How do we fix IT's gender problem?

The IT industry has a gender diversity problem which starts at the critical education level where enrolments at schools and universities have stagnated. So what can be done about the issue and who needs to act?

ANZ chief information officer Scott Collary and Monash University faculty of information technology deputy dean Maria Garcia de la Banda sat down with BlueNotes to discuss the issue. They started by addressing what is actually happening at ground level.

"There should not be any gender bias in the issue of career development."
Maria Garcia de la Banda, Monash University faculty of information technology deputy dean

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Garcia de la Banda: What's happening is the number of women in IT and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is very low and in many cases going down, particularly in schools, which is extremely concerning.

I believe we very subtly and gently push girls towards arts and boys towards STEM. Most of the time it is completely unintentional but there should not be any gender bias on the issue of career development.

As a result, women are not doing IT-related degrees and, therefore, not going into the workforce. You end up with technology companies with very low representation of women at all levels, which is really bad for business. It's bad for innovation, for product design, for understanding clients and for basically any aspect of a company.

For example, I went to a technical presentation at a bank a couple of months ago and I think I was the only woman at the table, aside from one of my students and a secretary. And that table had something like 20 people sitting around it. But again, this was nothing special. It's a very, very common theme.

And, unfortunately, Australia is not unusual. What's happening here is happening all around the world. This is a global problem.

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Collary: I've had the same experience. When I was in university in the US in the mid-80s, it seemed as if one in three graduates with STEM-type degrees were women. Fast-forward to now and it's less than 15 per cent from the data I have seen.

When you just look at statistics on effective leadership, women historically score higher than men in employee surveys when rated as leaders - so the impact is there.

We have an issue with fewer women in our discipline. They tend to be very effective leaders and yet we only have a small fraction – less than one quarter of IT. It's just as important to have a diverse workforce in IT as it is anywhere.

Garcia de la Banda: I have to admit these issues also appear in universities. In my faculty we're very lucky to have 30 per cent of female academics, many of them in leadership positions. But looking at the statistics of how many we have hired in the last few years, things are not looking good. This really concerns me.

We are actively trying to hire more women but it's very difficult when your pool of applicants is so male dominated. We have to train our panels very carefully against unperceived bias.

Collary: Before I came to ANZ, I was very involved in building education on this issue. You don't just have to be a developer - there are a number of roles and great careers in IT. Roles like business analyst or project manager tend to have higher percentages of women than traditional development roles.

The fact is we need to educate, encourage and support young women that are making choices in education and starting their career planning on what opportunities exist in technology.

We were generating interest by taking very successful senior women into high schools and talking about careers in IT, the type of salaries and advancement you could make in this profession. It got a lot of attention.

We saw four out of 100 girls that might have been interested in a technical job before the program rise to 30 per cent plus after. But once they get into university it was hard to get them interested.

Garcia de la Banda: I would go even lower – I think it needs to go right down to early schooling. Research shows females tend to choose what they want to do later but they choose what they don't want to do much earlier, which I find quite interesting.

The other thing you said which I completely agree with is we need to present IT in a way that makes it attractive to females. Women are just as capable as men for mathematical and computational skills but STEM does not seem to be as attractive to them initially.

Selling STEM as a tool for making a real impact in society, rather than as a theory with no purpose and a very 'nerdy' past, seems to work better.

Collary: Yeah, we had a quote from a girl early on that said “I don't want to be a geek or a gamer." That really was telling. So we built the program around “It's not about being a geek or a gamer."

We need to try to fill the pipeline and get more interest in this as a career. One way to do that is through good role models, through good mentoring and advocacy.

Our program put senior women leaders on stage and had them talk about their careers and what they were able to accomplish. You could see how inspired some of the girls were. We had hundreds apply for internships from just a week-long program. It was fantastic.

There's certainly no lack of capability. It's a lack of interest and I think awareness. How we get girls to see these opportunities are important because we are finding statistically across the industry fewer women are applying for roles and the conversations between mentor and mentee are different.

So we have to have these mentors because frankly, people are going to gravitate to roles where they see people like them succeeding. So when girls look up and see it's all men, I am sure that causes concern.

Garcia de la Banda: You cannot overemphasise the importance of having real women who have worked in the industry talking at schools. Their ability to eliminate stereotypes is just amazing.

The other important aspect about mentoring programs is when they are successful they benefit not just the mentee but also the mentor, which is really good for women already working in IT.

Collary: I would love to get more involved there. Certainly we have the same challenges. I think given the proximity of business and university in places like Melbourne, we have interest there.

I'd love to see more opportunity for women to get funding in start-ups. If you look at funding in start-ups, such a small percentage are started or founded by women. I think that would be a great opportunity to inspire younger girls.

Garcia de la Banda: That's a very good point. I think the concept of start-ups appeals a lot to women. That could be a fantastic avenue.

If you combine it with some of those we mentioned before – early introduction to IT in an attractive, impact-based way and regular exposure to technically strong female role models – things could change dramatically.

Whatever the solution is it has to be long term. Funnelling money into short-term programs is not particularly useful. You have to take the long-term view before things are really going to change.

Luckily, the figures showing the lack of women in IT are currently getting a lot of attention in the public. IT companies are looking at themselves and saying, “we really need to do something about diversity internally".

If we (schools, universities, companies and government) can all join forces to develop and implement an effective, long-term plan, we can fundamentally improve the diversity of the IT landscape and with it Australia's future.

Maria Garcia de la Banda is deputy dean of the faculty of information technology at Monash University. Scott Collary is group chief information officer at ANZ.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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