Champions of Change teams with Telstra, Microsoft CEOs to boost female tech leaders

chief scientist Cathy Foley champions of change

Dr Cathy Foley, Australia's Chief Scientist. Source: supplied.

Since 2010, the Champions of Change Coalition has been thinking about ways to achieve gender equality in the workplace and advance a more diverse group of women in leadership. 

This week, the group, with its 252 members, announced it will be working with the CEOs of Telstra and Microsoft to engineer programs that aim to reduce gender discrimination in the digital economy.

On Tuesday afternoon, roughly thirty leaders and CEOs in the technology sector gathered in a virtual roundtable to discuss the importance of detailed communication and improved measures to offset public criticism the group has been ‘pink washing’ — all talk and no action. 

The Coalition released 12 commitments to promote female leadership in the information technology sector, including the incorporation of gender equality into the development and use of digital technologies; applying gender equality expectations on contractors supplying contingent labour; allocating funding for female entrepreneurs in angel and seed investment schemes; and creating a talent pool for females in digital roles.

Each member of the Coalition will then independently decide which of these commitments they will apply. 

During the roundtable, Rachel Bondi, chief partner officer of Microsoft Australia, presented a new “returnship” program, which is currently seeking partners.

The program provides a six-month vocational education course in either cyber / data analytics or cloud computing, with employment opportunities available during training and post-graduation.

“We are not just about words, we are about action,” she told the Australian Financial Review.

The program will begin early 2022, providing a pathway for women to enter a sector Bondi believes women “find intimidating.” 

Steven Worrall, the managing director of Microsoft in Australia and New Zealand, believes supporting women to be certified with programming skills will assist them towards their pathway into the industry.

“We think it is a model that can be scaled,” he said. 

Flexible work critical

During the roundtable, Engineers Australia’s CEO, Bronwyn Evans explained the benefits of introducing flexible working arrangements for its staff, including men. She believes this will allow women in the industry to avoid being penalised for juggling various family commitments. 

“The risk — especially for women — of being overlooked when they take on flexibility is not as great,” she said. 

“We are seeing a democratisation of contribution as a result of working virtually [during COVID-19] that is allowing women to succeed in their careers.”

“The much wider uptake of flexible (virtual) working has meant a democratisation of contribution, enabling more women to really succeed in their careers. As a very proud engineer, it’s great to see.” 

Phil Davis, Amazon Web Services’s regional managing director, described the cloud provider’s global “SheDares” initiative, which offers free online resources to encourage professional women to think about a career in the technology industry. It also aims to improve access for jobs in cloud services, particularly for women.

“We have had over 6000 women enrol and our goal is to get to over 20,000 by the end of the year,” Davis said.

“Demystifying the tech industry and providing access to partner programs could help women fill a “skills gap” in the Asian workforce of 29 million jobs.” 

Elizabeth Broderick, founder of the Champions of Change Coalition, also attended the roundtable.

The former sex discrimination commissioner said the gender equality debate has been mired by “vaporware” over the last few years and that the focus is now on “tangible action and outcomes.”

“As we start to scale these promising practices across the coalition, [we will] put in place some good monitoring and evaluation, so it is not just a slogan,” she said.

“We are talking about substantive outcomes that are driving impact, [and as] we learn from each other and lift together, we would like to lift with the government as well.”

More data needed

According to the Australian Computer Society report, Digital Pulse 2021, women make up almost one third of employees in the tech sector in Australia, compared to almost 50% in similar jobs in the professional, science and technical services industry.

The report concluded by saying the figures reflect “long-standing gender stereotypes about suitable careers for men and women.”

Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s Chief Scientist, advised the Coalition to gather more comprehensive statistics when they conduct redundancy programs.

She also suggested leaders push back on privacy requirements — that way, women are protected.

“Organisations lose a lot of women when they are restructuring, and women often put their hand up in a voluntary process,” Dr Foley said. 

“That is something that hasn’t really been looked at, to understand why women walk.”

Telstra Health’s CEO Mary Foley explained how the health industry was on the brink of a major digital revolution and that women should not be overlooked during this critical time. 

Foley’s team started a networking group called “Brilliant Connected Women in Digital Health” in 2020 that celebrates superlative operators in the health space in order to help improve morale.

Telstra’s CEO Andy Penn said the program increased female recruitment while also aiming to prevent “unconscious bias” in the digital ecosystem, particularly considering the dire ubiquity of entrenched gender bias in the artificial intelligence technology industry.

“Technology developed with women’s needs in mind does have the potential to be more marketable, profitable, and to increase safety and outcomes,” Penn said.

“As we start to adopt technology such as AI, we need to ensure we don’t entrench unconscious bias into the next great leap forward. We need to discuss the future of AI before the entrenched inequality of the past becomes the entrenched inequality of the future.”

Minister for Women’s Economic Security, Jane Hume announced during the roundtable she would ask a meeting of national cabinet next month to consider standardising measurements for public sector gender equality. 

She also hopes that these measurements can be applied in the private sector. 

“It’s not about a redistributionist agenda or grandstanding programs of government largesse to make up for inequity of the past, which then doubles down on the dependence and disparities in the future,” said Hume, who is also Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy.

“It’s about removing barriers, creating choice and chances, and giving women the best opportunities to create fulfilling lives on their own terms.”

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda

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