Senator the Hon Helen Coonan Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts
If the stiletto FITTS
Address to Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications International Women's Day luncheon
Wednesday 8 March 2006
Thank you Jessica [Maxwell, FITT Committee member]
Good afternoon, I am delighted to be here.
I understand that the demand for places today was so great that event organisers had to secure a larger venue.
I hope this is because there are more women than ever pursuing careers in the telecommunications and ICT sectors.
But of course it might be because of the great functions that Females in Technology and Telecommunications hold!
Or it could be that we all want to celebrate International Women's Day!
I know I am not telling you anything new when I say that women have come a long way.
There was a time not so long ago when a girl would not dare to dream of growing up to become a doctor or a business leader, a fire fighter or a Prime Minister.
Thankfully, the world is changing.
Today girls do dare to dream, and we are seeing women around the world achieving positions of power and influence.
I read recently that there are now around 11 women serving as Presidents or Prime Ministers today—from New Zealand to Liberia, from Chile to Germany. And the figure seems to grow every year.
I was pleased to be appointed the first ever woman to be part of the Government's leadership team recently.
Women bring to their fields not only their talent and skills.
In recent times, commentators have argued that women also bring a unique approach to their work, and that this is why their contribution is so important.
However, I do not necessarily agree with this.
In business today, management theory has embraced a pronounced shift toward stereotyping the typical, traditional skills of women—those of embracing the views of others, of nurturing people, of using persuasion, collaboration, consensus and affiliation.
This is probably a good thing. But not because these are ‘feminine' attributes, but because they help to achieve a balance in the workplace and take an important step towards reflecting the diversity of our workforce.
I think it is a mistake to stereotype women and their ‘attributes'.
Women are not all the same.
We are not all nurturing. We are not all kind and loving. We can be competitive. We can be adversarial. We can be poor communicators, and we can be poor judges of character.
But we can also be brilliant, articulate, dynamic, daring and different.
Women exhibit the same diversity of talent, flaws, brilliance and potential as men, and so our contributions in every aspect of society must be seen as equal.
We should not allow women to be packaged, to be simplified or stereotyped.
In Australia today, women can realistically aspire to be what ever they want.
They can travel the world, they can have families, they can be comediennes, they can be politicians and they can be sporting heroes. They can even be ICT professionals.
So if women can choose to be all or none of these things, why are there so few women choosing to pursue a career in ICT?
Women and technology
Since coming into the portfolio I have asked repeatedly – where are the women?
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that women comprise only 20 per cent of ICT employees.
And women make up only 25 per cent of university students who choose to study ICT. And the trends show that this figure is falling.
Given that women exhibit the same diversity of talent, flaws, brilliance and potential as men, this tells me that there must be many women who might be well-suited to a career in this industry, but who for some reason have turned away from the possibility.
Anecdotally we hear that this is because the industry is seen as ‘boring', or as being a ‘boys club'; or if you believe a Sydney Morning Herald report of late last year, it might even be because IT has been dubbed as the ‘worst dressed' industry in Australia.
I look around today and I know that's not right.
Why do we need more women in IT?
Women are needed in the ICT sector in greater numbers for many reasons.
But most importantly, so that the industry reflects the diversity of our society and has a wider skill set to draw upon.
There is a story that demonstrates the importance of different gender perspectives when designing new technology.
When airbags for cars were first being developed, the tests were based on the average 176 centimetre male driver. And the tests showed that the airbags would save lives.
But out in the real world of men, women and children, we saw women and children injured or killed by the inflating bag.
Only eight per cent of mechanical engineers at the time were female, and the group working on the airbag project was almost exclusively male.
If women had been on the design teams, these potentially fatal problems may have been foreseen and lives may have been saved.
Employees in the ICT industry are solving problems and developing new technology on a daily basis.
They need to be doing this not only for 176 centimetre men, but for the whole of society.
I am committed to helping build an ICT sector which accurately reflects the talent and diversity of Australian society. My commitment is both personal and professional.
The Female Factor
Women and girls represent a massive untapped resource and a substantial pool of talent.
Women's potential role in contributing to the supply of skilled labour in the ICT sector is significant.
Encouraging women's participation is an important part of the Government's strategy to address any potential skills shortages.
We need to ensure that the diversity of Australian skills will continue to be a source of competitive advantage.
Participation issues need to be seen against the broader backdrop of intergenerational and demographic changes which are likely to reduce the overall supply of skilled labour for Australian business in the future.
Governments and industry need to work together to help young people, and particularly young women, to understand the opportunities that gaining technology skills can bring.
We need to help them understand that a career in information and communications technology is a career full of challenges and rewards and can be pursued within practically any sector they care to choose.
Attracting women into ICT-related professions is a business imperative rather than any form of affirmative action.
The partICipaTion Summit
During the 2004 election, the Government committed to convening a Summit to identify the barriers to women participating in the ICT industry.
We wanted to look at developing ways to encourage more women to study and pursue careers in ICT.
The partICipaTion Summit was held in Sydney in September last year and was attended by about 80 representatives of industry, education and government—including representatives of ICT professional women's organisations. I know that some of you here today attended.
