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Old Boys Club

Old Boys Club

As one looks around in the New Economy and IT sphere there are, without a doubt, fewer women than one would expect. Bringing this up again may seem like an "old chestnut" . . . I may not say anything new, and I may not offer solutions - but I still believe this is worth talking about because in an industry that, more than most, complains of lack of talented people to hire, the question of why a large percentage of potential hires aren't being properly utilised should stay on the agenda until the situation genuinely changes.

The obvious questions are whether there is lack of interest or lack of talent. It doesn't seem to be a case of either. There are plenty of females at the entry point with the qualifications to "join in", but there then appear to be certain vicious circles about Attraction Retention and Progression that give a skewed reading from mid-careeer onwards.

Big generalisation

One issue is that of the perceived "Blokey Culture" within the broad IT sector - ie that if it's not "all beer and skittles" its probably all beer and golf. Certainly this is a big generalisation, and there are numerous examples of enlightened management insisting (or realising) that its business should "reflect" its client base . . . like Anne Sherry at Westpac and George Trumbell at AMP. However, by a peculiar quirk of fate, it is a rather a special case in the IT vendor world which is exacerbated because it concerns selling into IT/MIS areas which also traditionally male dominated.

Given that the US and parts of Europe could be said to demonstrate a far less "Blokey Culture" these days, one explanation is that in Australia our vendor community is mainly sales based. Conversely in much of the rest of the world (ie where the global HQs are located) the pure sales focus is leavened by less traditionally ‘blokey' functions like strategy, marketing and HR. Being a broader set of functionalities, that bias or "skew" to the style and thus the employment figures tends to be offset.

In the meantime, here in the Australian context, when the culture isn't attractive for most women to join, they won't even put up their hands. That means a large number of potentially qualified candidates never even make it into the candidate pool - surely a LOSE/LOSE situation, for the IT/IT vendor area, more than most.

Support

There comes the other issue of retention. Sometimes when female Change Agents are brought on board to actively force change in the culture, they find they are not given the support they were promised, or expected. It can be a case of a company getting what it asks for; then being scared of what it's got! Of course, this is the same in any Change Agent situation, and usually attributable to push-back from those with the most that they perceive they have "to lose". The outcome, if those Change Agents are not given high level support, is that the initiative may eventually been "deemed to have failed" - two steps forward, three steps back.

The relatively low number of women in senior and influential roles within the IT sector must surely indicate an under utilisation of talent. In fact, an unimaginative use of talent . . . perhaps not considering options such as contract use, part-time, shared jobs etc?

My experience, from being in senior recruitment over the last five years, is that many of these options are generally dismissed without trying. Possibly because they might be considered too "out of the box", or too confronting to those currently "in situ" - but, I would also imagine, because the IT vendor area, more than most, is under huge short-term Quarterly Figures pressures. This in turn can frustrate longer-term HR/retention strategies and initiatives. Another vicious circle!

Benchmark

Added to that, when "normality" tends to use male experience as its benchmark, it still assumes "someone else" will be taking kids to school, looking after sick babies - and of course having babies. Time off for babies is still seen as a drawback to career progression; not just in the IT world of course. In vendor land the concern seems mostly about fear that the "current contact book" won't be sufficiently current. However, moving overseas or interstate has same effect. If one looks at it more closely, IT has a very high percentage of people who move a lot between sectors or products and services, and Sales people regularly have to "learn" totally new products and services even within their own organisation. So I'm not sure that argument holds up either.

Prejudice

Even when senior women return from maternity leave, they often tell me they encounter prejudice and the feeling that they have to prove themselves all over again. In fact, going back into the same company is often most problematical for both sides. My suggestion would be that the company, or prospective new employers, are best off regarding returning mothers as simply having done "a different posting" - and measuring capabilities and potential rather than a simple tick-list of "things done". The best hires made that way anyway and fortunately the trend seems to be moving more towards competency based job descriptions. This is a subtle shift from "what have you done" (the "identikit cv" approach) to "what can you do". Those sorts of JDs are harder to put together, but more effective, especially now we're often asking people to work in areas or roles with no precedents.

Interestingly one recent survey from Scandinavia showed that far from slowing down after maternity leave, women demonstrated that are they are better at multitasking, decision making, interpersonal skills than before, whereas other male and female colleagues who'd stayed on had made little or no progress.

It's not a plot

Of course, its certainly not a story of A Grand Male Plot to oust women from the IT world. Anecdotal and survey evidence suggests that women often don't push themselves forward in the same way that a male colleague would. They are less likely to take ‘I' credit, in favour of mentioning team effort. If they do make ‘I' statements they are more likely to be called up as empire builders and egoists etc.

It can also be argued that women often trust fairness more, and assume that there are likely to be clear goals re progression, bonus etc. Both men and women suffer that there often aren't! However, men seem more likely to hammer away to find out about specific criteria and check progress against that rather than get a nasty surprise at end of year.

It is also often said that women are generally more risk averse - from mortgaging to take MBA and to pushing for a really stretch role. Again, this seems to glorify the male norm of risk.taking, which is actually not always a business necessity and certainly not always at extreme end! Some dot.coms, I'm sure, would have loved a more considered approach rather than a risky cash burn strategy . . .

Significant changes

Will it change? Any woman who, like me, has been in the business world for around 20 years will probably say a cautious "Yes", because there have been significant changes during that same period. But most of us would probably say that it won't happen quickly enough - and as long as the broad IT world is complaining about skill shortages in technical, sales and general leadership roles there must be an argument to foster change more quickly?

They do say that the best change is always started and supported at the top. But even there boards tend to hire "in their own image", and I always feel that must have a knock-on effect. If boards hire in their own image (male) it seems likely that they will hire CEOs in their own image (male). If the criteria of board selection remain the traditional "male norm" (ie must have had experience as a CEO running a public company) then we run into another vicious circle: few female public company CEOs, few female board members. Even if boards try to break that "personal rolodex" bias, it turns out that many of the more traditional search firms are almost totally male dominated (as opposed to in mid-level recruitment) so their networks still predominantly all male.

In writing this, perhaps I sound more strident than I intended - but if it causes discussion on better methods of attraction and retention for women in the exponential growth area of IT, EVERYONE is bound to find some benefit.

* Julie Perigo is a Principal at Korn/Ferry International


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