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Tech firms must do more for women, says equal opportunity chief

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Sylvia Pennington

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BUSINESSWOMAN Photo: Michele Mossop

Technology companies need to do more if they are serious about increasing the number of women working in the sector, according to the head of Australia's gender equality agency.

Helen Conway, director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, is the star turn at the Women in IT forum organised by software giant VMWare in Sydney on Wednesday.

Speaking in advance of the event, Conway said many high-tech companies were keen to redress the well-documented gender imbalance in the sector.

Women make up 52 per cent of the Australian population but comprise only 18 per cent of the information and communications technologies (ICT) workforce, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

But like the mining industry, which suffers a similar dearth of women, especially in the upper ranks, ICT employers seeking to increase their quota of female staff found themselves fishing in the same under-stocked pond, Conway said.

"There's a talent shortage – people are trying to get diversity and they're all chasing a very small pool of women."

The industry needed to increase the size of the pool by selling the benefits of high-tech career at the school gate, and encouraging girls to make subject choices that made it possible to follow this path, Conway said.

"Back at school, there's not a broad understanding that women can operate outside traditional areas," Conway said.

"We owe it to our kids to give them that information."

She said a clutch of companies including Oracle, Atlassian, Honeywell, IBM and Google ran their own high school programs, but more aggressive marketing by industry associations was needed, Conway said.

"Industry and companies need to put in extra effort to find women … It is an issue and the paybacks are great, but it's a long-term thing. You can't just click your fingers."

The ICT industry also needed to combat the popular perception that it offered a working environment that, while not actively hostile, could be tacitly unwelcoming to women, Conway said.

Workplace gender equality legislation currently before the Senate will give Conway's agency the ability to gather more detailed information on how may women large organisations are employing and in what roles.

These statistics would be used to develop industry benchmarks to enable companies to see how their gender equality efforts stacked up against their peers, Conway said.

Companies will be encouraged to set and meet voluntary targets for employing women based on the data.

Imposing quotas for female ICT hires would be overly-restrictive and promote a culture of tokenism, rather than merit-based selection, Conway said.

If legislation is passed, the agency will release its first batch of benchmarking data in late 2014.

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44 comments

  • Here we go again, more discrimination against men.
    How about the poor little ladies get off their behinds and do something for themselves?
    Maybe they make up 52% of the population, but that doesn't mean that they have to make up 52% of every job category.
    Will the next director of EOWA be a man? No.

    Commenter
    The Other Guy
    Location
    Geelong
    Date and time
    November 14, 2012, 1:14PM
    • Spot on.
      The success of a job applicant should be determined by what's between their ears, not by what's between their legs.

      Commenter
      The Write Stuff
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 9:52PM
    • What about someone complaining that men live less than women (78 years v 84 years). Can you imagine if those figures were reversed? And yet we continue to spend significantly more on women's health. (?) Go figure.

      Commenter
      Trevor
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 8:30AM
    • Absolutely agree. What a sexist position Helen Conway takes. The basis is 'we must have more women because... well because they are women'. Where is the article complaining that there are more women nurses than men and therefore we should have more male nurses? Where's the article complaining that there aren't enough male pre-school teachers or primary school teachers?

      This isn't 'equal opportunity', this is sexism at its worst.

      Commenter
      Blueyes
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 8:51AM
  • So men:women ratio in ICT is about 4:1
    The computer club at my son's school has about 4:1 boy:girl ratio - so how is "the industry" going to change this?

    Sound like more useless hand-wringing from a committee

    Commenter
    Jay Mann
    Date and time
    November 14, 2012, 1:17PM
    • This article shocked me, honestly. My company (US based) brought me over last year to the Australian division to fill a skills shortage. We do have about 40% women in our office in varying technical roles so it seems quite balanced here, though I'm one of the most technical women. Could this be that it's a US company and we tend to hire differently? Since we rely so heavily on in-house training, we rely on reasoning and logic tests rather than a degree in Computer Science.

      The more I think about it though the more I realize that women here seem much less technical in general. Could it be that the common tendency to split girls' and boys' education leaves the girls with fewer opportunities to pursue math and science at an early age? I went to a girls' 'school for a number of years and while the education quality was excellent, we didn't have the robotics team and programming competitions that the brother school had.

      Are there math and science clubs that girls can participate in and that volunteers can contribute to?

      Commenter
      anagnorisis
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 1:55PM
      • Australians tend to look down on technical work in general. It's only because IT is seen as clean and high paying that it is even considered to be moderately desirable work. If even boys are discouraged from doing technical, mechanical or manual work, what hope do girls have?

        Commenter
        JohnA
        Date and time
        November 15, 2012, 7:56AM
    • And have someone using words like misogynist and blaming others for poor decisions, no way.

      Commenter
      No way hose
      Date and time
      November 14, 2012, 2:36PM
      • 18% women in IT is quite high considering only a few present at tertiary institutions. Why nobody complains that there is not enough women working as car mechanics or garbage collectors or not enough man in teaching, nursing and child care?
        In the IT workplace being a man does not help, however being a good looking and young woman certainly does. There has been little change over the last few decades.

        Commenter
        pdkempinski
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        November 14, 2012, 2:58PM
        • They, like all industries, need do no such thing.
          Men, and women, go where the interest is.

          Sexist policy will not change that.

          Commenter
          ij
          Date and time
          November 14, 2012, 4:01PM

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