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Strangers in a Strange Land

Strangers in a Strange Land

James Brown sang it so long ago: It's a man's, man's, man's world! Can it still be so? In IT, absolutely

Mindful of the way male and female brains are wired, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) first assistant secretary Cheryl Hannah pitches her voice low and keeps the buzz factor high when addressing - as she often does - audiences packed with men. Hannah knows that to many men the naturally higher tone and more rhythmical cadence of a woman's voice lacks authority, which in turn practically ensures they will tune out unless the content of the talk is utterly compelling.

"Men just can't hear women's voices well," Hannah says. "The higher the pitch, the harder it is for them, and so after a while they just stop making the effort unless they're fascinated by what you're saying. Knowing that, I really pay attention to how I'm crafting my communications when it's important to get a message across to an audience that's mostly male. I will use all the public speaking skills I know: slow down, lower the tone, concentrate on the short words, not show off my erudite vocabulary, because I know my audience is going to struggle to keep listening to me.

"The last thing you want to do is to give men an opportunity to think you are just blustering your way through."

Hannah says being a women in the male-dominated world of IT can be a "huge disadvantage" unless you are given leadership training, and get to learn on the job how to be confident and how to communicate, particularly with an all-male audience.

Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) Department CIO Ann Steward says her male counterparts might excel at networking and bonding, but as a woman she has a couple of assets of her own she can consciously exploit. Steward may not get to bask in the cosy "boys' club", where the men simultaneously network to advance their ambitions and subtly compete for the title of most hairy-chested, but she tries to counter men's natural advantages by the degree of consultation and "joined-up" ownership she achieves before decisions are made.

"Men have a high level of aspiration and very ambitious viewpoints, mostly, that can come across as very competitive. I am ambitious in the sense of I want to do the very best I can and position my organization to the very best, but it's not at the expense of another individual," Steward says.

"I try to be transparent, I try to be open, I try to share and I try to always give an early alert. I have a little standard, which is to try not to cause any surprises. So if I hear of something or if I know that something is coming up, I like to always give as much warning as I can, and I hope other people feel that they can call me and do similar things. I try very much to keep the open door, the open channel process happening."

Two highly-respected women with about as good a reputation in their field as you could hope to achieve, and yet both know that they would not be where they are today if they had not been just that little bit better than the men around them, and if they had not devoted part of their energies to overcoming the disadvantages their gender brings.

With the skills shortage escalating in IT and men continuing to dominate executive posts, the work of the growing army of researchers pondering the role of gender in IT is taking on new urgency. As surveys paint a dismal picture of the number of women working at senior levels in the country's top companies, some sectors of business are becoming increasingly alarmed about the way women are being largely locked out of positions that have significant influence over the company's business direction.

Yet for all that acute scrutiny, the situation, long bad, has been steadily worsening. A February 2005 report: Where are the Women in Information Technology? prepared for the (US) National Centre for Women and Information Technology at the University of Colorado, notes that for all the researchers' recommendations over decades about recruiting more women or doing a better job of encouraging them to stay, the proportion of women has dropped from a high of 40 percent in 1986 to about 29 percent at the end of 1999, and is still falling. And that makes the US look a model of gender equity compared to Australia, where just 16 percent of all people working in the hi-tech sector are women, and women hold barely 5.7 percent of managerial positions in the industry. That is a truly dismal picture.

Those figures come against a backdrop of research which suggests that those women who do make it into the field get harsher treatment than their male counterparts, and may be held to a higher standard than the men.

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More about CortexDepartment of Immigration and Multicultural AffairsDIMAHISIBM AustraliaPepsiCoSharpSwinburne UniversitySwinburne University of TechnologySwinburne University of TechnologyUnileverUnileverUniversity of Technology SydneyUniversity of WollongongUniversity of Wollongong

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