This year’s International Women’s Day has officially kicked off with technology and innovation at the centre of its efforts to improve equality and diversity across the globe.
Under the theme, ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’, the technology industry is now being compelled to look at just how far it is achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women.
As ARN’s annual Women in ICT Awards (WIICTA) demonstrates each year, there is no shortage of incredible talent in Australia's IT and channel spheres.
Beyond the selfies, slogans and hashtags, there’s an inordinate amount of work underway to improve both the gender divide and overall diversity and inclusion in Australia from the community’s top female leaders.
One of these is Indigenous Technology founder and director Cheryl Bailey, who is paving the way for First Nations peoples to get into tech. Bailey is a proud Muriwari woman from the Weilmoringle community in northwest NSW.
“Indigenous Technology seeks to create opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to access and learn about technology, innovation and career pathways, whilst establishing networks and industry relationships,” she told ARN.
“Our Mirrinj Program provides a range of courses and events for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to get skilled in various areas of IT, with the objective of creating employment opportunities to work on projects with Indigenous Technology or with our tech partners. As part of the Mirrinj Program, I provide mentorship for First Nations women who want to work in IT.”
For blueAPACHE head of sales and WIICTA 2022 Shining Star Jayati Gulati, proactively providing a spotlight to the women the workplace is helping promote them and openly celebrate their achievements.
She is also currently mentoring a group of year 7 girls on an application development project.
“It was fascinating to learn from the girls that for them working in technology is only about coding,” she said. It was rewarding to hear when one of the girls said that she wanted to be in tech sales when she grows up after I explained to her what I do for work.”
Rajitha Rajasingham, co-founder and director of Oreta, is also passionate about addressing the gender gap and ensuring issues affecting women in the workplace are addressed.
“Hiring, promotion, compensation and performance evaluation decisions are not only made on merit and but also on the value that diversity brings to the business,” she said.
“I ensure that the workplace culture is welcoming of women and that there is a sense of supporting other women in the workplace.”
Like Gulati, Rajasingham is also active in promoting technology among school-age women, sponsoring Oreta’s IgnITe program. This is a five-day work experience program for year 10 and 11 girls to learn about the various facets of working in and in technology.
“Via our internship programs I actively seek out female interns,” she added. “Oreta’s charity initiatives have also included sponsorship opportunities for women.”
Room for improvement
Multiple and long-term efforts, both within schools and industry, have certainly boosted women’s presence in Australia’s technology industry over the last decade. With every passing year, the number of applicants and nominees for WIICTA increases, with more female talent taking a central role in Australia’s tech leadership ranks.
But, as Rajasingham points out, it’s still not enough. “Women are still massively underrepresented in the tech industry,” she said. “This problem is compounded owing to the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, leading to a lack of diversity in decision making and a failure to address issues affecting women in the workplace.”
Meanwhile, Theresa Eyssens, Optus VP of customer solutions and cloud, argued that the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on some gaping holes within women’s leadership.
The ARN Women in ICT Achievement winner said: “Clearly there is a need for more women in tech leadership roles. We saw during the pandemic a lot more emerging female tech leaders dropped out of roles due to the challenges of running families and households during the pandemic.
“Encouraging them back to roles and the often-challenging cultures where women experience more micro-aggressions than pre-pandemic, is not easy – females now have more options and want more out of a role than what they were willing to tolerate in the past,” she added.
In addition, as Bailey points out, there is a significant gap in access to technology between Australia’s metropolitan and rural areas.
“There is still significant scope to improve access to technology, particularly in remote and regional communities in Australia, alongside digital literacy across the nation,” she said. “Having access to technology and knowing how to use it enables people to understand opportunities of many kinds, for example, employment, education and health.”
Kate Burleigh, country manager for Amazon Alexa Australia and New Zealand and ARN Hall of Fame inductee, is open about the fact there are elements of sexism at play too.
“There was one situation early in my career when I was shocked and disappointed that one of my male peers was promoted out of nowhere to a newly created senior leadership role,” she said. “I remember being knocked for six that the role had simply been created just for him, with no open interview process or opportunity for anyone else to put their hand up for the position.
“It was at that point that I realised my performance alone was not going to cut it. I adapted my mindset and had to be intentional with my presence, ensuring my name was clearly in the mix the next time the senior leaders talked about who to promote or create opportunities for.
“Across my 25 years in the tech industry, I’m thankful to have always found the majority of people I’ve worked with and come across to have been incredibly supportive and helpful, regardless of gender,” she added. “When I have experienced anything otherwise, it has been more likely to have come from vertical industries that I have been involved in specific projects with, rather than my tech counterparts.”
Bridging the gap between genders, as well as other disadvantaged groups, is ongoing, but many are optimistic. However, one thing is clear for Gulati: change needs to start at the very beginning.
“The gender gap in the technology space needs to be addressed at the grass root level where we educate and spread more awareness amongst kids and students at school and university levels about the endless opportunities available to them in our industry,” she said.
“I have always been a believer that we need to create a world where we provide opportunities based on individuals’ talent and skill sets no matter their gender or background. However, representation and awareness matter. With lack of awareness and representation, we lead the younger generation to believe that certain roles, and careers are out of their reach.”
Looking at a three-pronged approach to tackling this ongoing issue, Rajasingham likewise agrees that change begins from a young age, starting with introducing technology to girls at a young age.
In addition, she recommended that the industry works closely with those who influence student career choices: teachers, parents and career advisors. These can help change some of the lingering and outdated perceptions of the IT industry.
“A lot of people — not just young girls — don’t fully understand what it means to be working in IT. We need to work with these people to educate them on the impact technology can have on society. It’s not about pushing girls to study technology but giving them the ‘why’,” she said.
Technology itself has played a key role in offering young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women a glimpse into the working world, thanks to Bailey’s organisation.
“Indigenous Technology is using virtual reality technology to provide First Nations peoples with a visual experience into the ‘day in the life of a role within our customers' organisations,” she explained. “The VR experience allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to see themselves in a role, through a pair of VR goggles, such that they might consider applying for the role.”
Going up the ranks, Burleigh argued that change needs to come from our own individual perceptions and biases when it comes to hiring.
“Leaders need to constantly ensure they are not relying on biases or subjective judgements about people’s ability,” she said. “They need to critically analyse and probe to understand who really did the work and deserves the recognition or opportunity.
“Conversely for women aspiring to have strong careers, they must make their presence known and be intentional in their efforts to receive credit for their contributions. That doesn’t mean being the loudest in the room, but it does mean being brave enough to speak up or ask for time or opinions from others.”
She also said that the collaborative nature of IT, including the daunting task of networking, can pay dividends for making yourself visible. “It can be uncomfortable to put yourself in the mix, but we all must show up, not just for ourselves, but for others coming behind us,” she added.
Echoing Rajasingham’s comments about technology role models, Eyssens reiterated just how critical it is to be visible to up-and-coming female talent.
“As leaders, we cast very long shadows,” she said. “It is a privilege to be a leader and a female leader, so I feel it is an obligation to act as a strong role model to inspire women to see what is possible.”