Women in tech: IT industry behind pace in addressing gender balance

The IT industry is all about being at the cutting edge - but not when it comes to attracting female workers. Helen Twose reports.

Tanya Gray's Gather Workshops introduce teens -- male and female -- to the possibilities of technology. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Tanya Gray's Gather Workshops introduce teens -- male and female -- to the possibilities of technology. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple -- all billion-dollar success stories, thanks to their disruptive technologies and must-have products.

But the tech giants also have one other thing in common: a dearth of female employees.

Folding to years of pressure, the big names of Silicon Valley have begun releasing diversity figures that reveal men outnumber women two to one.

Strip back the numbers to just the technical roles and the number of women in the workforce comes in at between 10 per cent at Twitter and 20 per cent at Pinterest.

By contrast, 57 per cent of all professional roles in the United States are held by women.

It seems these cutting edge industries have droves of women using their up-to-the-minute technology, but their employment stats are more like something from the Mad Men era.

The situation is unlikely to change any time soon, as recent studies show the number of women studying technology subjects at tertiary level is falling away.

In the United States, 37 per cent of computer graduates in 1985 were women. By 2012 that had fallen to 18 per cent.

The trend is similar in Australia. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald last month detailed the fall in overall numbers going into IT-related tertiary study between 2001 and 2013, with the biggest drop coming from the number of women enrolling.

In 2001, one in four students studying IT was a woman. Now that proportion is one in five, with total enrolments dipping to 27,547 from a peak of 46,945 in 2002.

In New Zealand it's much the same story.

Information technology consultant and academic Garry Roberton follows the trends in tertiary study and has documented the fall in IT enrolments, blogging recently that "past efforts to increase female tertiary enrolments into ICT-related programmes appear to have made little difference so far, with the female-to-male ratio intractably stuck at 20:80".

More's the pity, because there are plenty of well-paid jobs out there for anyone with solid IT prowess, plus great written and verbal communication skills.

Nathan Masters, a senior consultant at specialist IT recruiter 920 Career Agents, finds IT staff for every kind of workplace, from start-ups to multinationals.

He says confidence in the tech market is at a high, making it a "pretty neat time to be in the IT industry".

Demand for specialist .Net developers, the main Microsoft programming framework, is through the roof, he says, forcing companies to go global in the hunt for talent.

The demand has been matched by healthy increases in salaries paid to technical staff, Masters says.

Go out and talk to women in the New Zealand tech industry and they describe an environment that is dynamic, fast-paced, creative, full of opportunities to learn and to travel.

This reflects research put out by Google that showed women who were familiar with the tech industry associated it with words like "future", "fun", "challenging", "interesting" and "money".

On the flipside, women who didn't know much about the industry used words like "boring", "difficult", "nerd" and "maths".

One of Google's new initiatives to encourage young women into studying, then working in technology is its US$50 million ($64 million) Made with Code project, a mixture of online resources and partnerships with existing all-female coding programmes in the US.

In New Zealand, programmes such as Gather Workshops are working to open teenagers' eyes to the possibilities of technology.

Though not strictly "girls-only", Gather co-ordinator Tanya Gray says it gets a balance of girls and boys to its workshops in robotics, web design and programming, aimed at senior high school students and teachers.

Gray, who is a candidate for the Institute of IT Professionals ITX Professional of the Year award tonight, says feedback shows interest in IT jobs shoots up from 60 per cent to 90 per cent after the workshops.

"And it's not different between the girls and the boys."

She has only once had a girl not want to take it further and has since revised all the course materials.

Instead, she says she gets "heartbreaking" feedback from girls along the lines of "this workshop made me feel like I was worth something" and "this workshop made me realise I could do something I never thought I was smart enough for".

The Google study found positive encouragement and exposure to IT were "key controllable indicators" in deciding whether young women chose to study computer science at university.

Frances Valintine of The Mind Lab says that needs to start with parents - and mothers in particular.

She says 80 per cent of teenagers' subject choices are made by mums, who are basing career choices on their own experience of school and the workforce.

Valintine, who has hundreds of teachers and schoolchildren passing through the doors of her Auckland-based science and technology school each week, says the average mum is oblivious to the world of opportunity opening up through technology, and the increasing commoditisation of traditionally acceptable careers such as accounting.

