It’s a dire warning: a new MYOB report predicts the number of women working in New Zealand’s tech sector is likely to decline in the coming years unless significant, industry-wide action is taken to improve gender diversity. Essentially, the MYOB Women in Tech report can be boiled down to a single word: yikes.
MYOB general manager Carolyn Luey says the report shows the tech sector is behind the rest of the country. “In recent years, New Zealand has made some significant strides in closing the gender gap – particularly in regard to health, education, the economy and politics,” she explains. “In fact, today there are 85 working women to every 100 working men, and almost half of all business leaders are female.”
OMGTech! co-founder and general manager Zoe Timbrell, AUT lecturer and She# founder Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh and MYOB general manager Carolyn Luey discuss what can be done to increase gender diversity and inclusivity in New Zealand’s tech sector, what individuals and organisations can do, where things can go from here, and more:
While that, of course, is still only 15 percent of where things should be (equal), it’s even worse for the tech sector. “Just 23 per cent of the New Zealand workforce is female,” says Luey. “While we fare better than many other countries, we’re a long way away from complete gender parity.”
The MYOB Women in Tech report also shows that male-identifying people are twice as likely to study ICT courses at a tertiary level, and nearly five times more likely to study engineering and related fields.
And it gets worse. Data from the Ministry of Education reveals that in 2015, there were only 1,445 people identifying as female studying ICT at the tertiary level in New Zealand, compared to 3,160 people who identify as male, and only 1,675 female-identifying engineering students compared to 7,580 male-identifying students.
Luey pulls no punches in assessing the seriousness of the issue. “This is a major problem for our tech sector – particularly while the country faces a major skills shortage. To set ourselves up for the future, we need to ensure we have the people and the resources to build a progressive ICT sector that contributes to the wider New Zealand economy.”
Auckland University of Technology Department of Information Technology and Software Engineering lecturer and founder of networking and events programme She#, Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh, says New Zealand lacks female role-models in its tech sector. “You can’t be who you can’t see,” she says. “If you can’t see yourself in your role-model, you’re never going to try to be like them.”
Dr Mohaghegh says part of the problem is due to a perception issue. “The fact that just three percent of fifteen-year-old girls want to pursue a tech-related career in New Zealand shows us that we need to be targeting young females at an earlier age,” she explains. “We have to be teaching computer science, engineering, problem-solving and computational thinking from primary school.”
AUT lecturer and She# founder Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh.
Luey says a number of things can be done to help make progress in solving the problem of discrimination in the tech sector. She says to increase the number of women working in New Zealand’s tech sector and build a balanced industry, “we need to re-think how we educate our young people, expose more women to the industry early on, recognise and promote female leaders, and support the game-changers who are already enforcing positive change.”
Luey also says there are a number of things her own company is doing. “Internally, we’ve accelerated the representation of women in junior and management roles – and today, more than 40 per cent of our entry-level engineering roles are held by women.”
MYOB general manager Carolyn Luey.
Other companies are doing things, too. Vodafone has launched a three-pronged strategy to address low levels of representation.
Head of HR Centres of Expertise Katie Williams explains there is a need to do something, now. “It’s a global problem. It’s an ongoing effort to get girls and young women into the tech space and stay in the tech space. We’re making progress, but it’s too slow.
“First, we want to create opportunities for girls to experience technology in the real world, by connecting them with mentors and training on our #CodeLikeAGirl programme. Late last year we took more than a dozen girls from high schools across Auckland, and in just four days taught them the coding to be able to build a website.”
Vodafone owns and operates #CodeLikeAGirl networks in 26 countries, and has partner countries in over 50 additional countries. Vodafone’s Women in Technology New Zealand lead Lynn Xu was one of those who worked with the young women in Auckland. “I really believe this experience can help in making future career choices,” she says. “They all came out with fantastic work, and had visions and plans on how to improve on it – something us adults often don’t do well! I will never forget the sparks in their eyes.”
Williams says Vodafone also runs a two-year Discover Graduate programme, which in 2018 has a current total of 78 graduates fresh out of university working at Vodafone, with the opportunity to rotate across teams so they learn important transferable skills. “Fifty-one percent of our graduates in the programme are women and that’s a deliberate choice on our part. It allows us to lay substantial groundwork in fostering, encouraging and growing female leadership in our workplace.”
Williams says that, while Vodafone is a large multinational corporation that can influence entire industries because of its size, there are a couple of things small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) can do for free: 1) find ways to create visible role models, and 2) create networks for employees to get together to do things to encourage inclusivity.
“We know we have a global shortage of technologists, of people who are able to operate in the digital revolution,” explains Williams. “We need to access the whole labour market.”
AI Forum New Zealand board member Koren O’Brien agrees – and says it’s especially important to increase inclusivity and diversity in tech with the development of AI and the fact many of the jobs of the future don’t exist yet. “Some recent international research found there are only about 22,000 AI experts in the world, of which only 85 identify as being located in New Zealand," she explains. "So if we start the right way now we can avoid having this conversation in five years’ time about why only 20 percent of people involved in AI are female.”
