Women in ICT: Stories of inspiration

Women in ICT: Stories of inspiration

A group of leading female executives came together during an exclusive Roundtable lunch to discuss the ongoing issues and opportunities for women in the channel.

A group of leading female executives came together during an exclusive Roundtable lunch to share their extensive knowledge and opinions on the ongoing issues and opportunities for women in the channel. There was a fine balance at the table, with many women at the top of their game, having climbed the corporate ladder to achieve professional and personal success, while others are still on their way up and eager to hear some lessons learned. Here are their stories.

It was a roundtable of ideas, stories and sharing. The topics ranged far and wide but one of the biggest themes to surface surrounded asking for a promotion. For many women, it is a scary concept and one that seems foreign. But Westcon Group executive vice-president, Wendy O’Keeffe, said she had found you have to take a direct approach, be courageous and ask for doors to open, in order to make things happen.

“I’ve been with Westcon Group now nearly 12 years in January and they have afforded me wonderful opportunities, which I’ve taken advantage of and most of them I’ve asked for. I think one of the challenges that we face as a female community is the not asking for those roles. I’ve been fortunate that the roles have come up, but I’ve also taken that step of wanting them and putting my best foot forward.”

Autodesk volume channel sales manager for Asia-Pacific, Clare Wharrier, agreed that asking for recognition and job opportunities is the best recipe for success – but it’s a real stumbling block for most women.

“Four or five years ago, I went and asked for that next job. I walked into my boss’ room and said, ‘I want your job’ and it was only because I took that step that I got it. I felt very uncomfortable and out of my zone to actually do it, especially since he was the regional director at that point in time and I was a mere programs person. But it’s thanks to that and him acknowledging that he was assisting me with my progress through the company and now three roles later I have an APAC role and I have a path forward with Autodesk as well.”

Dell general manager, consumer, small and medium business A/NZ, Deborah Harrigan, said it comes down to having a voice – which is something women need help finding through coaching.

“As a female, there is a decision that you have to make in your working career or journey that says, ‘okay, there is a lot of women in sales, but to take that next step into leadership you’ve made a choice to be on the stage and with that comes some obligations and there comes an element of balance.’ We’ve got this internal program that we run that helps women create a voice and helps them position themselves and present themselves in such a way that they build credibility, respect and people listen.”

ASI Solutions director, Maree Lowe, who has been in the IT industry for 27 years, is a big believer in the power of networking and in standing up to be noticed.

“I’m a big believer in joining the club. I was recently at a function of 300 people. Four of the 300 people were women. In my own career that’s what I’ve tried to do - to join the club. And think you have to ask for things. You have to ask and you have to let it be known you want to be involved.”

But Express Data marketing manager, Donna Adams, said it’s hard to knock on the door for an opportunity. She’s been with Express Data for 18 years, changed roles about five times, but has only asked for things on two occasions.

“Going in there and knocking on the door to an opportunity is something that you learn along the way in your career and I would love to have someone given me that advice a lot earlier in life. It’s a great opportunity for all of us to be able to instill that confidence in the people that we work with today. I look around me in our business and I’m delighted to see a lot of the next generation.

They already have that straightaway. They’ve got that confidence and they’re already making their way, but I think that for the future I see myself playing an important part within the business.”

Many at the table wished they’d been so bold at the outset. Alphawest Services general manager of marketing, Stacey Beer, who has been with the company for 13 years, said she wished she’d learned the lesson of ‘asking’ early on.

“I haven’t learned to go out and ask for things, but in retrospect I’ve been offered a lot of opportunity and in the last 20 odd years that I’ve been in IT I’ve been offered new roles on a regular basis.”

One pivotal role offered to Beer was an engineering manager role, which the CEO suggested she go for. “Two or three years ago the CEO of Alphawest said to me, ‘Engineering manager role coming up, why don’t you go for it?’ And I said, ‘I’m in marketing, why would I go for that, but I took it and I went for it.’