She recommends parents take a good, hard look at the schools where they plan to send their kids, saying traditional schools are too often trading on history and sending children down pathways to becoming lawyers and doctors "because that's what they know".

Gray says people question why programming is important. "The problem is, they're looking at how the world is today.

"They're not looking at how the world will be in 10 or 20 years when these kids are actually in their careers trying to make a difference, trying to get ahead."

Around the world, programming is being introduced into the education curriculum, sometimes as soon as children start school.

Gray says programming is about understanding how technology works, as much as making it work.

"We're not trying to produce a million programmers," she says.

"We're trying to produce people who understand the world they live in, because the future is all going to be technology."

Candace Kinser, who steps down at the end of the month from three years as head of industry body NZ Tech, says she hopes the industry has gone through the diversity "valley of death".

"Three years ago if I was to say 'we don't have enough women in tech' everybody would have said, 'So? What's the problem?'," says Kinser.

That attitude has changed today as technology becomes the fastest-growing sector and the third-biggest export earner behind dairy and tourism, she says.

"We have to find ways to be sure that it is nurtured and it survives," says Kinser. "I can't force women to get jobs in tech. It's more like how can we raise awareness?"

Programmes she has kicked off at NZ Tech include the Women's Tech Exec events, aimed at bringing young women together with senior women in IT to gain a better understanding of the industry's career possibilities.

At Vodafone New Zealand, director of technology Sandra Pickering oversees the telco's women in technology programme. It's a global Vodafone initiative that is given a local twist in each country.

"First of all we focused on understanding the challenges of the women that we have in our organisation and how do we support them through the various stages of their career to stay with us and develop and to grow," says Pickering.

She says after four years of tracking the numbers, Vodafone has found 95 per cent of women come back from maternity leave, although they are less inclined to put their names forward for promotions or take on extra responsibility.

Vodafone has made some positive steps, with an 11 per cent increase in women in senior technology roles in just two years.

The Harvard Business Review reported a US study of women across the science and technology industries, which found that even though the majority loved their work and were generally "very ambitious", women were 45 per cent more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year.

It found that nearly a third of the surveyed women in technology faced a "geek workplace culture" that was likened to "a super-competitive fraternity of arrogant nerds".

The research revealed that the dearth of women at senior levels leaves women with the impression that only men have what it takes to be considered leadership material.

That impression is confirmed by industry leaders in the US study, nearly a third of whom said a woman would never reach the top position at their company "no matter how able or high-performing".

Vodafone is also getting in at the grassroots, bringing in more young women through its graduate programme, introducing a new apprenticeship scheme aimed at school-leavers, as well as sponsoring external initiatives to promote IT to women.

"That to me is the way you can alter the numbers and the balance by bringing the entry-level people in and diversifying the business that way."

In two years Vodafone has improved diversity in its technology areas by 6 per cent, bringing the number of women up to 24 per cent.

It has exceeded targets for its apprentice scheme, with 53 per cent of placements going to young women, and has increased the women in its graduate programme by 18 per cent.

Gray, whose Gather Workshops are partly funded by industry sponsorship, says the slow progress being made by some tech companies is embarrassing.

She says Google's initiative came only after years of pushing by women, and many tech companies complain about the lack of women available to hire, yet don't make any investment in training women in technology.

"They're waiting for other people to fix the problem for them," she says.

"What's five grand or 10 grand a year to a big company?"

Jo Healey, NZ chief executive, Dimension Data


Jo Healey. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"I got brought up with my Dad always saying to me 'if you think you can or you can't, you're right' and that's always been what I have stood up to," says Jo Healey, the incoming chief executive of Dimension Data's NZ operation.

She says a lot of what she has achieved over a 20-year career has come down to confidence and belief, and keeping a "clear line of sight" to her goals.

Healey began her working life as a typist, but a great mentor spotted her ability and set her on a career path that has seen her work in senior roles for Hewlett-Packard, Computerland NZ, Telecom and most recently as managing director of Fujitsu NZ.
Her new employer, Dimension Data, is an international firm providing specialised IT services and infrastructure.

So is being a minority tough?

"I've never found it tough but then I've never subscribed to it," says Healey. "I do firmly believe it's about how confident you are in terms of backing yourself and driving your career in the direction that you want to take it.

