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ARTICLE TechnologySeptember 10, 2014

Do tech firms in Australia have a gender diversity problem?

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As in Silicon Valley, only a small percentage of women work in IT in Australia, and those who do will earn nearly 10 per cent less than their male counterparts. We take a look at initiatives aimed at getting more women into the tech industry, such as local initiative Girl Geek Academy and Google’s Made with Code program.

Technology companies often top the list of world’s best employers. They have a reputation for innovative thinking, a fun work culture and excellent employee benefits.

However, there’s one group of employees that is not receiving a balanced share of Google’s in-house bowling alley or the free food at Facebook. Women are significantly under-represented within the ranks of technology companies and this imbalance may stymie greater innovative leaps within the industry.

This year Yahoo!, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn all released diversity reports showing that men far outnumber women in their workforces. Between 60 and 70 per cent of employees at each company are male. In leadership roles, that figure is closer to 80 per cent. In tech-specific leadership roles, it climbs even higher.

The gender imbalance in Aussie technology companies

Although many of the world’s largest technology companies, such as Microsoft, Dell and Google, are led by women in Australia, the local information and communications technology (ICT) industry has a clear gender imbalance.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Market Survey for 2013 shows that women occupy less than 20 per cent of positions in the majority of ICT jobs. This is well below the number of women employed in all occupations, which is just over 45 per cent.

Men working in ICT earn an average of 9.8 per cent more than women, according to a 2012 study by the Australian Computer Society. The study also included a survey that showed almost half of female respondents felt they’d experienced discrimination based on gender, age, ethnicity or other factors when applying for an ICT job.

When you’re building any kind of software or app, you have to meet the needs of your consumers, and it can be hard if none of your staff is in the consumer group you’re trying to target."

Kim Carruthers, eChic

Men far outnumber women in tech education

The lack of gender diversity within ICT may be a symptom of an education system that sees far fewer women pursuing education in the field. A 2013 report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies found that women accounted for only 15 per cent of enrolment in tertiary IT courses.

Kim Carruthers, founder of Sydney-based technology company eChic, says any meaningful conversation about gender diversity must begin with education. “The [small] number of women entering technical education is pretty horrific and we need to look at ways to boost it,” she says.

eChic works with small businesses in the area of e-commerce. It employs eight people, all of whom happen to be women. “It’s just a case of employing the best people for the job,” says Carruthers. “You don’t have to be a woman to apply. I also run after-school science and technology classes – to encourage more kids, especially girls, to become interested in IT – and all of my tutors are male. It’s not by design, it’s just how it worked out.”

Google’s Made with Code and Australia’s Girl Geek Academy

In June this year, Google invested US$50 million in its Made with Code program aimed at closing the industry’s gender divide. An Australian start-up, Girl Geek Academy, aims to do the same. Its goal is to encourage one million women and girls to create start-ups and build apps by 2025, through a series of programs and workshops focused on developing tech skills at any level.

Girl Geek Academy co-founder Lisy Kane says the start-up culture in Australia is very male-centric. “I’ve worked in IT teams where everyone is treated the same, but I’ve also heard stories of the polar opposite where women are not being offered jobs and opportunities,” she says.

Kane says Girl Geek Academy is curious about how the internet would work if it was created by women. “What would shift if more women were involved in IT? I know it wouldn’t be what people fear – it wouldn’t turn pink.”

Diversity in tech companies fuels dynamism

Employing more women in ICT can only benefit the industry. Diversity fuels innovation and market growth. It offers a competitive advantage by ensuring compelling ideas are heard from all corners.

“When you’re building any kind of software or app, you have to meet the needs of your consumers, and it can be hard if none of your staff is in the consumer group you’re trying to target,” says Carruthers. “That’s not necessarily just about gender – it’s about diversity on a range of levels.”

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