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Paving a future for women in ICT

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It’s been 40 years since the United Nations declared 1975 the first international women’s year, choosing Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman as its theme song. The words, “I am woman, hear me roar”, are still lingering in the air today. The problem is that when it comes to the information and communications technology sector, women aren’t doing much roaring.

Over the past two years, I have worked hard to raise the profile of women in computing and to encourage more women to explore the exciting possibilities a career in ICT can bring. But even in 2015 women are enormously underrepresented in the ICT profession.

Strikingly, women represent only 28 per cent of the ICT workforce as compared to 43 per cent in the wider professional workforce. This situation is not unique to Australia, and this makes it an international problem that must be addressed as such if we are to succeed in making real change.

Research by the Grattan Institute suggests that if Australia was to lift its female labour participation rate by six per cent to be roughly comparable to Canada, our GDP would be $25 billion higher. Analysis by Goldman Sachs suggests that closing the equity gap could boost the level of Australian GDP by 11 per cent.

The former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, said that gender equality is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and building good governance – more than a goal in itself. Through the equal contributions of both men and women we can address the truly pervasive issues confronting our society – poverty, sustainability, and accountability.

Solving these complex problems is not going to be easy. We not only need an ICT workforce of the size and scale achievable only through the recruitment of more women, we also need their perspectives.

The more we all embrace new technologies the higher the demand for skilled workers. The predicted skill shortage of ICT workers in Australia by 2020 is 100,000, and the potential cost in lost growth is predicted to run into the trillions.

We have socialised our young women to see the ICT sector as geeky and boring, populated by thoughts of young men who sit in their parent’s basements eating pizza and writing code late into the night. These are the perceptions encouraged and formed early in life, which is also reflected in schools, where girls are generally not encouraged to see themselves as being good at maths or science. Instead, parents and teachers often steer girls towards humanity courses, away from STEM subjects like computer science, engineering, or mathematics. The result – only 2.8 per cent of Australian girls consider a career in engineering or computing.

These negative stereotypes coupled with a lack of exposure, mean girls struggle to identify with ICT careers and typically don’t explore the opportunities the ICT sector could offer them.. A staggering 30 per cent of women who enter a profession in the ICT sector leave it completely within 10 to 15 years – the cause being isolation in the workforce, unclear or stalled career paths, inferior systems of rewards, and extreme work pressures.

Solving this challenge will require a multifaceted approach over many years, starting now. By exposing young girls to technology at an early age, we can build confidence in their ability to create simple programs to solve problems. Providing accurate and relevant information to young women about the kinds of careers available in ICT – as well as showing them role models of women already working in the sector – and introducing computational thinking and coding from kindergarten, will encourage the building of a digital-ready workforce for the future.

Earlier this month, the ACS launched its gender equality position paper, The Promise of Diversity, a comprehensive document that explains the issues relating to women and the ICT profession. This paper recommends clear strategies to address the needed change of culture embedded in the ICT workforce, through improved leadership and accountability.

Just this week, the Turnbull Government outlined its bold innovation and research agenda, ‘Welcome to the ideas boom,’ a potentially pivotal moment for advancing Australia’s economic prospects in the digital age. The statement’s focus on boosting STEM and ICT talents and skills, particularly amongst females, is very encouraging given that these skills are core to successful modern economies.

A coalition between key stakeholders from the industry, the profession, educators, employers, career advisors, parents and our government decision makers is crucial to the success of this endeavour. If we actually want innovation and creativity, it’s up to all of us to contribute to make the difference.


 

Brenda Aynsley OAM is president of the ACS, principal consultant with ICT management firm, Oz Business Partners, and chair of IFIP’s IP3 International Professional Practice Partnership.

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