"For some it is about getting into a top leadership role and for others it's about being the best that they can be in a particular sphere or technology or capability, but it is about having the trust and confidence in yourself and pushing yourself forward."

Heather Gordon, SMB sales and marketing lead, Microsoft NZ


Heather Gordon. Photo / supplied

"My lifelong dream was to become a marine biologist, so I'm so far away from that it's frightening," says Microsoft New Zealand's Heather Gordon.

"I love the career that I've landed in. It certainly wasn't a career that I chose. I don't even think we had computers at school when I was there."

Gordon says she got her start in IT purely by accident in the mid 1990s. Through a short-lived job at a logistics company in South Africa, she met someone from an internet service provider who offered her a job on the basis that she had the right attitude.

"I always grab the opportunities to learn something new if I have the ability to. I think where women probably might fall down is they don't verbalise what they're good at."

She says women may also tend to dwell on fear of failure more than men do. "For me, I haven't let that hold me back.

"IT has always been very male strong but I don't sit in a room and think, 'gosh I'm the only female around the table'.

"I sit in the room and think, 'gee, I'm really proud to be in the position I'm in and I've worked really hard to get here', as has everyone else around the table."

Victoria Crone, chief executive, Xero NZ


Victoria Crone. Photo / Brendon O'Hagan

Xero's New Zealand chief executive, Victoria Crone, says she has never been tempted by a job outside IT. "None of them have the appeal of the fast-moving nature of the tech sector."

Before joining Xero this year, Crone held senior roles at Chorus and Telecom. She has a background in marketing and sales, and says there is a complete lack of understanding about the diversity of roles available in IT, particularly those that play to women's strengths.

Career highlights have been the immense opportunities, huge personal development and the skills gained from working at such a fast pace, she says.

The industry has also become more accepting of a more diverse and authentic style of leadership in recent years, Crone adds.

"People can be more true to who they are, which is very cool."

But it can be a lonely place.

"There are not a lot of women.

"It's a high-pressure industry and being an exec in this kind of industry is really stressful; there is no downtime, you are always full on.

It is still quite male dominated so you do get a lot of macho male behaviour and that's just sometimes uncomfortable and not fun."

Sandra Pickering, technology director, Vodafone NZ


Sandra Pickering. Photo / Supplied

Vodafone's Sandra Pickering has some straightforward advice for young women looking at a tech career: pick your partner carefully; they can make or break your career.

It really does help to have a very supportive partner, she says, something she was lucky to have when her career with former employer IBM took her overseas when her children were young.

"He gave up his work but has worked probably as hard as I have over the last 20 years to make it successful.

"From a female perspective I think the biggest challenge we have is when you get to certain levels the roles, particularly around IT or any technology roles, is the operational aspects of it.

All our businesses now are 24/7 so there is an expectation that you're available, always on.

"It's not just for females but males as well. The work-life balance becomes quite precarious.

"You also have to be aware of it and have things in place to manage it, but I think it's the same for all of us actually in this industry."

Find out more :

Gather Workshops
Training in programming and robotics, for senior high school students and teachers.
gathergather.co.nz/workshops

Rails Girls
• Local arm of the international movement offering workshops to introduce girls and women to programming.
railsgirls.com

Geek Girl Coffees
• University-based networking events for women in technology, sponsored by Google.
sites.google.com/site/ggcauckland

Women Tech Exec events
• Run by NZ Tech to connect senior women in the industry and introduce young women to IT career opportunities.
Women's Tech Exec lunches

Shadow IT day
• Partnership between NZ Tech and Manukau Institute of Technology, showcasing tech careers by pairing up school-aged girls with tech professionals for a day.
nztech.org.nz

En.spiral Dev Academy
• Wellington-based programming bootcamp offering intensive nine-week courses.
devacademy.co.nz

The Mind Lab by Unitec
• Courses in science and technology subjects for preschoolers, school-aged students and teachers, including a postgraduate qualification for teachers.
themindlab.com

Girl Geek Dinners
• Networking and knowledge sharing forfemal "geeks" in Auckland, Wellington, Tauranga and Christchurch.
facebook.com/GirlGeekDinnersNZ

- NZ Herald

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