Women in Tech
about 3 years ago by Matt Bown / Back to all blogs
By: Matt Bown
One of the most common questions from our clients at EBC, both large and small and regardless of industry, is;
How do we attract more female candidates for our technology teams? As the rest of society makes slow but steady progress towards closing the gender gap, the technology industry is still one that suffers from marked under representation, across all levels, from entry to senior management. In fact, according to recent studies, female participation in the IT labour force is at only 28 per cent compared to 45 per cent across all professional industries. 
Whilst clearly there is no obvious and instant solution and there are people paid far more money than myself to find the answer, I wanted to at least offer a synopsis and put some ideas down on paper… and in some small way do my bit for gender equality in tech! Fear not it’s not a long read!
Australia’s tech industry seems to have reached a level of increased self-awareness where organisations are cognizant of what true diversity and inclusion means for them and their employees. The acknowledgement and admission of any problem is widely regarded as the first step on the road to recovery (I might be quoting AA there!) and encouragingly there is now a strong focus on gender equality and a demand on EBC that we continue to search for female talent to take on the male dominated tech industry.
Sometimes I do wonder and often discuss with our clients as to the real reasons they are looking to attract more females. In other words… have they really thought about/understood the benefits and importance of gender diversity in their teams OR if achieving gender equality to them is more a case of just “the right thing to do”. Sadly I think when you delve deeper, the answer is quite often the latter. Whilst there’s an awareness of the problem and a genuine desire to address it, there is also a lack of understanding of the true benefits and this surely must impact the actual appetite for change and the ability to implement effective solutions.
Several studies have shown that gender and of course all diversity is not merely for the sake of inclusion but organisations perform better financially and culturally through attracting, developing and retaining top employees, both male and female. Diversity of thought is deemed as critical for innovation, problem solving and understanding customer needs. So if you have an homogenous team that represents only one or two segments of society how can you possibly expect to produce a product or service that resonates with the masses? You need diversity within the team environment to agitate and challenge the status quo and particularly within technology where there is a continual requirement to innovate, “think outside the square” and work creatively. If everyone on the team has the same knowledge, the same skills, the same worldview and the same biases, they will inevitably reach the same conclusions. Diversity is the only way to avoid this trap and foster truly creative teams. 
Many of our clients, in particular the financial institutions on the back of the Royal Commission, are regularly talking to us about their strategic intention to transform their process, systems and organisational culture to be more customer centric. If you relate that back to technology houses, the customer base for their software is widely diverse, so surely they would want their team to reflect that level of diversity as well? Teams that are too similar in their DNA have a challenge in tapping into empathy for customers and being able to reach a wider market.
From a slightly more simplistic or practical angle, the technology market in Sydney continues to grow and the demand for IT professionals has survived the global pandemic thus far, with all signs indicating it will only swell further in 2021 and beyond. If Australia is to remain competitive in this period of rapid change and fill the demand for IT skills in emerging areas, we need to build a skilled, adaptable and diverse local IT workforce. Cyber security, Cloud and DevOps are all still emerging, developing areas in the IT sector that require greater talent pools to draw on in order to meet Australia’s future needs. These needs simply cannot be met by the male population alone and we need to find more successful methods of attracting and retaining females in technology.
Talking to many of our clients, it seems clear that the problem with female representation in technology has two significant dimensions. The attraction of females into the industry is just one part of the equation but retention is perhaps an even bigger issue. As Rachel Thomas succinctly put it; “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention… Because of the high attrition rate for women working in tech, teaching more girls and women to code is not enough to solve this problem.” 
We often discuss the issues women in technology have faced with our client and candidate base in order to understand the real-life challenges to provide further intel to our customers. In Family Fortunes style, the “Top Answers” we receive are - lack of pay parity, inability to return to the workforce at the same level following a career break, lack of industry and/or company commitment to training and retraining, fewer female colleagues, fewer female mentors, persistent social and professional stereotypes of tech people as male and a male bias in career advancement and development.
As mentioned, I am no expert and wouldn’t claim to have any necessarily unique or new ideas but thought it worth sharing some of the methods and measures taken by our clients or simply ideas that we have encountered in the market.
An initial step for organisations is to first acknowledge and then understand the issues. A viable strategy for this is to organise forums or focus groups wherein female employees can share their struggles with management and executives.
Westpac is doing something along these lines, with a strong focus on workplace diversity and inclusion. Earlier this year they established a new group operating office. By combining its tech and operations arms is championing true diversity and inclusion through Employee Action Groups or EAGs. Westpac’s EAGs are considered “champions of inclusion” advocating various forms of diversity and inclusion.
