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It’s time to get real: the truth about gender diversity in tech

It’s time to get real: the truth about gender diversity in tech

Building a more gender-diverse workforce has significant business ROI. At a leadership level, it has demonstrable impact on financial performance and market value as well as improved productivity and innovation. 


Yet, while the tech sector has come a long way just 31% of Australia’s technology workforce is female


So how do female leaders in tech feel about the future of women in the sector? What have been some of their experiences in the workforce? And what do they think will it take to improve diversity in tech?


I recently had an open conversation with PEXA CTO Eglantine Etiemble and PEXA Head of Engineering Jenny Popovski about these very questions – and what it takes to be a female leader in tech.

How optimistic do you feel about the future of women in tech?


Eglantine: I'm super optimistic about the future. I'm seeing the breadth of roles technology offers evolve, along with interest in what can happen in technology within the next generation. I think we are smarter in creating paths that are attractive for women, for very different types of skill sets and abilities. 


Jenny: A lot of companies are investing a lot of time in programs with women. And we are starting quite young, breaking down barriers at an early age with STEM at school. I have a six-year-old who is in a specialist class in robotics. I'm Gen Y, yet in my time in primary school, I never had anything like that. 



Tell me about a time another woman made a positive difference in your career.


Jenny: This question brings me so much joy. I never imagined I’d be a Head of my field. I thought being a manager engineer was it – I reached my career goal. That was the ceiling for me. 


Then I met a woman through an initiative where my role was to build microservices for her, bring agility to the squads, and bring a great culture into play. This was something I've done many times in my career. But this time was different. I got to make choices, I got to lead the teams. I was empowered. She allowed me to fail and to succeed. She gave me the confidence to do that and pushed me to where I am today. This person is now a dear friend of mine.



What is the most significant thing your organization has done to help progress your career?


Kathryn:  Thoughtworks has helped me know and understand my worth. There was one person who looked at my salary and told me I should be asking for more than what I was being paid. That was something that had never been said to me before in my career and it really made me think about how you value the contributions that you’re making, and being brave about asking for what you’re worth. Thoughtworks has great policies about being open and providing great transparency around how people are paid. 



Gender equality for the chief executive roles of Australia's top public companies is still 100 years away based on current trends. How do we accelerate the process?


Eglantine: That’s very disappointing. The lack of representation when it comes to ASX CEOs intrigues me. We all know tons of amazing women in our network who are bright, bold, courageous and kind – who manage 50 things at once. They’re capable and ambitious women who want to have an impact and feel good. But we don't have a strong commitment to find these top players, across different industries and in governments. It's going to take a strong commitment from the government and from industry to get there. 


The countries that have cracked it have made policies that are very black and white. Some Scandinavian countries offer a year and a half of maternity and paternity leave to share between the parents. But you're not allowed to access it if one takes less than six months. That’s the kind of policy that really forces the right conversation. That's the kind of change we need to see. And that's policy change that's really centrally-driven, and CEO-driven. 


Kathryn: I think it’s also really important to be able to build stronger leadership networks among women. It’s where we can build our confidence and bounce our ideas around. This is where we can contribute to each other's success. 



Can you think of a time when you saw unconscious gender bias at work?


Eglantine: I remember I was promoted after being on maternity leave, so my organization was incredibly supportive. But one of my managers suggested I take on a smaller part of a portfolio so I could have some balance. For me, it's the other way around. You need to give me a very good reason to leave my children at home. So when I’m away from them, I want to do something very interesting. And I want to learn and grow. 


It’s just as important to consider how we make sure we keep people connected while they’re on parental leave – so they don't have this anxiety when they come back. Interestingly, when everybody went back to the office a year ago after COVID, that anxiety was everywhere. Suddenly men were telling me, ‘oh, now we get it!’. It’s hard to be away from the office for six months or a year and return not knowing what you’re going to face.


Jenny: I came off maternity leave two years ago and you couldn’t get out of home fast enough, right? There’s no coasting – you wanted to get back into your nice clothes and you wanted to deal with those connections again. I love coming to work and 100% no one is coasting!



Why do we need more women leaders in tech?


Eglantine: The higher we go into the hierarchy, the fewer women. The pipeline is not growing. So we don't have many role models. I have never worked for a woman in technology. When I was going through maternity leave, or when I was in my first executive job, I would have loved to have a role model – you need to talk to someone who's been through your challenges.


It's also important to have diversity of thinking at the top so we can create more inclusive workplaces. If you're thinking the way you've always thought, and you've had the same kind of experience cascading down, it's really hard to create an experience that is truly inclusive for everybody. 



What is the worst advice you have ever been given as a leader?


Eglantine: In my first leadership role in finance I moved to the CEO’s floor. It was a big deal. Someone told me, “you're going to have to stop with the big earrings thing. It's a $7 billion USD organization, you’re in finance, it's very serious and very male, and people are not going to take you seriously. You have to blend in.” I thought about this carefully. At 30, I was the only woman and I had three babies. And then I decided to reject it. I decided to make sure they took me seriously for who I am and what I bring. 


A few years later, I was offered a fantastic opportunity to lead an operation in Europe on the back of an acquisition project. The statement earrings and my work style hadn’t been a problem, quite the other way around: I was very different from all other Ops leaders. Each of them had the same profile, while I was the opposite of that. But that’s what they needed. So it’s not a matter of saying one profile is better than the other - it’s a matter of saying we have to be complementary and you need to have one big colourful pair of earrings around the table. 


Jenny: I was told, “Don’t show your emotions, show them that you are the boss.” And I rejected that because I like to foster a servant leadership style, and I want to be human. I don't treat people like humanoids because behind the computer there is a person there. I used to get that advice quite a lot because I am quite young and when I was embarking on my leadership journey people were like, “well, you have to assert yourself, don’t cry, don’t show your emotions.” But that is me. That is my authentic self. I want people to know that it’s ok to be your authentic self.



True or false? Women can have it all. 


Eglantine: For me, the answer is true. I wonder how many of our limitations are imposed by ourselves? I never had the sense that I couldn't have it all. I wanted to have plenty of children. I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to have a fulfilling relationship with my husband. And I wanted to have a career that was exciting, where I would grow and challenge myself. 


I strongly felt all that was within reach. I just always thought, what is it going to take for me to get there? How do I make that work? 


Kathryn:  There's a running joke at Thoughtworks about this, that the answer to everything is, ‘it depends’. It very much depends on how you define ‘all’. If you define ‘all’ as what it means for you as an individual, then of course you can. It’s just about knowing what you want and how to prioritize your time. If you put ‘all’ in that context, then I think it's possible.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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