Creating Opportunities For Women In Tech

"There are lots of women in technology," Karen Lawson, CEO of Slingshot tells me.

"So we need to shift our thinking from viewing male-dominated environments as a disadvantage. Especially if you harness not only the opportunities you have, but create your own!"

Lawson began her career in technology when she left her job as an auditor for Ernst and Young, and took a sales role at Cable & Wireless.

"It was at a pivotal time when the telecommunications industry was deregulated away from British Telecom," Lawson says. "From there the organisation moved into VOIP, data, LANS WANS, call centre technology and became an end-to end-solution provider for corporations around the world."

I asked Lawson if there are any women in her industry that she looks up to - either as a role model or a mentor. Unsurprisingly, she has a few.

"There are so many!" She says. "Recently we have seen high profile female tech leaders such as Pip Marlow and Maile Carnegie's move from technology businesses into financial services - which shows how essential knowledge of technology is to future growth."

"I know Jane Huxley well and think her move from leading an organisation of thousands at Fairfax to starting Pandora in Australia, with literally a laptop and a mobile phone from her living room, not only shows tremendous strength of character but versatility and adaptability of leadership styles. She also held a board position in Surfstitch through some challenging times."

Lawson says both male and female role models and mentors are important, and "it's about creating your own personal board of directors".

And when it comes to the issue of gender diversity?

Lawsons point out that stats show all over the world that diversity (and not just in relation to gender) is the key to better decision making, and it in turn fuels better returns for organisations. It's both a moral issue, and a commercial one.

"Shareholders must demand that from their boards and companies. Only then will we start to see significant changes."

If you are a shareholder you have a voice, Lawson says. And if you are a consumer, you too have power.

"Ultimately every person either individually and/or collectively can make a difference, but first there must be education and awareness of unconscious bias," Lawson says. "Every company needs to do an audit on its diversity initiative from pay to representation at board level."

So what initiatives to help achieve gender equality are out there - and are they working?

"The Workplace Gender Equality Agency provides deep data on this," Lawson says. "When women comprise 46.2 per cent of all employees in Australia, yet hold 14.2 per cent of chair positions, 23.6 per cent of directorships and represent 15.4 per cent of CEOs - there is much to do."

The WGEA data also shows the pay gap is 24 per cent.

Knowing how few women are in Key Management Positions means that initiatives such as The Male Champions of Change have had an impact, according to Lawson.

And we are also seeing boards actively move towards progressive hiring.

"Studies have shown that the most fundamental impact to moving women up the leadership ladder is flexibility, and again this should be offered to both men and women." Lawson says.

Lawson points to a number of more formal groups to assist women that are also making progress - such as Rare Birds, CBA Women in Focus and Telstra's Business Woman of the Year.

These organisations not only bring a focus onto the great work being done, but also provide structure for support. There has also been a real shift in conference organisers, who are now ensuring there is diversity on panels.

"Ultimately initiatives should be driven by inclusive groups. Not simply by women for women," Lawson says, "But I do believe those small numbers of women in leadership positions need to use their influence to pay it forward to a new generation."

Speaking of the next generation - Lawson believes the future is looking a lot brighter.

"Academic achievement is higher than males, there is no reason any woman should not be optimistic about the future - it's there to be shaped by you!"

Karen Lawson recently spoke at the CSIRO Data61 'Women in Tech' event, which explored the barriers to gender diversity - with a particular focus on the technology industry.

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