Microsoft APC 2015: Women in IT Panel - Quotas, meritocracy and the diversity dividend

Microsoft APC 2015: Women in IT Panel - Quotas, meritocracy and the diversity dividend

Panel of female leaders spells out what is required to overcome unconscious bias of sexism

The Microsoft APC 2015 Women In ICT Panel (From left): MC Adam Spencer, Pip Marlow (Microsoft), Nicki Page (MOQDigital), Tiffani Bova (Gartner Research), Bill Trestrail (Springboard)

The Microsoft APC 2015 Women In ICT Panel (From left): MC Adam Spencer, Pip Marlow (Microsoft), Nicki Page (MOQDigital), Tiffani Bova (Gartner Research), Bill Trestrail (Springboard)

Companies that have a higher ratio of female leaders tend to do much better in the workplace - diversity need not clash with meritocracy.

That was the general consensus of Microsoft APC 2015's Women In IT Breakfast, which saw Microsoft Australia MD, Pip Marlow; MOQDigital's CEO, Nicki Page, and Gartner distinguished analyst, Tiffani Bova, joined onstage by Bill Trestrail from Springboard Australia and MC Adam Spencer.

When describing the changes the IT industry has seen in the last few years, Page told the attendees that this had a lot to do with more women being involved - rather than them being left out.

Bova added that the reason IT is now broadening into the mainstream is because of the critical engagement in collaborative and disruptive initiatives by women.

"The new market is really giving women a chance to shine," she said.

Trestrail went further: "It'd be even better if there were more women involved already," he said.

Marlow believes that diversity is important because it produces a more diverse set of solutions to the market.

Page said that startups, that had a female head, had a 67 per cent better chance of success.

Trestrail also raised some interesting statistics: 22 per cent of start ups are begun by females, but only 4 per cent of funding comes their way.

Marlow took this back further, and said a critical problem globally is getting more young women involved in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Maths) at an early age. Biases in the education system mean that boys are favoured in these subjects - not just in terms of attendance, but unconscious bias by teachers.

"The fact is, we've got to make science and maths more exciting for women," she said.

Raising children is also another problem - many women feel that they cannot support a career and raise children simultaneously. This isn't just a cultural divide, but a structural one. For example, women that leave the workforce for long periods of time are losing out on superannuation.

Bova agrees with the cultural aspect, particularly media bias against women in power.

"When Marissa Mayer announced she was having twins, it was global news. They kept asking: 'How can she continue her career?' A man would never be asked that," she said.

Another big problem for women working their way up the career ladder is self doubt, and 'imposter syndrome'. Page said she was uncomfortable initially in her role as Breeze CEO (now ASX listed MOQDigital), and didn't feel like she'd earned it.

"We women need to learn to back ourselves," she said.

Marlow agreed. "I had impostor syndrome for a while, i had this fear that someone would find out I couldn't do the job," she said.

"I felt like I had to earn it, but I definitely feel more comfortable about it now.

"Women generally tend to be more humble than men."

She also agreed with Page and Bova's sentiment about the media's cultural impact there, and how many times interviews had started with "as a woman..."

Trestrail said his institute has been working with coaching women in such issues, and to break down their roles and stand up for themselves as individual when making pitches.

"They struggle to talk about themselves, like men. They always talk about the team, or the company as a whole," he said. "Unfortunately, investors back the jockey, not the horse."

Bova said women don't lack the confidence. It was more about building confidence over time. "Look, men are raised by women. They raise confident men. We need to help raise confident women."

Bova believes that competitive sport, such as athletics were incredibly important when she was growing up, instilling confidence and competitiveness.

The panel agreed that the fact that most of Gen-Y have grown up on technology, especially women, means that it is a huge opportunity going missing - the application of skillsets and unique views is vital. Instead of looking at uniqueness as a negative differentiator, it should be seen as a positive.

"Whatever defines you as unique, maximise it. I got to this position because I was passionate," said Bova.

Marlow said this is not specifically a gender issue, but a merit based one.

"We need to build those environments where anyone can bring their experience to the table," she said.

Self confidence is key, according to Page.

"You've got to ask yourself: 'What are you waiting for?' We need to do a better job of putting ourselves out there," she said.

A guest asked a question that summed it up rather succinctly - men are part of the problem. When women stand up and try to act in a similar manner they get shot down.

"I once was told I had too much confidence," she said.

Unconscious bias is a key problem. A recent Harvard Business Review study tested audience reaction to a report - identical, but swapping the name Howard to Heidi.

Both were rated as equally competent, but reviewers attributed more arrogance to the Heidi version.

Recent social media campaigns, such as "I look like an Engineer", aimed at helping break down these gender stereotypes, alongside A/NZ promotions such as offering superannuation to mothers on maternity leave, are starting to overcome the cultural and structural issues.

The final question Spencer put to the panel was related to female quotas for boards on the ASX Top 200.

"A recent report showed that there are more CEOs named Peter than there are females in total," he said.

Marlow was adamant that gender diversity and meritocracy are not mutually exclusive. All of the panellists agreed that quotas are a good idea to pull in the diversity dividend, and even reduce risk.

"Quotas are a good thing. Even if there are those that don't think the skill level is there, you grow into it, you're going to develop the skills. That's not to say the skills aren't there, its just to counter that argument that says we can't have quotas because we lose the skill level that we need," Trestrail said.

Marlow was more passionate. "I am tired of the conversation that says, when we have quota, we have an issue with meritocracy. It is ridiculous. There are just as many smart women in this world as there are smart men. Right now, the system, and we've already discussed a variety of different reasons why, has not supported women rising to the top," she said.

"Meritocracy is not an excuse. Sixty per cent of law graduates in this country are women. When you go to the boardroom, that is not reflected. It is not a pipeline issue. It is not a meritocracy issue. We have to drive targets and put quotas in place, in order to force changes in the system.

"As a CEO I have a quota for my contribution margin, my revenue growth, my market share, why wouldn't we do this? Because it just isn't good enough where we are. If someone wants to come to me and tell me I only got my job because of a quota, I'll prove them wrong by doing a great job.

"The rate of change is glacial and its not right. My daughter deserves better."

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Tags Gartnerwomen in itPip MarlowBreezespringboardMicrosoft APCNicki PageMontechTiffani BovaBill TrestrailMOQdigital

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