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Aussie IT heroines: Emily Morgan

Department of Premier and Cabinet CIO Emily Morgan isn't your conventional chief information officer. She has a liberal arts background, a love of performance art and a black belt in martial arts.
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Written by Luke Hopewell on

Department of Premier and Cabinet CIO Emily Morgan isn't your conventional chief information officer. She has a liberal arts background, a love of performance art and a black belt in martial arts.

Emily Morgan
(Credit: Emily Morgan)

Unlike most people at her level, she never originally intended to choose management as a career. In an interview with ZDNet Australia, Morgan said that IT management chose her after several successful experiences in IT-delivery roles in the United States. She remembers clearly when she first saw what would become a global revolution in technology.

"A PC turned up at the office, and I thought it was cool. It looked like fun," she said. "I was doing accounting work on a mainframe, and doing mainframe-based graphics. One of the first things I did was figure out how to move our graph production off of the mainframe onto this cool new thing with dual floppys and green-and-black screen.

"It was from there that ... I had been told that computers would suit me," she said.

Morgan spent 12 years working with JP Morgan in the US before she came to Australia to work with CSC, where she eventually ascended to the role of chief information officer. After four roles in CSC over seven years, Morgan took the opportunity to indulge her artistic tendencies, and joined the iconic Sydney Opera House as a CIO for three years. She recently joined the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) as its CIO, and she is now looking to move the NSW DPC forward into a world where it's more in line with the whole-of-government IT-delivery strategy.

Yet, it wasn't all fun and games rising in the IT sector as a woman, either in the US or in Australia, Morgan said. To be a woman in IT means that you have to prove yourself twice, and get used to potentially offensive treatment, according to Morgan, since more often than not she's the only woman in a room full of men.

"In the earlier days, I had to get very, very comfortable with off-colour jokes. There would be times when the boys would try and make me blush," she said, adding that she quickly developed a thick skin in response.

"IT is rife with innuendo and double entendres, and that was particularly so in the '80s, when systems aren't as reliable as they are today. All the ancillary jokes you can make along the two phrases of 'is the computer down' and 'is it back up'." Often, she said, men would make inappropriate jokes despite the presence of a woman.

"The boys are used to swearing, and used to the double entendres and making the innuendos, and not thinking that a woman is present. I approached it from [a perspective of] 'that's how these people work, so I just got on with it'. You have to learn not to let it frustrate you, and even make the same puerile jokes, or at least accept them gracefully."

Her first project was working as a business development manager on a standardisation project within JP Morgan.

"We did a project to standardise the back-end, so we put in a netware server environment with a standardised Windows front end. I was the business rep on that project. At the end of it, I jumped the fence over to the IT group, and then took on a role that you would call today a service delivery manager by the start of the early '90s.

"I just kept moving up and up from there. I was a consultant and contractor for a while after I left in '95, did some work for them in '96 and then got transferred to an outsourcer.

"I kept taking contract roles, but I kept ending up in managerial positions. With the potential for a career in an IT firm, I took a deep breath and thought, 'right, I'm a manager now'," she said.

Morgan's rise through the ranks of management hasn't been without resistance, however. On occasion, Morgan has had to fight for respect and fair treatment from peers and superiors.

"The resistance is around the need to prove yourself. You do get a lot of: 'you're a girl, you don't know what you're doing'. That still exists to an extent now. It's sad but true to a large extent that women need to be twice as good to go the same distance [as a man]. You have to be prepared to prove yourself, and prove yourself again," Morgan said.

She recalled her time at an unnamed Australian company, where she had been dogged by a male boss that constantly disrespected her for being a woman.

"I had a boss early on in Australia who just kept calling me things like 'my dear' and 'my love', so one day I called him 'boss', and he hated it. 'Never call me that again!' he said to me. I got right up in his face and said, 'you don't call me dear, I don't call you boss'. He never did again," she recounted, adding that the lesson she learned from that was simple, but valuable.

"If you're up against someone with that outlook, view or bigotry, then you're not likely to change them. You just need to choose your public and private battles."

Another experience saw her suggesting a technology-enhancement program in an unnamed cable-television company, and being shouted down for her efforts.

"I got chewed out once for volunteering for some tech enhancement that would have really helped the business, and I was told never to do that again by my direct manager, because it was creating work for his team. That would have got through if someone else recommended that."

While Morgan has not herself been a victim of sexual harassment, she thinks that it's an issue that can't be stamped out. Indeed, cases have reared their ugly heads several times in the IT sector over the last 12 months.

"I think, unfortunately, [sexual harassment] just happens in the workplace. If you see a spate of it in a particular industry, it's because someone's spoken out and been a beacon, and others have said they don't have to be a victim. I do hope [harassment] can be stamped out, but if you don't want your cleavage checked out, don't wear something low cut to work," she offered. Morgan also thinks that 2012 will be the year that more and more men begin to file harassment suits.

"What we'll start to see is an increase in men filing. I think eventually that young people will find it not flattering, and expose it for what it is. It also goes equally for a man; if you don't want your butt checked out, don't take those tight jeans to work!"

One of the reasons why Morgan moved to Australia from New York was to take up posts at IT companies that seemed devoid of female leadership.

"I had a colleague who had no idea why I wanted to move to Australia and such a male-dominated society, and prove myself all over again. I said that 'I've done it, I know I can and I'll do it again, and if people like me don't go and be role models, how are they going to know how to do it? Young women need people to look up to'," Morgan said. She added that more and more female role models are emerging in the world of business and IT, citing examples like Westpac's Gail Kelly and AMP CIO Lee Barnett.

Morgan said that while it is encouraging that more and more women are moving into IT roles, a mandatory quota system that sees the number of women on boards mandated by law will eventually backfire.

"I think it's unfortunate that the quota system is required. I think that they backfire. People get hired because they tick minority boxes, and not merit boxes. Having quotas over time is detrimental," she said, adding that encouraging women into IT is like encouraging men into nursing; it will happen naturally, and can't be forced.

"How do you encourage men to go into nursing? How do you encourage women to be doctors? It's about encouraging women to know that they can be whoever they want to be professionally."

Morgan's best piece of advice for young women going into any industry is to maintain integrity and mind your actions, which will all be closely scrutinised.

"I would say that you need to do everything with integrity. If you're about to do something that you wouldn't want on the Sydney Morning Herald or the Telegraph, think again. You should be comfortable that what you're doing bears scrutiny. Also, make sure to get your facts right, and don't be afraid to say when you don't know something.

"I think it takes a lot of self-confidence to either say, 'I'm not familiar with that', 'can you define it' or 'can we back up'."

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