Me at the Auckland Winter Gardens

Repaving the way to success

February 29, 2012

Originally posted on CIO Magazine

‘Women-only’ networking events may be more personally comfortable, but they hardly encourage gender diversity

As IT manager of Amnesty International here in New Zealand, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the global gender diversity across Amnesty’s largest sections. Amongst the top level directors (or CEOs in corporate speak) it was fairly equal – 44 percent males versus 56 percent females. This stands in stark contrast to the top IT professionals in the same sections – 81 percent males versus 19 percent females.

If I can be as bold as to generalise, even in a female-dominated industry like the non-profit sector, women still do not feature significantly in IT. If I bring it back home, the computer science department at the University of Auckland reported that its undergraduate enrolments for females have remained at a steady 20 percent of total enrolments since 2008.

It’s worth pointing out that the university offers a number of programmes with a computer science element so these figures do not truly represent the number of female IT-enabled students from the university going out into the workplace, but the female proportion is low.

Furthermore the female proportion remains the same further up the educational tree, even with the much smaller number of total enrolments. For example females make up, on average, 21 percent of total PhD computer science enrolments. Yet, somehow we still get the case where in the last five years of the MIS100, we have had one female CIO in the top 10 – and that was only because of one particular company being in the top 10 twice.

As an ICT professional working in New Zealand, I hardly need stats to highlight that we have a gender diversity issue. I’m actually surprised when attending an ICT event to see more than a handful of women there, and it has become an amusing game to count the number of grey-haired gentlemen in the room.

What could be the solution to this issue? Is it an issue? Perhaps as a society, we should just accept that some industries are male-dominated and others female-dominated. After all, are there working groups suggesting that we encourage more women towards mining or construction?

I would, however, argue that it is an issue. In 2009, the ministry of women’s affairs published a report on gender diversity in boardrooms. While the report relied heavily on overseas research, a significant point was made: “The companies where women are most strongly represented at board or top management level are also the companies that perform best, on both organisational and financial performance.”

While the research obviously concentrated on boards and top management, I contend that ICT is such an integral part of business that if we, as CIOs, achieve gender diversity in our ICT teams, it will, as a result, increase the operational performance of the organisation as a whole. Gender diversity is not just a ‘political correctness’ ideal, it has been proven time and time again that we work better in diverse teams.

An article in NZ Business Day concluded that perhaps networking is the answer: that when picking people for senior leadership roles, board members tend to choose people they have worked with. I further argue that women also need to avoid ‘women-only’ networking events. While these may be more personally comfortable, they hardly encourage gender diversity.

I say let’s start at a grass roots level. If we can increase the 20 percent of enrolment to 50 percent then there will be more of a chance that some of those women and girls make it through to CIO level and beyond. There are many ‘girls-only’ events that try to encourage this, but I say that the key is to introduce gender diversity at all levels. ‘Girls-only’ events only seek to enforce gender stereotypes, as if women and girls need ‘special handling’ to succeed in ICT. We don’t need special handling; we just need to be there.

Vivian Chandra is the ICT manager for Amnesty International Aotearoa NZ, the New Zealand section of an international human rights advocacy organisation.

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