“You give me a challenge and I’m going to take it on. So I worked in engineering. There were two female engineers out of a 140-strong engineering force. I’m now mentoring half of those guys, so they’ve come to me and said, ‘Can you be my mentor?’ I got a lot of faith and confidence out of that role and the lesson learned that I’d like to share, if you do get those opportunities to step out of your comfort zone and take them because you’re going to learn a lot.”

A woman who has risen to the top of her game is Intel general manager, Kate Burleigh, who’s been in her new role for six months, but at the company for 15 years. She said she’s never felt stifled by the male dominated industry – and has had no problems in making her intentions for promotion clear.

“I’ve never felt as though being female has worked against me. If anything, I would say it has worked to my advantage. Intel is pretty good on diversity worldwide, but in Australia it doesn’t have a great track record, but I think it was because not that many people put their heads up to work there because there was a lack of interest in employing females. For the first 10 years I worked for Intel, there were no females in the senior leadership team and then the next five years I was the first female on the senior leadership team.

“I never really asked for the role, but I made it really clear when I was ready for the next move, you know up the ante. When I came back after having my first child, having ten months off I was low key in my career and I would think, ‘God, please don’t offer a promotion now, I can’t go’, so I was going very low key. After I came back from my second child I made it pretty clear that I was back, and at it with full of gusto and dropped the word around that I wasn’t going to have any more than two children. I made it very clear that I was back focused on my career.”

Another woman at the top of the ladder is Cisco managing director of the partner business group, Sara Adams, who is a prime example of someone who, through simply ‘asking’ for advancement, carved out her own role at the company – a mix of two previously separate roles. “I went and asked and sure enough, they re-jigged the business and combined both organisations to create an even more senior role than we’d actually had in the leadership team, so I was the first woman at Cisco Australia to not only be the first woman to be a director of the sales division, but then I was the first female to be promoted to a managing director role because of the combining of two organizations. Again, it was just because I asked and I was surprised how easy it was.”

In hearing the different stories around the table, Autodesk’s Wharrier said women have to learn how to ‘blow their own trumpet.’“I’ve had discussions with mentors and they say, ‘You may be excellent at the job you do, but you don’t blow your own trumpet.’ It’s about your personal brand. It’s about not being backward in coming forward. Part of it is going up and saying, ‘I want your job, but part of it is that consistent on-brand messaging of promoting who and what you are.”

Overcoming hurdles in ICT industry

Roundtable attendees discussed some of the biggest challenges faced by women in ICT. The ongoing issue of female to male parity across ICT was addressed.

Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) CEO, Suzanne Campbell, who has more than 26 years’ experience in ICT and been in the AIIA role for one year, said looking at the low numbers of women in ICT roles, one of her top priorities is building industry capability, including promoting diversity and the advancement of women.

“If we look at the numbers they’re not fabulous. Between 17 and 23 per cent of the ICT employees in Australia are women, and that’s just not good enough,” she said.

Campbell said the problem starts early. “Over the last 12 months, I’ve been able to assemble the following challenges and they occur as early as primary school. Relatively few men and women, children [boys and girls] pursue science technology engineering math subjects in primary school education, so boys and girls are not equipped well to go into high school.

“Not surprisingly, in high school relatively low numbers enroll in technology streams, both boys and girls. The program for 13 and 14-year-old girls is absolutely critical because girls are making their career decisions, at 13 and 14, and the most significant influences are their peers, so they need to be exposed to this information in a collective way.”

The missing link in education is how you integrate technology into the curriculum. Campbell said the advisors are also posing a problem.

“Career advisors also are a bit of a challenge and in some states it seems career advisors come out of, in particular, the humanity subjects timetabling issue. So they don’t feel confident or comfortable recommending ICT to girls or to boys. So that’s a challenge.”

The difficulty is changing mindsets and educating women on the benefits of a career in IT, which can include sales, finance and HR as some examples, Microsoft Australia SMB and distribution lead, Carolyn Darke, said.

