Efforts to encourage women into software programming and other parts of the tech industry are going up a notch.
Industry body NZTech is doubling the size of its Shadow Tech Days mentoring programming, which will this year pair 500 high school girls with women already in the industry, after receiving funding from the Ministry of Youth Development.
Xero employees Rowena Joe, a lead developer, and Erica Anderson, a software security engineer, both say their biggest career influencers were elder brothers.
Joe said her all-girl school in Palmerston North only taught how to use computers and not how to program them.
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“My brother started to do an IT degree a couple of years ahead of me and he made an off-hand comment that girls couldn’t do programming because they were not logical thinkers. So I thought ‘I’ll show you’.”
Her brother, who has switched from IT into viticulture, has since changed his mind, she adds.
Anderson followed her brother in studying accounting, just as its relationship with IT was starting to form, and went into IT auditing with Ernst & Young and then security engineering.
“It is the role models and the people who influence you along the way who determine whether you go down a technical path,” she said.
Xero is one of many Kiwi technology companies that actively encourage diversity, but NZTech government relations director Andrea Hancox, said the employment picture remained lopsided overall.
Women made up only 23 per cent of those employed in IT occupations, and the proportion would be smaller in core disciplines such as software programming, she said.
“Very few women are looking at doing computer science which leads on to software development – it is in ‘single digits’.”
Hancox and Shay Peters – country manager of recruitment firm Robert Walters – agreed career “stereotyping” was mostly to blame, rather than overt discrimination by employers.
“A lot of it is perception about what the job is going to be like; the perception that you are going to work with a whole lot of men, that it is not necessarily interesting or exciting, and that you are behind a computer screen all day,” Hancox said.
“The talent that is around – the sector is absorbing them quicker than you can turn them out.”
Peters said the technology industry was trying hard to address what he believed was a legacy issue.
“We are seeing more female meet-ups groups in this area, one of which Robert Walters sponsors. Once there is ‘critical mass’ and more women in these roles, communication styles and leadership styles will change.”
Aside from the risk of women potentially missing out on jobs they might enjoy, NZTech notes women who are dissuaded from careers in the industry are also missing an opportunity to level the pay gap.
The sector has “some of the highest salaries around” and job prospects are high, Hancox notes.
She said there was also evidence that companies that weren’t male-dominated were more profitable.
While most academic studies have tended to focus on correlations between company performance and female participation on boards of directors, a 2004 study by New York charity Catalyst Information Center also observed a correlation between performance and the proportion of women in senior management roles.
That appears to have been corroborated by a 2014 report by Credit Suisse, based on data from 3000 large firms.
The issue of why there are not more female programmers has been batted about on technology bulletin boards for decades.
One theory – most frequently espoused by men – is that while roles in the industry often involve working in teams and meeting with clients, and benefit from good communication skills, some facets of programming need to be “heads down” and obsessional and may be “boring” to most women.
Joe, who manages a team of five developers, three of whom are women, says her team has an environment different to the stereotypical image.
“We love to collaborate and work together. More often than not we are in a room doing these mob programming sessions, problem-solving as a group. It works for us; not to say it is the right answer for everyone.”
Hancox said the funding from the Youth Development Ministry had allowed Shadow Tech Day – now in its fourth year – to expand from the three main centres to eight cities.
“The women mentors are really passionate about sharing with these girls how cool their jobs are,” she said.
Anderson says the situation needs to improve but the initiatives underway are on the right track.
“Having people come in and looking at a solution from different perspectives is really important. I don’t think it is a problem that is going to be solved overnight.”