Tech world’s glass ceiling

27 Jan 2011

LAURA O’BRIEN takes a look at the representation of women in senior management positions in the technology industry and how gender balance can be achieved.

There have been numerous powerful female players in the technology industry to date. If you take a look around, you can see Safra Catz, president of Oracle, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, or the executive vice-president of Hewlett-Packard (HP), Ann Livermore, to name but a few.

However, the technology industry has gained a reputation of being a career path for boys and has experienced an imbalance of gender, particularly in senior roles. To help combat this, the Connecting Women in Technology (CWIT) initiative was set up to both retain and inspire women in IT by developing a community to help them network and further their growth in the business.

Jointly organised by Google, Dell, Facebook, Accenture, Ernst and Young, HP and Microsoft, CWIT recently held its second networking event to allow women to gain practical tips and meet like-minded members of the industry.

Connecting Women in Technology networking event speaker

One of the speakers at the event was Danuta Gray, former CEO of Telefónica O2 Ireland, who spoke about the importance of developing and maintaining these connections.

“Any opportunity to meet people in similar industries is to be encouraged, as my experience is that most business challenges boil down to people and having a clear strategy,” said Gray.

Through her own career evolution, she believes that, while things have improved for women in technology, it still isn’t perfect.

“There is a significant improvement in the level of representation of women in technology generally,” Gray said.

“The challenge, like in other industries – and it takes time – is for those bright women to get to positions of senior leadership.”

Ingrid Devin, spokeswoman for CWIT and Global Diversity consultant at Dell, agreed that more change is needed to bring balance to the upper levels of technology.

“I think it’s changing and I think we’ve seen improvements, but it’s still difficult. We still look up and see a lot of male senior leadership,” said Devin.

“We want to see more female leadership but we don’t want to see one replace the other. We want a balance because balance is what will get you the best results, as I think women have a huge amount they can bring to the table.

“There’s a lot of work to be done involving the senior leadership within the industry. You’ve got to get the men (in senior leadership) on-board because it’s not a women’s issue – it’s a business issue,” she said.

As the technology industry is a relatively new one, is there more room for progressive thinking than in older industries?

“I would be hopeful that (creating a balance) would be faster than the other traditional industry sectors,” said Gray.

“It’s a very fast-paced environment in technology generally, so you tend to find that things evolve very quickly, whether that’s technology itself, business models and then leadership.”

Indeed, the technology industry has multinational roots, making it a much more diverse industry than many traditional sectors.

Diversity may mean positive business growth

Fionnuala Meehan, director of EMEA Ad Operations, Google, feels this diversity can help grow the business positively.

“I think, generally, if you have a diverse workforce and you have that healthy approach to the make-up of your team, that’s tremendously helpful,” she said.

Making strong progression in a career is certainly a desirable goal and Gray noted that women can do “the same things as men do” in order to get opportunities.

“You have to do a good job, but you also have to let people know that you’re doing a good job,” said Gray. “Lots of people do a great job in business and don’t get to the top because they need to ensure that they’re seen for the right reasons and they let people know what they’re doing.

“You need to grab opportunities when they come across your desk. If you’re open minded and you take on challenges as they’re presented to you, then you’ll get more opportunities which leads to a career that develops in a more senior level,” she said.

Devin agreed that making yourself heard is a great way to progress your career. However, she noted that developing a balance in the tech workforce is “not about fixing the women”.

“It’s about fixing the culture that allows women to be successful,” she said.

“It’s not just about flexibility, it’s also about the career paths available for women. It’s about ensuring that women have the right environment to be successful,” said Devin.

Career women and children

Choosing to start a family can also have a huge impact on a woman’s career. Many questions can arise in these circumstances, particularly if both partners are working or if the woman is a single mother. And it’s not just the woman who is affected. In Ireland, while new mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ maternity leave and 16 weeks’ additional unpaid leave, new fathers are not entitled to any leave at all.

Devin noted that many Irish men today want to be involved more in their child’s life, noting that in Sweden, maternity leave has to be taken by both men and women. She also pointed out that France has both the highest number of women working and the highest level of fertility due to government policies that really support them.

Gray said the fewer number of women in senior roles is not just about childcare, but that it’s also about “the environment and the culture in which people work that either encourages a diverse leadership team or it doesn’t.”

Of course, to ensure that the future of Irish technology is bright, students need to be shown what opportunities are there. Meehan said an obvious way to add value to the industry would be to encourage women with strengths into the technology field.

“I think that girls of that age who have an aptitude in science, technology and IT should definitely go for it. Even though the perception may be that it’s more male dominated in this moment in time – that is changing. It’s only going to change even faster if we get more women in the pipeline,” she said.

Both Gray and Devin said there are many other roles in the technology industry that don’t require a technical background such as sales, HR and finance.

Ultimately, Gray asserted that young women need role models to show them just how exciting and influential the technology industry has become.

“The world thrives and survives on the basis of the technology that surrounds us. Why on earth would you not see it as an opportunity?” asked Gray.