Growing up in ICT as one of the only women in the room

Despite efforts to diversify the tech sector, women are still vastly underrepresented

The technology industry and its culture has undoubtedly evolved throughout the decades. As part of the tech sector for the last 24 years, it’s been fascinating to see this evolution and pace of change. A big focus in technology today includes trying to balance the scales in terms of gender diversity.

Tech industry leaders have invested heavily in culture and diversity programmes to breakdown the tired ‘pale, stale and male’ image that has previously plagued the sector. While this image is no longer an accurate representation of today’s more diverse tech industry, women are still vastly underrepresented; accounting for only a fifth of all IT graduates in Australia .

A big part of this is a result of confidence issues and a perception girls may have that they aren’t as strong in STEM subjects as their male counterparts. The reality is quite different - girls actually outperform boys at school in relevant science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This perception, teamed with a lack of role models in STEM and pre-existing negative stereotypes, have been cited as contributory factors to the issue and continues to have a detrimental effect on girls’ ambitions for careers in STEM.

When it comes to girls challenging these stereotypes, a mantra that I wholly stand by is “if you can see it, you can be it”. To me, this highlights the need for diversity; providing and supporting an environment for enriched thinking, paving the way for future leaders and challenging the “male-centric status quo” of the tech world.

With over two decades’ experience of working in the industry, here are three things I’ve learnt along the way that have helped me to succeed as a female in the technology industry.

Be curious and open to all opportunities

I didn’t start out in my career thinking I was going into the technology industry. I actually studied marketing at university and as part of that degree, I had to find professional work experience in order to complete my third year. After meeting a number of different companies from a variety of industries, I secured an undergraduate position at Hewlett-Packard UK. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with HP prior to meeting them at the careers fair however, after an energetic pitch from the sales team, I was curious to learn more about them.

I arrived on my first day thinking that I was going to work closely with the marketing team, but found myself assigned to the Enterprise Sales Team. From meeting different customers to the determination and navigation of sales — I became instantly engaged with the new direction and was entranced with the ever changing and challenging day-to-day routine.

The tech industry is an innovative sector that is constantly evolving. Women who are curious, passionate and have an appetite to learn will find a multitude of exciting opportunities. From the more technical positions to finance, operations, sales, HR and marketing — there is a wide range of roles available to suit different skill sets and interests.

Find your voice — and own it

Self-confidence in the workplace is typically something that affects females more than males. In my opinion, developing communication skills and finding your voice is the single most important thing to help you to increase your confidence levels. To be an empowered, strong and confident communicator is invaluable in any workplace, regardless of the role that you are in.

If you’re surrounded by negative and unconfident people, it can have a detrimental impact on your own success, confidence and personal growth. English Philosopher John Locke once said: “We are like chameleons, we take our hue and the color of our moral character, from those who are around us.” Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with like-minded, positive, successful and confident people — you’ll be amazed how quickly it can rub off on you. Confidence is a learnt trait.

You just need to find the right teacher.

Mentors, sponsors and role models are a necessity, not a nice to have – and you need all three

When I first started in the technology industry at the age of 20, I had the great fortune of working with some extremely talented and inspirational women who motivated me to progress with my career path. By seeing those women in senior challenging roles, I knew that with hard work and dedication, I could also rise through the ranks and be in a similar position one day. These women inspired me, and continue to inspire me to this day, to push myself to be the best version of myself that I can be.

I have also had a number of great male sponsors and mentors throughout my career who have provided support, encouragement and sometimes that nudge to push me through my fear and going for that next role or promotion. It’s important to be open and surround yourself with a variety of people with diverse experiences and backgrounds. It will make you a more rounded leader.

Today, through my involvement in the Cisco Executive Shadow program, as well as other initiatives such as the employee-led Cisco Connected Women and the Cisco Empowered Women’s Network, I have the opportunity and ability to support the new generation of talented females around me. It’s so important to share knowledge, learnings and experiences with other aspiring female colleagues — after all, that is how we develop and grow.

The technology industry has made some great progress over the last few decades in changing the perception that only men can work, and succeed, in the sector. However, having said that, there is still a long journey ahead to further break down perceptions and encourage more women to consider careers in technology.

Tara Ridley is director of partnership organisation at Cisco Australia and New Zealand (ANZ). The inaugural Cisco Women in IT Awards recognises top female talent in Australia and New Zealand at Cisco Live. The awards are open to Cisco’s partners and customers, and you can nominate now. Entries close 8 February.

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