Making a difference

Sandra Pickering faced her audience and saw them slumped on their seats. She continued with her pitch -- how a career in information technology is rewarding and empowering. At the end of the presentation, the audience, 14 to 16 year old girls at Selwyn College, were "engaged", listening and learning forward.

"It was amazing," says Pickering, who makes sure her schedule as chief technology officer at Vodafone New Zealand, is interspersed with activities such as these -- speaking at forums encouraging more women to consider a career in information technology.

This particular event is a pilot for a programme she set up at Vodafone called Inspiring Women into Technology. The goal was to provide work experience positions (school gateway programmes) for female students, and attend career programmes such as the one in Selwyn College.

Pickering leads the company's IT and networks teams which designs, builds, operates and maintains its IT systems and mobile and fixed networks. She has around 400 permanent staff in her team, and 20 percent of them are women.

She says she is getting some of her "younger up and coming stars and managers" in the IT and network teams at Vodafone to speak in similar events. It was important, she says, to reach the students early when they have "yet to think what it is they can do with their lives what their career looks like and talk and talk to them that IT careers are a good way for them to go".

Pickering, who spoke at a forum at the NetHui conference in Auckland last week, says having more women in the workplace actually changes business outcomes. "It is not about making us feel good."

She says numerous studies have shown that having women in senior leadership positions in good numbers have much more beneficial outcomes from a customer point of view and the way the company operates.

Pickering says the IT industry is going to get larger, and the unfortunate thing is it is an easy option for many companies to hire contractors or go offshore for talent. "I think that is sad and I think that is a lost opportunity for New Zealand, and especially a lost of opportunity for young women."

She says it is important to emphasise the multiple career paths to management and tech careers. It doesn't have to be a chief technology officer role, she says. "Just encourage them to be the best they can be."

Roles in the sector include business analysts and project work that don't necessarily require higher technical skills. "I have seen people succeed from both sides of the equation. We need to do both."

She says women can come in from secondary school on to a form of internship where they can get into entry level jobs and work as junior project coordinators or testers.

At the same time, she says, important programmes to encourage women in technology are integrated across the business. In order for us to be successful, we have to get male colleagues on board, she says.

She says women make the most purchasing decisions, and it makes sense for them to be involved at a high level and increasingly, in companies.

This story gets grimmer, unfortunately, when viewed from executive level, even in big technology companies.

She says essentially there are more women in the entry level and middle to intermediate management roles. "We will never have enough candidates to choose from in the most senior roles."

She says the way to change that is to actually get more women at the beginning of their careers and into the sector.

"When I am hiring, I always hire the best person for the job. That is essential, "says Pickering, who does not support quotas and forcing numbers.

When you are searching for candidates, you have to find good females. She says if you got six people applying for the role, one of those six is a woman.

She says this is why Vodafone globally is focused on how to bring more women into entry level positions and in their graduate programmes. "We have to start building up the base and for me that is the most essential thing we can do."

We are attracting more women into tech roles but we also found we lose them. One of the reasons is they opt out to have families. She says at Vodafone, 90 percent of maternity leavers come back. "But then, it all becomes too hard," she says. "They have got to balance the kids, career, partners' needs and all the rest of it and we find they don't stay much longer or progress much further once they return from maternity leave."

She says there is a need to create "a more female friendly environment".

This includes having an environment that is conducive to some more flexibility, where staff can work early and go home in time to pick up the children. "There should be no barriers. We have to support our mothers when they come back to work we have to give them part time opportunities and not allow them to be ranked lower than other opportunities in the company."

There has to be an acceptance that women at certain times of their career have to take time out and focus on their families. You have to have an environment where it is not shunned upon to leave at 3pm because you have to pick up your kids from school.

"What has to change is management attitude that that is okay," she says. She says women should also not feel guilty about making those choices.

She says the larger companies have more resources to be able to do this and have the "big onus to lead the way" and create trends in the industry to make it more attractive to women.

In her case, she says she was lucky to have got in a job straight from school where she trained and got experience. "I started at the bottom," she says. "I was a tape operator - changing tapes between midnight and four for an insurance company.

That was 31 years ago and she says she didn't realise then it would lead to her lifelong career.

"I travel around the world throughout my career. I probably travelled the world several dozen times and worked in some really interesting places. Now, I wouldn't have had that opportunity without having a career that I have had."

"People say to me I have been lucky," she says. "The thing is, the harder you work the luckier you get."

Pickering says one of the most important aspects of her career is outside of her work -- her family. She ends her presentation with this advice: Choose your life partner very carefully if you want to have a good career in tech. "They are critical to how successful you can be."

Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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