AI Forum New Zealand board member Koren O’Brien.
Edwina Mistry, executive director of Tech Women New Zealand, says tech has never been more attractive as a career for women.
One Auckland company, Dexibit, says 50 percent of its staff are women – and that the board is 60 percent women.
“Technology is an amazing career for anyone, particularly in today's times where we’re working on incredibly exciting areas like artificial intelligence,” says Judge. “As a woman, many of our strong suits, like communication, multi-tasking and thinking with the end user in mind are surprisingly rare but especially important skills to be successful in tech. So as individuals we can really have an impact in the teams we contribute to and particularly when we can lead others.”
Another Auckland firm, Vend, has more than 200 staff across five offices globally, of which 41 percent are female. Vend founder Vaughan Roswell says there is still a challenge in technology companies where teams are still predominantly male. “However, this is changing. More and more women are entering product and tech roles, and initiatives like She#, GirlCode, Shadow Tech Day and OMGTech! are creating the pathways and inspiration for women into technology.
“There is still a lot more to do for the industry to be considered open and welcoming of all people from all genders and backgrounds, but there is a willingness to embrace more diversity and so that needs to be positively encouraged.”
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Earlier reports have found tech firms that have equal numbers of women and men are up to 40 percent more profitable. That’s encouraging in light of last year’s Digital Skills report, which found that only 36 percent of computer science students in New Zealand identify as female. A 2015 OECD survey found that only three percent of 15-year-old girls in New Zealand showed an interest in a tech career.
Zoe Hobson and Emma Johansson of Runaway.
To help create positive role models for gender inclusivity, a number of companies and organisations are stepping up. As Idealog reported in early February, Dunedin-based, women-led games studio Runaway has launched the #GirlsBehindTheGames campaign, which calls to promote gender parity and diversity within the gaming industry through positive media stories and social content about inspiring women in tech. In the lead up to International Women’s Day on March 8, Runaway are creating inspiring videos and content presented by the women of Runaway, sharing their experiences and advice to help promote women in the gaming industry. The campaign has been noticed by the likes of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who last month visited Runaway, and has gone viral on social media, with some of the world’s largest games studios – such as BioWare, Capcom, EA and more – joining in to promote visibility.
As Runaway creative director Emma Johansson explains: “Over the past two years more and more game studios have started talking openly about the importance of hiring a diverse staff. There have been discussions on the importance of designing your games with cultural diversity in mind rather than resorting to stereotypes and old clichés. It seemed to me that over the last years the industry has finally realised that there is not only a large audience and demand for different types of games but also money to be made. Still, the statistics show that diversity IS an issue in this industry.”
As Runaway managing director Zoe Hobson explains:
“The lack of women working in the industry relates to so many factors. One, women in the industry aren’t supported enough – they hit ‘glass ceilings,’ they are discounted, discouraged and disenfranchised. We wanted to address that, and something we felt WE could contribute as a positive action was to offer mentorships to try and lift women up, to support them and help them thrive and grow.
“Two, women are underrepresented in the industry statistically, and that under-representation is made worse by a lack of visibility within media. Writing about and sharing great work done by women in tech can help make the women in our industry visible – and with visibility comes empowerment, normalisation and inspiration.
“Three, sponsorship for women in computer science came from our personal experience – we found out recently there wasn’t a single woman enrolled in the games paper at our local university. That really upset us, and was part of what triggered this whole campaign. We believe in taking action – so instead of sitting here feeling upset about women not taking the paper, we decided to talk to the tertiary provider, ask if we could provide sponsorship for women and ask if we could guest lecture within the department to normalise women in the industry and help those taking courses to feel supported.
“And four, another contributing factor to the lack of diversity in our industry can be linked to parents’, teachers’ and society’s influence on girls at a young age. If girls feel like tech or gaming or STEM careers aren’t an option for them, they won’t pursue those subjects or those careers. By guest speaking at schools, we hope to inspire young girls to follow their dreams and not exclude any career path. So, in summary – there are a lot of factors that contribute to a lack of diversity. The factors that we’ve chosen to take positive action on are only a small handful – and our actions themselves may be small – but we believe in taking those actions to shape the world in a more positive way.”
The push comes as the number of women gamers continues to rise (with about 45 percent of gamers identifying as women, according to the International Game Developers Association’s 2017 Developer Satisfaction Survey), but the number of women working in the games industry remains low (just 22 percent of the workforce, according to the 2017 Developer Satisfaction Survey).
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MYOB’s Luey says working towards equality now will help get the ball rolling for future success, leading to a positive run-on effect for every industry. “If we balance the gender scales today, we can set the next generation of tech leaders – male and female – up for unprecedented success.”
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