Jan Ferguson, small business manager for Microsoft New Zealand, is wearing a vivid crimson skirt - a fitting metaphor for the colour women can bring to the information technology industry.
At 49, Ferguson has 20 years sales and marketing experience with IT leaders, including Hewlett Packard, local IT distributor Sealcorp, and now Microsoft. But when she began her career she was frightened of technology and thought she would need to be a "boffin" to succeed.
"But you don't, and while IT is still perceived as a man's world, the glass ceiling is starting to crack."
Few women cracked that ceiling as spectacularly as Carly Fiorina, the recent CEO of IT giant Hewlett-Packard. In 1999 at age 44, Fiorina seized the reins at HP and became the first woman to lead a Fortune 100 company. Though Fiorina was ignominiously dumped by the HP board last week, her bank balance is doing nicely - she left HP with a $30 million "golden handshake".
Penny White, general manager for IT consulting and system implementation firm Certus, says women bring specific skills to IT.
"Women are generally better at multi-tasking, people-management and customer communication, all crucial to the industry," she says.
Women may be challenging men for IT consulting and management positions, but the same cannot be said for technical careers such as programming, software support and systems administration, areas where women are woefully under-represented despite good salaries and steady employment prospects.
Angela Day, a pure maths and commerce graduate and general manager for IT marketing specialists ProximityID, says the number of women applying for software development positions is "tiny".
"Fewer women study computer science and even fewer apply for technical IT positions," she says.
Statistics bear this out. According to Statistics New Zealand, in 2001 while 27.5 per cent of computer science graduates were female, women held only 11 per cent of the technical IT positions in the workforce. For IT careers of all kinds, women held 10,000 of 41,000 IT positions - resulting in three men working in IT for every woman.
A study last year by researchers at the Waikato Institute of Technology found 56 per cent of students were women but they made up only 20 per cent of those studying IT. And research by Fairfax Business Media found women in senior IT management positions in New Zealand's largest organisations dropped from 15 per cent to 11 per cent in 2002 and 2004.
So why are women steering clear of technical IT careers in favour of management and administration roles?
A paper released by Wintec and the University of Waikato may have some answers. The study, Barriers to Women Studying IT Courses, found women IT students carried pre-conceived perceptions of the IT industry. These included that technical IT was a "man's world", that women "did not think like that", and that the IT industry was "boring".
Ferguson, Day and White say nothing could be further from the truth. "IT is a creative industry and you have to be a strong thinker to work in it. There are social, visual and collaborative elements as well as technical ones," says Day.
Ferguson says IT can also be family friendly.
But the IT industry's global nature can present difficulties for working parents. Day, who has a son, says she used to travel to Australia every two or three weeks. White travels between Auckland and Wellington up to twice a week, and Ferguson, who has two teenagers, regularly travels around New Zealand talking to small businesses about Microsoft software.
"You make these choices to climb the IT [career] ladder," says Day.
However, some women decide against children to give their full attention to what is typically an intense career. Last year, Telecom CEO Theresa Gattung told North and South magazine of her early decision not to have children. White, who is 34 and works 60 hours a week (down from 80), has also decided against having children. "I am sure I could balance both if I had to but it is not for me," she says.
White says male customers or IT colleagues occasionally doubt her technical abilities on the basis of her gender, the dynamic nature of the IT industry offsets these frustrations.
"IT has exciting, emerging technologies; delivery management, people management - it has everything."