Advances in technology should be getting more women into the workforce, yet the opposite seems to be true in Australia and its ICT sector, said Professor Gillian Triggs.
The President of the Australian Human Rights Commission was speaking at a Women at VCE event in Sydney on Tuesday to discuss current gender gaps in the workforce and support women in technology.
Women only made up 28 per cent of Australia’s IT workforce in 2013, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Triggs called the growing gender gap in IT a "strange phenomenon" that is hurting the sector, as well as Australia’s GDP overall.
In discussing women in leadership positions, Triggs said that flexibility and mobility in the workplace were crucial to women being able to progress in their careers and prove their worth, particularly with regard to employees who want to start families.
“Work should be about taking on a task and completing it to the absolute highest level of excellence you can. I don’t care when you did it and how you do it,” she said.
“Really technology should be getting more women into the workforce, and I wonder if [firms] are taking advantage of new technology. Ultimately, it’s about tasks accomplished rather than clocking in and clocking out. And women are efficient; they can get the job done.”
While this is a culture she encourages, it's not always one she's experienced herself. In a previous law firm, when leaving to pick up her children from school, she said: “I had a little trick, I used to put a file under my arm and walk to the lift, pretending I was off to see a client.”
According to a report by Deloitte Access Economics for the Human Rights Commission, the average earnings of women in the ICT workforce tend to be significantly lower than men, Triggs noted, with an average pay gap of 20 per cent - slightly higher than the average pay gap for the community at large.
Triggs praised companies like Telstra that have paid maternity leave across the globe, as well as offering flexible return to work options for new parents, which she says will do wonders for ensuring women remain in the workforce.
In addition to flexibility, Triggs said she concurred with the theory from Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, that women should “lean in” to success.
“In my own work experience, leaning in, stepping up and putting your hand out is absolutely vital for women,” she said.
“Women have got to take the risk, put themselves forward and ask for the challenge. There’s no point being victims, there’s no point complaining – though a little complaining does help sometimes.”
Triggs also encouraged structured leadership development within organisations to enable and encourage women to “step up and to be recognised".
The best way to ensure more women in the IT sector, said Triggs, was to encourage young women and female students to take part in technology subjects.
“There does appear to be a strong correlation between earlier attitudes and the propensity to pursue a career in the technology areas,” she said.
A survey by the OECD into the attitudes of Australian 15-year olds found 46 per cent of boys and only 8 per cent of girls had career aspirations in computer science and engineering.
She also noted that the proportion of girls that elect not to study mathematics in Australia has increased from 7.5 per cent to 21.5 per cent over 10 years.
“If this is the breadth of interest and expectation in computer science, it’s not at all surprising that we’re not seeing women come into IT.”
Another interesting point from the Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications Diversity Report revealed that 50 per cent of respondents indicated that they had fallen into their careers rather than actively selecting roles in technology.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon that they haven’t, as young teenagers or university students, identified IT as a sector they want to move into, they just found themselves in it.”
Triggs said this was “extraordinary”, along with the fact that since 2006, Australia has fallen from 15th position to the 24th position on the Global Gender Gap Index – despite the fact that Australia produces the highest number of educated women in any other country.
“Across the whole of the country, our women are educated more and to a higher standard than anywhere else in the world, and when we’re employed we actually receive the highest income of any group of women in the world, but then it all falls away,” she said.
Triggs suggested that the issue lies mostly in entrenched problematic attitudes towards women and their capability in areas such as STEM, with results from a Harvard Implicit Test showing almost three quarters of respondents (70 per cent) associated science with males, and art with females.
“Women are the ‘leaky pipeline’ in STEM, and we need to take further action to fix this because as we can see, high engagement of women in education has not led to more female leadership in Australia.”