“Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is a key economic sector and generator of jobs and may be considered the backbone of the digital economy across all sectors. It increases productivity and has a profound impact on business processes, tasks, and the organization of work across the entire economy.” The Future of the Work in ICT Project, International Labour Organization.
In what may well be the understatement of the year, at least when it comes to gender equality, Skillsoft’s 2021 Women in Tech Report reveals that while female employees have gained hard-fought ground in the workplace, a large gap still exists when it comes to opportunities for professional development and career advancement.
“The shortage of tech talent is one of the biggest challenges organisations will face across the Asia Pacific region in 2022, yet our economies are sitting on the most underutilised and eager resource: female workers,” said Rosie Cairnes, VP APAC, Skillsoft.
She called out one of the points of the research – those women in tech are craving opportunities for upskilling and earning new certifications – especially in critical areas such as business analysis, cybersecurity, and leadership and management – as well as career advancement.
An observation seconded by Twilio Asia regional vice president of sales, Ashwini Gillen, added that “we are used to seeing men at the helm of IT teams and organisations. We take their leadership style as the norm.”
Why do women make great IT leaders?
Joanne Wong: Traditionally, much of the yardstick for success has been held against the benchmark of the visible male leader. What happens then is that female IT leaders are expected to act and lead like their male counterparts, and when they are judged on this basis, much of their contributions go unnoticed and are taken for granted.
The truth is those female leaders are very much as competent and deserving of their position. Not only do they also possess strong technical and soft skills, but they also bring diverse and unique perspectives to the table that greatly enhance the quality of discussions.
Alongside this, organisations that build diversity into their leadership will strive to tap on this collective knowledge to develop innovative solutions for today’s biggest challenges.
Ashwini Gillen: But the truth is that great leadership comes in many forms, and we must move beyond attributing them to gender norms and stereotypes. Instead, the focus must be on cultivating diversity on the leadership board and workforce. The proof is in the pudding; businesses with greater gender diversity are more likely to enjoy a better financial performance.
The tech industry has made great strides in its efforts to strike gender parity, but there remains a disproportionate proportion of men in leadership roles. In this environment, it can be daunting for women to aim high or set ambitious career goals. No wonder, then, that a recent study by Accenture and Girls Who Code found that women leave tech roles at a 45% higher rate than men.
What women interested in the CIO role need to achieve the role?
Joanne Wong: The first step for women interested in pursuing leadership positions like CIOs is to recognise their inherent ability and worth. Many women may find themselves unconsciously holding onto gender stereotypes that dictate how they should act and speak as a female leader in the workplace, and they must be mindful to move beyond these biases.
This is easier said than done, especially when they might not have the right exposure in a traditionally male-dominated industry like IT.
For a start, these aspiring women in tech can seek out new connections and build their network and community. By tapping into the diverse perspectives and wealth of experiences of other women, they will be empowered to challenge and shape their identity, and gradually grow in confidence over time.
Ashwini Gillen: Despite the odds, a tech career can be deeply rewarding, and I strongly encourage anyone with the relevant skill sets and qualifications to leap.
There is enough advice from experts on dealing with imposter syndrome, being willing to take risks and betting on yourself. One of the most important pieces of advice I can give is to find formal support in the form of role models, mentors, and peer support groups. The Capital One Women in Technology survey found that 3 in 4 women who stayed in tech careers had role models, compared with 56% of those who left.
The role of a sponsor - executives who take an active role in grooming and promoting talent - is also incredibly important. Finally, have someone in your life who always cheers you on. When things get hard, a boost from your cheerleader is priceless.
What should HR and senior leaders (non-IT) do to encourage women to take up senior roles in IT?
Ashwini Gillen: A crucial first step is to create a workplace where women can feel a strong sense of belonging, which is positively correlated with higher engagement, job commitment, productivity, and more.
Unfortunately, a recent study by HR software provider Achievers found that only one in five women (22%) felt a strong sense of belonging at work. Organisations need to do more to foster a workplace and culture where women feel empowered to step up, be seen, and be heard.
Organisations should take active steps to demonstrate that equality is something that is taken seriously. This includes being transparent about the recruiting process to ensure that there’s no bias, providing equal pay as well as promotion opportunities for all employees.
There should also be a focus on nurturing talent to ensure that the leadership bench is built with the intention of diversity. Organisations can also look towards less conventional tactics to grow and support a more gender-diverse workforce.
Beyond internal policies, organisations can also seek to build external partnerships with change-making organisations like Out Leadership and Advancing Women in Tech that serve as touchpoints in supporting our work to drive equity across each stage of our employee lifecycle.
Joanne Wong: Organisations will need to move beyond gender equality as just parity in numbers and focus on quality measures to empower more women to excel in the workplace. More than just one-off initiatives, the leadership and HR team must demonstrate a long-term commitment to making diversity central to how they hire, retain, and recognise talent.
For instance, they must reinvent how they recognise and reward the contributions and achievements of women today. Redefining the yardstick of success will be integral to ensuring that women are held to new but equally high standards, which can empower more to take up senior leadership roles within the organisation.
At the same time, there is also a significant opportunity for organisations to strengthen their learning and development pipeline for women. Whether it is dedicated mentoring programmes to support junior employees in their career development, or technical and leadership training courses, these may prove to be invaluable resources that will help to empower women to do more with technology.
Rosie Cairnes: Companies need to do more when it comes to encouraging women to pursue tech-related careers and support their existing female staff not only from professional development and training perspective but provide a flexible and equitable work culture.
This is a win-win for both team members and employers alike. Training must be topical and relevant, but most importantly accessible for women and all employees to complete at a time that works for them.