Gender diversity and the small number of women within IT is a common agenda item for all Australian companies.
While the intention and drive is there, what has been lacking within these boardroom conversations is the solid and exact data of where skilled female technology workers currently work, how many are working within the field and what roles have the highest participation of female workers.
It’s vital information to assist organisations to make informed decisions when it comes to gender targets within the sectors and set industry best-practice targets.
While some organisations are aiming for 50 per cent female participation rate, others are more pragmatic, aiming for 70:30. But in the IT sector where it is well documented there is a dearth of females; how realistic are any of these targets?
To determine realistic and possible targets, businesses need to be informed.
Without the benefit of available information, leading technology recruitment company Davidson Technology worked with LinkedIn to determine the population of people in IT in Australia, their gender, geographic location and the roles they work in.
The Davidson Technology DiversIT Report, released this month, found that of the 435,000 IT professionals on LinkedIn in Australia, only 31 per cent are female.
In executive roles this number plummets to 14 per cent. As these results suggest, it quickly becomes clear that 50:50 gender targets aren’t realistic as simply, there’s just not enough females.
Tabcorp CIO, Kim Wenn has been working in the c-suite for 12 years and said the numbers were truly depressing.
“Hoping to achieve a gender balance where participation is so low will be an uphill battle for us all,” Wenn said.
“We are facing a crisis in human capital and skills in the technology industry and we won’t be able to meet the demand of skilled ICT workers, unless we increase female participation. We are significantly underutilising women in this critical profession.”
The number of women per IT role type is alarming. In the top 12 IT role types, the percentages of women range from 18 per cent for systems engineers, to 33 per cent for product managers and up to 54 per cent for program managers/ project directors.
However, there is a silver lining in the mid-tier level of organisations. Areas like project management have a solid population of female workers and what’s even more heartening is that many of these females are progressing through the ranks and into senior IT roles.
Females represent 28 per cent of all IT project managers and these numbers swell to 54 per cent in program manager/project director ranks.
As someone who specialises in recruiting executive roles in technology across Australia, the question we now need to ask as an industry is: what does a realistic gender target for IT workers look like?
Arbitrary targets that don’t reflect the true female IT population will not assist. Analysing the number of females in each IT role type and then setting targets is required.
Likewise, a fundamental shift needs to occur to grow the supply of females coming into the sector. Getting more girls to study STEM subjects and moving through the pipeline is key.
Sally Kennedy, executive general manager of information services at State Trustees agrees: “What genuinely surprised me was that only 14 per cent of CIO, CDO and executive roles are occupied by women as I honestly thought we’d come further than that,” she said.
“I see a lot of women in CIO roles profiled in the media, but that’s created an incorrect perception that the gender mix at this level is better than it really is.
“With the participation rate as poor as it is, there is obviously action required on both the demand and supply sides,” she said.
“We hear a lot now about the importance of encouraging children into STEM subjects and like most of us I agree that’s going to be vital for a longer term gender balance in the industry.”
This will require a multipronged, long term approach to addressing the issue.
Wenn offers further thoughts on how to address the problem.
“Many of us are working in silos to make change, but we need employers, educational institutions and country leaders to work together to improve the gender imbalance,” Wenn said.
“We need to start educating girls about the benefits of a career in technology at a young age. We should be providing evidence to convince young women and their parents that dropping mathematics in year nine closes many career doors.
“We have to start educating girls that a career in technology can mean many things – ranging from coding to user experience and design, people leadership, project management, and business analysis.”
These changes will address the pipeline of women coming into the IT sector, but in the meantime there are more immediate changes that can be made to increase the number in senior ranks.
Organisations would be well advised to look to areas like project management and identify key females to nurture, train and develop into our next IT leaders.
Additionally, changing recruiting methods to remove unconscious bias, promote female roles models, drive mentor programs and eliminate the perceptions that IT is more of a man’s domain are essential.
“Right now addressing the likely unconscious or conscious bias in the recruitment process is critical,” Kennedy said.
“Boards and executives need to ensure that there is appropriate rigour in the selection process to make this a thing of the past. Perceptions that IT is more of a man’s domain is still prevalent and we need to fix this.”
Having moved from project management herself and now on an executive team where 80 per cent are female, Kennedy is a firm believer in working with females in the project area to grow the numbers at executive levels.
“Given that much of the female talent is obviously residing in the project ranks it would be helpful for organisations to provide opportunities for women to rotate through operational roles to give them the more general experience they require in order to move to the next level,” she said.
“I made the move into technology myself years ago through project management and I benefited greatly from being trusted to transition into roles leading support, development, infrastructure and strategy functions.
“The opportunity to gain experience and confidence in a well-supported way is key to fixing the problem.”
GHD’s CIO Elizabeth Harper agreed and said it comes down to changing the way we see the traditional working arrangements.
“One way we are achieving our gender diversity targets, is by championing a shift in the cultural acceptance of flexible working as a legitimate and valuable way of delivering quality outcomes for our clients and business,” Harper said.
“In addition, we have updated parental leave policies, and delivered unconscious bias training and resources for our managers. Sometimes unconscious bias can affect the way a role is framed and advertised, unwittingly making it less attractive to female candidates.
“The IT industry is actually a critical enabler of diversity, because it allows people to work flexibly,” she said. “Ideally we want a workplace where people can work anywhere, anytime and on any device.”
Collectively, from myself as a recruiter, to employers, to industry bodies to even the existing female IT workers, it has to become a core responsibility for all to address the gender imbalance in the sector.
The first step today, is to work with organisations to ensure that they are ‘diversity fit’ and use the available data to help them reach industry best practice with their female participation rates.
Damien Ross is director of executive engagement at Davidson Technology.
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