Not that we have prioritised women over men, but it is good to have that gender balance. Of the young graduates we have brought in over the last year or so into IT, 50 per cent are women. And we are offering them mentoring to help find their way through the organisation of ANZ.

“Could we do more? Yes, we could.” She says that if IT is to break down stereotypes and increase its appeal as a career, it will take senior IT staff stepping up to more executive roles.

“The only way to break through is more and more CIOs getting to the board of companies, because then that says that it has stopped being a backroom thing and has started being something that is core to the business,” Weatherston says.

“The other thing is to do role-modelling, and pick people out who have been great leaders and great spokespeople for the IT industry.”

The profile of women in IT was boosted in January when the South Australian IT entrepreneur, Sonja Bernhardt, was recognised in the Australia Day honours list for her contribution to the industry. Bernhardt is chief executive officer of the enterprise software company ThoughtWare, and the founder of two not-for-profit industry groups, Women in IT (WIT) and Australian Women in IT and Science Entity (AWISE).

Numerous other groups for women exist within the Australian IT industry. The ACS operates the ACS Women group, while Females in Technology and Telecommunications (FITT) is a special interest group of the AIIA.


Read Part 2 of Leading change — women in ICT: the economic benefits of bridging the gender divide..

Follow CIO Australia on Twitter: @CIO_Australia

Tags leadershipCIO CareerstrainingRebekah EdanWomen in ICTMichelle BeveridgeAnne WeatherstonSonja Bernhardt

More about ANZ Banking GroupAustralian Computer SocietyAustralian Computer SocietyAustralian Information Industry AssocAustralian Information Industry AssociationCharles Sturt UniversityCharles Sturt UniversityetworkIBM AustraliaIBM AustraliaIIAITETechnologyTelstra Corporation

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