As the rapid advance of technology redefines organisations and careers, Australia faces a serious labour shortage of up to 18 percent by 2030, according to Boston Consulting Group. Much of this shortage is expected to occur in the IT sector – which has led to increased calls for efforts that help to amplify the number of women in technology roles.
A glance at the current state of the industry reveals a significant gender imbalance. A recent Access Economics study found that women make up just 27.8 percent of the IT workforce. And despite a recent rise in growth in IT employment, ABS figures found that women make up only a quarter of those jobs. ABS data also reveals that the percentage of women working in “computer design and related services” has actually fallen since 2001.
So, why aren't more women choosing to join the technology field? And how can IT companies encourage more women to embark on a career in technology?
With International Women's Day today, this blog will explore the movement towards a more inclusive and and gender equal working world, which includes opening doors to professional women in technology.
Gender bias and stereotypes
According to a 2008 Harvard Business Review (HBR) study cited in the 2015 Australian Computer Society (ACS) report “The Promise of Diversity: Gender Equality In The ICT Profession”, around 50 percent of women in technology jobs eventually left the profession. The ACS warned that the Australian IT sector today suffers from a similar problem – amounting to the loss of approximately between 35,000 and 40,000 women from the IT talent pool if the HBR attrition rates are applied.
The HBR study highlights that the high dropout rate was due to several key factors, including “macho culture, isolation in the workforce, unclear and/or stalled career paths, inferior systems of rewards and extreme work pressures.” Attrition rates tended to peak when women were in their late 30s – a period when women find both family and career pressures increasing simultaneously.
The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) paper “Different genders, different lives”, also cited in the ACS study, identified several biases and stereotypes that negatively impact women in technology. These included:
- Persistent stereotypes: Women who actively try to advance their careers may be viewed by male colleagues as being too assertive or aggressive – resulting in some women avoiding such salary expectations entirely
- Family pressures: When women take time off work to raise children, this can hurt their long-term career prospects, given the high value placed by IT employers on accrued knowledge, skills and experience
Perhaps the biggest disparity of all is in the male-dominated entrepreneurial space. According to the City of Sydney's Tech Startups Action Plan, just four percent of Australian startup founders are women.
Despite the perceptions, diversity is good for the economy. A Grattan Institute analysis suggests that if Australia were to increase its female workforce participation to be on par with Canada, the nation’s GDP would be $25 billion higher.
Increasing the number of women in technology
Improving gender balance in the IT sector requires action on several fronts. The ACS has identified five key areas that employers should try to address:
1. Leadership, culture and accountability
Senior company leadership has to recognise that gender equality is a critical strategic business issue – not just an HR problem. Everyone in a management team needs to be accountable for delivering against gender equality KPIs.
2. Flexible work practices
Australian work culture has changed significantly in the last few decades. Parents are more likely to share caring responsibilities, and employees expect better work-life balance. Now that technology allows us to work from virtually anywhere, it's important to encourage both genders to contribute to their full potential.
3. Mentoring programs and sponsorship
These can be powerful tools for helping women achieve success in their IT careers. Whereas mentoring focuses primarily on psychological support, sponsorship can be an effective strategy for fast-tracking the careers of high-performers.
4. Targets vs. quotas
The ACS recommends having gender equality targets that are “tailored and monitored on an individual company basis appropriate to the circumstances, culture and environment.” They are preferable to hard quotas, which can result in some women being regarded unfavourably because they are perceived as being unfairly advantaged.
5. Role models
Employers must break the stereotype of the average IT person being “nerdy”, antisocial and quintessentially male – the type of image that the ACS says deters many women from pursuing IT careers. A good way is to identify successful women in leadership and use them as role models. Examples are plentiful, including ANZ technology executive Maile Carnegie, Intelledox co-founder Michelle Melbourne, and Telstra Chair Catherine Livingstone.
Much of the lack of women in technology can be traced to gender biases and stereotypes that may take another generation to dispel. However, by taking practical action to resolve gender imbalance, and by recognising the benefits of diversity in IT, employers can unlock major productivity and profitability dividends.