'Female skills' label hurts women in IT: Coonan

"Female skills" label hurts women in IT: Coonan
Written by Ella Morton, Contributor
Two of Australia's leading women in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry today disagreed as to whether identifying particularly "female" skills and traits encourages stereotyping and simplification of what women bring to the workplace.

The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan, told a lunch to mark International Women's Day that current management theory threatens to pigeonhole women.

"In business today, management theory has embraced a pronounced shift towards stereotyping the typical, traditional skills of women -- those of embracing the views of others, of nurturing people, of using persuasion and collaboration ... We should not allow women to be packaged or simplified or stereotyped," Senator Coonan said.

However, in a later address to the same event, National Australia Bank chief information officer Michelle Tredenick disagreed with the Senator's perspective that categorising skills such as networking and relationship-building as "female" perpetuated stereotypes.

"There is no doubt -- and this is where I part company with Senator Coonan -- that women think differently from men in many ways, and I'm not seeing any surprise or shock related to that statement," she said.

Senator Coonan was quick to mention in her address that the qualities she identified were attributes to technology roles, "not because they're feminine attributes, but because they help achieve a balance in the workplace, and take an important step towards reflecting the diversity of our workforces".

Emphasising that she was speaking in generalities, Tredenick noted that females tend to be better at forming networks, and focus on collaboration rather than competition. She also spoke of the different approaches taken by the sexes regarding the balance between work and life.

"Women bring a more holistic picture of themselves to work, and in a way that sometimes men -- who are better able to separate work and life -- don't do," she said.

Both speakers agreed, however, on the need to attract females to the ICT sector for practical rather than philosophical reasons, citing the requirement for diverse approaches in the workplace.

"Attracting women into ICT-related professions is a business imperative rather than any form of affirmative action," said Coonan. "Women and girls represent a massive untapped resource and a substantial pool of talent."

Women make up around 20 percent of the workforce in the ICT sector, according to research conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. However, the number of females enrolled in tertiary computing courses was found to have declined last year.

Recent initiatives for addressing the low participation and retention rate of females in the ICT sector include the Australian Computer Society's work/life balance policy and the establishment of the Women in ICT Summit Advisory Group in March last year.

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