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Breaking the bias in technology career pathways

Gender diversity in the workplace – particularly in the technology sector continues to be a significant issue in New Zealand. Here, Felicity Brown questions what more needs to be done to improve gender diversity in this sector, the business and economic benefits of doing so, and why more companies should take a lead on this.

As we mark International Women’s Day 2022, there’s clearly much we can celebrate here in Aotearoa. From representation in government and the judiciary, to business leadership and international sport, women are playing leading roles in what were once sectors dominated by men.

But while International Women’s Day is an opportunity to mark how far we’ve come as a society that embraces and values diversity – of all kinds – we also need to continue to reflect on what still needs to be done.

One of the areas where there is room for further progress, is in recognising the value of gender diversity in the workplace. While more women are leading organisations or running their own businesses, getting where they are and being recognised for their contribution along the way remains an ongoing struggle.

This is highlighted in a recent MYOB SME snapshot survey, which found that more than a third of female business leaders have experienced gender bias at work. And while these attitudes and actions continue to frustrate the potential of women at an individual level, they should also be recognised as enormously damaging to our culture, society and economy.

A clear example of the impact of gender bias can be seen within the technology sector. New Zealand’s tech sector is of significant importance to the local economy. With annual earnings around $14B – almost three quarters generated through exports – the local tech sector makes a significant contribution to GDP. It’s also an industry that is growing fast, with the number of new IT jobs created growing at 4.7 percent over the five years to 2019.

However, the largest constraint on the industry is people. A digital skills survey conducted by NZTech in July 2021 found there were 180 firms looking for 2,156 people to fill critical digital roles. Yet, despite the urgent need for new talent, women are still not equally represented in the industry. According to The Digital Skills Aotearoa Report 2021, just 39 percent of ‘technology standard participants’ in New Zealand are female, and women account for only 27 percent of those working in digital technology roles.

While gender bias at work may compound this issue, especially when women are looking to retrain or take the next step in their careers, part of the problem starts much earlier.  

Despite the enormous opportunities in a diverse and dynamic global industry, which is expected to create up to 150 million new roles worldwide by 2025, young women in New Zealand are not entering the industry at anywhere close to the same rate as men. According to the Ministry of Education, only 28 percent of the 13,403 Year 13 students enrolled in digital tech courses in 2021 were female.

Whatever the reasons, the potential impact of the current status quo goes far beyond the obvious growth constraints on one of New Zealand’s most significant industries. We know that encouraging more women into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects is not only important because the industry needs more skilled workers, but also because, as our Snapshot data shows, ‘diversity of thought resulting from a better gender balance will help innovation and advancement in the industry’.

One of the most exciting things about working in technology is the knowledge that the next world-changing idea could come from anywhere – and anyone. If we are not nurturing the entire talent pool we have on home soil, we are needlessly limiting our opportunities as an industry and a nation.

Breaking the bias is a responsibility at every level – from early education, right through to the opportunities for women to retrain, take on new roles, or simply engage in a supportive working environment that meets their needs at every stage of their career.

There are a range of ways that companies can make this change for the better. For example, at MYOB we have been working to provide more pathways for women to thrive in the sector through a range of channels and one of our most popular initiatives is the ‘DevelopHer’ programme, which we have just launched in New Zealand. The programme aims to break the bias when it comes to gender diversity in technology by offering women who have no technical experience an opportunity to start, upskill and progress a career in this fast-growing sector.

Our experience of the Covid-19 pandemic over the last two years has highlighted how much we’ve come to rely on technology, not only to support business but also to maintain our connections with the world, and each other. At the same time, closing our borders reinforced how much we have come to rely on a steady flow of international workers. This is especially true in the IT sector, which employed between 4,000 and 5,000 international tech professionals over the five years leading up to the global pandemic. With an industry this important, we need to look closer to home and tap into potential of all our people here to help bridge at least part of this gap. 

It’s clear that gender diversity isn’t just a social issue, or even solely one of equal rights. Accepting and tolerating bias at any level has an impact on every aspect of our lives – from our mental wellbeing to our economic prosperity. So, we all have a role to play in improving the opportunities for anyone facing limitations through discrimination.

This International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to look at our own attitudes, our business environments and our educational opportunities to break down barriers and biases, to ensure our women can thrive at every level and reach their aspirations in every industry.

Felicity Brown is Head of Employee Services at MYOB.

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