​Women in IT – breaching the skills gap

According to a wide body of research, it will take the IT industry about 80 years to close the gap in salaries and opportunities for women compared to their male counterparts.

The Oceania CACS conference opened with a breakfast event where ISACA International Board Director, Jo Stewart-Rattray, facilitated a panel with Ernst & Young Partner Kate Hillman, Associate Professor Marta Indulska from the University of Queensland Business School, and Terry Grafenstine – the Inspector-General, US House of Reps and ISACA International Board Vice-Chair.

Stewart-Rattray opened the discussion, asking the panel where they see the most significant barriers for women in IT.

Hillman suggested the nature of the industry is a significant issue for both men and women. She said the lack of flexible work arrangements was significant and, in particular, a need to focus on bringing skills to a role rather than just workplace attendance. The language of “part time” needed to be replaced with flexibility she added.

Indulaska added there were issues where it was often perceived women don't have the same level of technical competence as men. As a result, many women question whether they have made the right choice when considering an IT career.

Grafenstine entered her role as an Inspector-General at a young age – she was in her early 20s with most of her colleagues being men in their 40s. She was the first woman employed in her department that wasn’t a secretary she says. Her feeling is that it is a “pipeline thing” and that we need to address the lack of girls choosing STEM subjects earlier in their education so their perception of technical disciplines as being unsuitable for women is tackled earlier.

One of the points she made, as we backed up on her by the other panelists several times during the discussion was the need to present a technical career in terms of how science and technology can change the world, rather than focus on buts and bytes. Indulska added to this saying problem-solving approaches to education go a long way to achieving this.

Stewart-Rattray raised the matter of role models. Hillman says there needs to be a cultural change and that parents need to part of that. Instead of gravitating towards traditional “girls activities” like ballet, she asked why parents weren't suggesting activities such as coding camps.

Indulska added that parents are very influential. In her role, she often talks with prospective students and their parents and notes that many parents speak on behalf of their kids and guide them towards specific disciplines.

Kids emulate what they see, says Grafenstine, so they need to see more women in tech jobs. She also mentioned some of her volunteer work with underprivileged kids from minority communities where a career in technology can be a pathway out of poverty.

Mentoring and sponsorship were also critical.

All three speakers agreed that mentoring was a very personal relationship that involved regular interaction between the mentor and their protégé. It relies on a deep rapport and helps to make better leaders. None of the panelists were advocates for formalised mentoring programs that added unnecessary overhead to the relationship.

Sponsorship, they said, was less direct and involved advocating for people to fill particular roles.

All three panelists mentioned the importance of tackling unconscious bias. All agreed that there needed to be ways for everyone to question assumptions safely and that mentoring could be an effective way of facilitating that. Also, they noted it was important to call out those biases.

All three speakers were asked what their “silver bullet” solution would be.

Grafenstine said reaching out to younger girls, being strong role models and being accessible to under-serviced communities were important.

Indulska says breaking the hold of unconscious bias by being “out there’ helps.

Hillman’s view was that conversations with everyone and building relationships was key. Showing how exciting and rewarding an IT career can be by discussing how it makes a difference rather than focusing on the technical, bits and bytes aspects was important.

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