“How do we bridge that gap between saying it’s not just for geeks? All skills are required in this industry. How do you bridge that gap to say we need every skill and also leadership skills, and management skills in this particular industry like any other industry?”

IBM strategy and transformation executive, strategy and advisory sales and delivery, Michelle Curry, said the problem has a few layers whioch began with attracting the girls at 13 and 14 when they’re making their career decisions and included rhe actuals of infrastructure of the university courses to make it attractive, and translating the vocations.

Mentoring paves the way for future leaders

Mentoring women in the channel is the best way to create the next-generation of female executives and to encourage young girls into taking up a career in IT. Many women at the table have taken a lead role in mentoring, including Westcon Group’s Wendy O’Keeffe, who has been involved in a mentoring program for female executives and IT managers.

“The issue that we have in terms of IT was there was a lot of women in CIO roles, senior executive CIO roles, but not a lot outside of that. It was really clear there was a lack of females in the industry,” she said.

“The problem is we don’t know how to network as well as the men do and we also don’t know who we are. It would be helpful if we could start momentum around influencing and collectively come together as a network, a networking community that allows us to start thinking about changing the institution that is today, which is very dominated by men in Australia, in particular.”

Heavily involved in mentoring is Dell’s Deborah Harrigan, who highlighted some of the many programs for young girls and women sponsored by Dell.

“We’ve just launched a new program called ‘IT Is Just Not for Geeks’, which we’ve kicked off with New South Wales Education, and this is communicating to teenage girls in the 13-, 14-year-old bracket where they’re selecting their electives that technology is a career that can provide many facets including marketing, design, technical, sales and accounting.

“We also have an external program, which is called WITI, which is Women in Technology, in pursuing a career in executive management or leadership. Joe Kremer founded it in 2005 and we’re up to our 18th or 19th chapter where we match a CEO and a key female executive talent over a 10- to 12-month period and we support and encourage the women in these organisations to reflect and understand where they want to be in their careers.”

Given the importance of mentoring and the positive effect it has on women, Cisco’s Donna Adams said mentoring is high on her list of priorities over the next two years.

“I used to do a lot more proactive things in the industry around mentoring. I feel like I’ve taken my foot off the pedal and I’d love to get back in there and continue to give back. I’m on the advisory board of the new, not-for-profit called ‘We Connect’. It’s a global organisation that just launched in Australia and Cisco is the global sponsor. I got onto it because I’m the only female executive in Cisco Australia, but it’s about the procurement chain and it’s trying to get global organisations to look at small business, particularly women-owned small businesses as an opportunity for procurement.”

The great balancing act - and mobility

With today’s innovations in mobility, there are better opportunities for work/life balance. Indeed, innovations in mobility is helping eliminate the ‘mother guilt,’ enabling women to spend more time with the family while still achieving work obligations, attendees all admitted.

But Microsoft’s Carolyn Darke said the mobility concept in the beginning was causing people a lot of angst.

“People were thinking they were going to be too accessible, but I think people now understand how they can really work with it and leverage it, and now it’s all about flexibility. So the guilt of having to run out of the office because you want to have dinner with the children doesn’t really exist anymore because you know that you can do work another time or in the time that you want to do it.”

Cisco’s Sara Adams said mobility brings choice, a great thing to have in achieving the work/life balance and in setting personal and professional boundaries.

“The whole mobility thing continues to be a choice though. You can use it to the positive of, ‘I can go see my child’s play and I can work two hours in the night,’ but because everyone has access you can get calls on Saturday morning or a weeknight evening, but I think it’s the choice of whether you take that call. And I don’t. I refuse to. Unless you call me back within five minutes, then I think this is important. It’s all a choice of what you want to do.”

Express Data national BDM sales manager, Pia Broadley, said while mobility is helping women balance the family life and a career, the guilt never goes away.

“You know you’re either guilty about spending time at work instead of with your children or you’re feeling guilty that you should be at home doing something while you’re spending time with your children. You have to learn to live completely with what you decide, to make decisions and live with them.”

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