Australian businesses need to stop talking about diversity and undertake concrete steps to remedy the chronic under-representation of women and minority groups within ICT roles, an Australian Computer Society (ACS) executive has warned as figures suggest that efforts to attract women to ICT-related roles continue to flounder.
Years of discussions about the presence of women in ICT roles have failed to close the gender gap: female participation in the ICT profession is just 28 percent, according to a late-2015 ACS study, called The Promise of Diversity, that warned of a “potential crisis in human capital”. This compares with 43 percent female participation across the national workforce – highlighting a gap that has many concerned will fail to come anywhere near to satisfying Deloitte Access Economics-ACS estimates that Australian demand for ICT workers will increase by 100,000 through 2020 alone.
With female university entrants abandoning ICT degrees in droves – enrolments in such subjects have dropped precipitously over the last 15 years – from 8627 in 2001 to just 3032 in 2013.
This bodes particularly poorly for in-demand areas like cybersecurity, which is already struggling to attract skilled employees of any gender – ACS figures suggest demand for cybersecurity specialists grew 57 percent over the last year alone – and has gained little traction amongst women despite offering challenging work and lucrative pay packets.
Such figures have forced the ACS to expand the scope of its equality discussion to include older workers, disabled workers and a range of other disenfranchised groups. It has also motivated Maria Markman, executive chair of the ACS Victoria branch, to talk tougher about the need for the industry to “be really, really loud about” the opportunities that ICT offers.
“Women need to hear stories about what is possible in ICT,” she told CSO Australia after a panel discussion this week where she was joined by distinguished speakers including Medcorp Technologies founder Jacqueline Savage and Victorian Government lead scientist Dr Amanda Caples.
“There are many reasons [for low interest amongst women] but the main ones are the desire for flexibility and excitement in their careers,” Markman explained. “I’m sure a lot of [young women] still think that to be in IT you need to invest a lot of time and work long hours, and that maybe IT roles are not really flexible. They still just don’t see the possibilities.”
Perceptions of ICT as being based on esoteric maths and coding skills are persisting – something that even Markman recalled while pursuing her Bachelor of Applied Science (IT) at RMIT University. “It was quite technical and I didn’t enjoy those subjects as much,” Markman recalls. “But I could see the possibilities and I knew I should just stick with it.”
The subsequent completion of a Master of Business, Information Technology degree helped her pivot to the business world, where she found strong demand for the combination of business and IT expertise. This put her into the types of engaging, interesting ICT roles that she believes many young women never hear about.
Diversity programs from the likes of Telstra have shown that businesses can make real differences with the right approach, said Markman, who highlighted the importance of affirmative-action programs such as quotas and targets to diversify ICT staffing and management.
Such professional-development programs need to be complemented by efforts to drum up interest not only amongst young women who are still at school – or entering university – but amongst other non-traditional demographics. Tapping into that skills base will require broader efforts to actively recruit staff, said Markman, noting that “companies need to make better commitments” to honour flexible-hours policies and other workplace challenges.
“We need to have more visibility and do more talks, but we also need to have some actions from these talks,” she explained. “There is a new generation of different types of leaders coming up. With a different approach, they are more collaborative, supportive, and authentic. This is fantastic and very, very promising. So I think we are on the right path; it’s just a matter of time.”