Interestingly, the Summit found that female participation was part of a broader issue of declining interest among young people in information and communications technology careers.
The summit considered four main themes:
- the image of the sector;
- the work environment;
- education and careers advice; and
- national coordination.
The summit identified that a national approach to ICT skills and participation issues was required.
It also found that the industry needs to focus in on its strengths as a flexible and dynamic work environment, change the outdated perceptions of a technology career and foster the careers talented individuals when they enter the profession.
I am now developing a strategy to take forward the outcomes of the Summit - which will include seeking support from bodies such as Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications.
I am pleased to say that the industry is already picking up on the outcomes of the Summit.
Following his participation in the Summit Joe Kremer, the managing director of Dell in Australia has got together with the MD's of Altiris, Cisco, EMC, Ingram Micro, Intel, LAN Systems and Lexmark to run a Women in IT Executive Mentoring (WITEM) Program.
Initially being run as a 12 month pilot the program aims to address a number of barriers to women's advancement such as a lack of general management experience, exclusion from informal networks and stereotypes about women's roles and abilities.
Women in the program have been carefully selected for their experience, commitment and ambition to succeed and develop.
In turn they are receiving mentoring from senior executives within the industry, accelerated career development opportunities, additional training, ongoing involvement in cross organisational networks and a clear career path as defined by them.
I believe that the program has proved to be so successful that it is looking at being extended. The companies participating have seen numerous benefits – their workplace is seen as progressive and supportive of women – making them a desired destination for ambitious women.
This approach to workforce planning is just plain business sense.
ICT Skills Foresighting
The Participation Summit raised some interesting challenges.
Since February last year, I have had an ICT Skills Foresighting Working Group looking into the broader skills issues of the sector and the findings of the Summit have been fed into this work.
Working with my department, this Group has representatives from the education sector as well as the ICT industry and its peak bodies.
Together, they are examining the trends and future development of the sector and the broad implications for skills development.
I expect to receive their report in the first half of this year.
The release of this report will contribute significantly to understanding the ‘fit' between industry skill needs, existing training and the possible options for better meeting the skill needs of the future.
I look forward to working together with industry to tackle the significant and challenging skills issues emerging in ICT.
I n response to our election commitment, last year I convened a Tele-work Advisory Committee, to examine the ways technology could be used to deliver more flexible working arrangements to Australian workers and employers.
With the increase in Internet connectivity in homes, /and the spread of personal computers, it is now possible for employees to perform a range of tasks from their own homes, or other convenient locations, rather than being required to attend a centralised office.
This ability to be able to perform work from a remote location is proving increasingly popular with both employers and employees.
The Australian Tele-work Advisory Committee delivered its report to me last week and concluded that broader take-up of telework could expand the labour market and fill skills shortages during a period of high employment.
People whose family commitments or health may prevent them from attending and office workspace full time, may well be able to have a job using tele-working.
In this way, tele-work can increase participation in line with the Government's Welfare to Work policies and can especially help people with disabilities, mature-aged workers and carers into meaningful employment.
Flexible working arrangements can help the long-term unemployed or people on disability support.
Importantly, it is also being used as an incentive in recruiting and retaining staff because employees see telework as a way to improve their work/life balance.
The increase in flexibility is seen as a real bonus for people with family responsibilities—both men and women.
This gives Australia a better chance to utilise the diverse range of skills and attributes available in its workforce and to improve the job satisfaction and productivity of existing workers.
Again, this is just business sense.
The Government is keen to provide high quality and affordable telecommunications and broadband services to the whole community as quickly and effectively as possible.
The Government's new Connect Australia package is a $1.1 billion roll-out of broadband, new regional clever networks, mobile services and Indigenous telecommunications which will increase the workforce participation opportunities available to regional Australia, including women who are home-based due to caring or other commitments.
Our role as women
But government policy can only do so much. The rest is up to us – as women, mothers, and professionals.
We need to show other women and girls that a career is a rewarding experience and that a career in information and communications technology is not only possible, but can be exhilarating, challenging and fulfilling as well.
There is nothing more constructive than a positive role model. And you are positive role models for young women choosing career paths and to older women perhaps considering a move into their second or even third career.
As women we need to talk about our work—we need to tell people about our achievements.
We shouldn't gloss over the difficult challenges and choices we have had to make, but we should celebrate our success and the skills, talent and drive we have brought to our fields.
I believe that ICT has the ability to contribute much to workplace flexibility, and to improve the balance between work and family life. This is one of the many reasons that I find my portfolio so interesting.
Its links to the social and economic well-being of all Australians are fundamental.
ICT-led productivity growth is deeply embedded across all sectors of the economy.
Technology now touches almost everything we do and working with IT provides diverse and exciting opportunities.
It is not often you'll hear me quote Mao Tse Tung, but I do agree with him on this— ‘ women hold up half the sky' .
Whether it is in my role as a Minister with an enormous and diverse portfolio or your role as an ICT professional, we are each doing our bit to hold up the sky, and I know the world is a better place for it.