Coming to you fast and furious from the FITT lunch

What are the issues surrounding the lack of women in IT?

A year ago today I went to a lunch for International Women's Day hosted by Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications (FITT).

In their speeches at the event, Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan and National Australia Bank CIO Michelle Tredenick expressed opposing opinions on whether identifying particularly "female" skills and traits encourages stereotyping and simplification of what women bring to the workplace.

Though I'd looked into the under-representation of females in ICT for an article in 2005, I found I was unable to take a firm stance on the issue, which irked me to no end. Best I could do was conjure up a few truisms -- yes, men and women are different, Mars and Venus, blah blah blah, but how should that difference be accounted for in the context of the ICT profession? How do you cater to without pandering? How do you acknowledge that women approach things differently without resorting to stereotypes or gender pigeonholing?

As I sit here at this year's FITT lunch, I wonder if the message will have changed. It seems the same issues are being brought up over and over: There aren't enough women in ICT. We need more. 18 percent should become 50 percent. We need to change the image of the ICT professional. We want girls to understand that sysadmins can still wear stilettos. Oh, but only if they want to -- let's not overcompensate with our images or resort to stereotypes that go too far in the opposite direction. And we should be offering scholarships and support groups and mentorship programs so that females can admire their powersuited heroines up close and strive to emulate them by enrolling in those testosteroney tech courses at uni.

The more I think about all this, the further I get from finding a solution. Overanalysis is a real drag. And that's why this year I'm going to be blogging direct from the FITT lunch. No time for post-dessert ponderings before committing thoughts to the Web page -- it's going to be quick and reactionary. OK, so this particular event may not come with the sweaty-palmed excitement that this year's MacWorld had. But despite the lack of iPhone, I think it deserves the same amount of attention.

The following notes were typed from a table at Parliament House during the lunch.

Kate Vale, Google Australia

First speaker: Kate Vale, Head of Sales and Operations, Google Australia
After talking about some prominent women at Google in the United States, Vale zeroed in on Google Australia. She talked about some local initiatives to recruit females to the company, including the Anita Borg scholarship and a Sydney open day. She also emphasised the cool perks you get when you work at the Google office, including free food ("You put on a lot of weight when you work at Google"), an on-site nutritionist (this fact created a lot of conversation in the room), and an on-site masseuse (which generated further ooh and ahhs). The mention of paid maternity leave received a smattering of applause.

It seems the emphasis on quirky work perks, and the focus on that elusive work/life balance, may be working when it comes to attracting more females; a cursory glance at the hugely popular Vogue Australia forum shows a long thread in the Careers section entitled "I wish I worked at Google WOW".

Second speaker: Sheryle Moon, Chief Executive Officer, AIIA

Sheryle Moon
One of the best things about Sheryle's speech was the shrewd involvement of the "carbon footprint reduction" factor as a compelling argument for working from home. In this age of Al Gore-worshipping, green bag-toting, lights-out-at-night environmentalism, it's a canny approach. Bring it up with your boss next time you fancy working from the comfort of your couch.

Her talk also touched on the image issues that have contributed to the under-representation of females, and reflected the frustrations of dealing with inaccurate perceptions of careers in the industry. When asked what they want in a career, girls will write a wishlist that includes travel, stability and interaction with people. Well that sounds a whole lot like the tech industry, according to Moon. "The ICT industry is much more about people and solving their problems than it is about hardware and software", she said.

She also announced (on behalf of Senator Coonan) the debut of a $70,000 training initiative involving the Australian Computer Society and AIIA. Good stuff!

Third speaker: Semra Barutchu, Leader, Sales Engineering, Metro Ethernet Networks (MEN) Asia, Nortel
Barutchu was introduced as "the leader of MEN in Asia", which conjured up a Pied Piper sort of visual.

Adding an interesting dimension to Moon's comments that ICT is mostly about people and their problems, Barutchu said that she sought to undertake an MBA after finding that leadership is not just about managing people; it requires skills in finance, marketing and strategic management.

She closed with some advice: "Don't be shy about saying what you need". This echoed Moon's words on teleworking, when she said that work/life balance means different things to different people, and it is therefore important for women to establish their own definition and align it with that of their employer.

Again I find it difficult to make any big conclusions on The State of Women in ICT, but something I have taken away from today is that women need to ask for what they want, but they also need to make their cases using terms and frames of reference that employers will understand. Tell 'em what you want, certainly, but also get them to understand why you want it, and why other women might benefit from it.

From the irrelevant but cool files, I am now in possession of Google-branded lip gloss. A tube of the "Island Paradise" flavoured stuff was given to every attendee. I wonder how much they'd go for on eBay.

Google lip gloss and a Google journal

The Google gloss and leather journal given to attendees