Each group is sponsored and supported by a Westpac Group Executive Team member and must report their outcomes quarterly to the Westpac Group Inclusion & Diversity Council. One of the EAGs is the WOW or Women of Westpac that empowers women to further their career through information, education and networking opportunities.
Of course, it shouldn’t purely be the responsibility of females to participate in these forums or focus groups, the burden of responsibility should also sit firmly with the male tech population. There are also some progressive groups and meet-ups in this domain, Project F’s Emma Jones has pioneered the NFP, Men Championing Change which celebrates its third-year anniversary this month and brings together a broad audience at regular MeetUps. In this forum, people share real experiences of their own that have successfully delivered diversity change in the workplace. It aims to provide both inspiration and tangible strategies for people to take away and use in their own work environments
Training and leadership programmes as well as seminars in tech also seem to be very male heavy which is why organisations should surely specifically target female employees for leadership, retraining and reskilling programmes. This approach would seemingly benefit the development and retention of capable female professionals who know there is an opportunity to develop and broaden their horizons plus feel part of an organisation that wants to invest in their future and believes in their capability.
The Australian Government are making some encouraging strides in this area and have highlighted their desire to secure a promising future for women in tech and indeed other industries. The budget included a $240.4 million package to “deliver employment opportunities” and “programmes to support women’s leadership and development” in tech and other male-dominated industries.
In her 2020 Women’s Economic Security Statement, the Minister for Women and Foreign Affairs, Senator Marise Payne said, “As we navigate our way out of a health and economic risk, it is critical that women play a central role in our recovery.” The government in partnership with other organisations is looking to fund apprenticeship, cadetship and leadership programmes for women in technology, mathematics, engineering and science.
Many of EBC’s customers have highlighted a lack of mentoring and limited access to other high, achieving female role models. This of course doesn’t mean that those mentors and role models don’t exist but time, availability and promotion of this concept seem limited, I’m assuming that women who are in a position to influence and inspire other females are often all consumed by their battle to remain in their roles and further themselves.
There are several successful female tech executives and elites pushing for better mentorship programmes, including Ally Watson, CEO and Founder of Code Like a Girl. Watson founded the company back in 2015 driven by her own gender-related issues resulting in isolation in the field.
The company helps women of different professions like teachers, bookkeepers, healthcare workers, veterinaries and more establish a progressive career in either IT or development.
Connecting female tech professionals with something to prove and those who have already established themselves as one of the elites is pivotal to advance the industry’s gender parity agenda.
It stands to reason that you can only genuinely hope to achieve gender equality in the workplace if you also have equality in the home! By providing parents of either gender with equal opportunity to care for their children, you are not hampering either parents career choice and removing many of the barriers and stigmas around “putting your career on hold”. You will also even minimise unconscious bias for employers who potentially pass over female candidates for leadership positions as they make the inevitable assumption that they will sooner or later be taking 12 months off!
In March 2019, QBE became one of the pioneers in this field, adopting a gender-equal, flexible paid parental leave scheme – Share the Care – with the aim of making parenting, career breaks and flexible working the norm for both men and women. Twelve months later, QBE announced that this policy has resulted in a 300+ per cent uplift in male employees taking paid parental leave, with men now representing over a quarter (27 per cent) of parents in the organization accessing paid parental leave . This provides all employees with a healthier work/life balance and has also increased QBE’s female retention rate.
Telstra are also recognised as one of the best workplaces for parents in Australia offering 16-weeks of paid paternal leave for both mums and dads. “We want every parent, regardless of gender to be able to share caring responsibilities while maintaining their career,” said Alex Badenoch, Group Executive Transformation, Communications and People.
There are obviously a number of other issues, benefits and solutions to narrowing the gender gap in technology in Sydney which we haven’t touched on, from environment and recruitment bias through to harassment and stereotyping, plus it's important to acknowledge that the gender question is just one part of the broader diversity struggle. Here at EBC Sydney, we’re fortunate enough to be led by an inspirational female MD (Claire Teden) and have a healthy 55/45 female to male ratio so hopefully we are helping to lead the battle in tech recruitment!
It’s a long and winding road to achieving gender parity in Sydney’s tech scene and I certainly wouldn’t profess to have the answers but it’s definitely interesting to observe the journey. The more we talk about it, raise awareness and popularise successful solutions implemented by others, then the better it will get. There’s obviously no silver bullet but there are encouraging signs emerging in Sydney and many inspiring people leading the charge.
Thanks for listening!
Matt oversees the continued growth and development of EBC's Technology and Finance practices. He spent most of his executive recruitment career within Sydney's project, transformation and change space, particularly across Australia's financial services industry. Ask him about his favourite football club and you'll find Matt equally knowledgeable about sports and football (soccer). Connect with Matt.