At a conference, one of the male attendees handed Elinor Swery an empty glass thinking she was a waiter, not a delegate.
In another incident, she got this advice from a senior male colleague who listened to her talk about her research for her doctorate in mechanical engineering.
‘Next time, wear more makeup and put on a skirt and high heels’.
“He did not talk about my research,” says Swery, who is now a technical consultant at IBM New Zealand.
Swery says he was really nice, but was astounded when she did not take the advice kindly. “I was only trying to help,” he said.
She replied, “I don’t see the other guys wearing makeup.”
Swery related these two incidents as one of the speakers at this year’s Women in Technology conference at the University of Auckland.
Elinor Swery is Cognitive Innovation Lead in IBM New Zealand, working on Watson, a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer.
‘They call me Mrs Watson’
“This is the 21st century,” says Swery, who attended the conference last year as a PhD student. “We should shatter stereotypes and encourage girls to do more subjects like physics.”
Swery, for instance, recalls being just one of three girls in her physics class.
In her mechanical engineering class, there were 14 girls and 40 boys. “You do notice, why aren’t there more girls?”
She says she also did not have female lecturers at mechanical engineering. “Do not underestimate the power of having female role models.”
“Have a conversation with younger girls, make sure everyone knows the importance of IT at an early age,” she says.
When she was first exposed to coding, “I was jealous because the boys had already done it in their teenage years.”
In 2012, she started her PhD in mechanical engineering. It was a fantastic course, she says. Swery spent seven months in Europe working for big companies as part of her research.
While she cites some of her negative experiences on working in a male dominated field, being a minority has many advantages. “We should embrace those,” she says. “We stand out, and boy, do you stand out if someone meets you in a conference and you are the only female.”
“You can make great impressions, use that to your advantage. As women we bring that different perspective.”
She says she also had great male mentors. “It is important for us to get the full picture.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
She shares the view of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg who wrote on Lean In that ‘Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.’
“You may have to take a sidestep in your career.”
She cites her case as a mechanical engineer, who is now in information technology. Swery is Cognitive Innovation Lead in IBM New Zealand, working on Watson, a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer.
“They call me Mrs Watson now.”
Just because you are a mechanical engineer does not mean you will not be successful in IT, she says. “It is for the better,” she says of her career move.
The lesson from this: “It is super important to not let anyone define you by labels.”
She recalls the first time she was asked to work on a project that was a new field for her. She asked her brother for information on the topic, watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot on the subject.
“Take the opportunity, push yourself to learn,” she says, when facing a similar situation.
She quotes Sir Richard Branson: “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”
She also calls on industry colleagues to talk to young female students to consider IT.
’’As a young person I did not know what careers you had in IT,” she says. “Open up those opportunities through events like Shadow Tech and show young people what the industry looks like.”
To parents, she says, “Be open-minded, give kids all the opportunities they deserve.”
Liz Coulter of the University of Auckland: ‘For best results, add women’
Liz Coulter, director of ITS at the University of Auckland and lead organiser of the event, says the conference aims to discuss issues faced by women in technology roles, and how they can encourage more people to consider a career in the sector.
Research shows that diversity improves problem solving, productivity, innovation, and ultimately, the bottom line, says Coulter.
According to a report by the National Centre for Women and Information Technology in the US, gender-balanced companies perform better financially, demonstrate superior team dynamics and productivity, produce work teams that stay on schedule and under budget and demonstrate improved employee performance.
A research study finds Fortune 500 companies that had at least three women directors saw return on invested capital increase by at least 66 per cent; return on sales increase by at least 42 per cent while average return on equity increase by at least 53 per cent.
Another research finds teams that have at least one female, outperform all male groups in collective intelligence tests.
As Coulter puts it, “for better results, add women.”
But a lot still needs to be done in the workplace, she says.
Recruitment and retention of women in IT is particularly challenging. While there are generally more females than males graduating from universities, in the IT disciplines females only make up just over 30 per cent of IT graduates.
In New Zealand, latest figures state females comprise 26 per cent of IT teams in universities. In Australia, the figure is 24 per cent, says Coulter.
Maintaining women in the IT industry is also a problem, with more than 56 per cent of women dropping out mid-career. Currently 24.5 per cent of New Zealanders working in IT are women and most of these roles are in non-technical areas.
These statistics are similar to other developed countries, which is a concern raised by the United Nations, says Coulter.
She says several factors will influence girls to go into IT.
These include parents, particularly mothers; having role models and mentors who will encourage them to go into the area; and a classroom environment that is more welcoming to girls. “Middle school is a crucial period for girls to get interested in IT.”
A panel of women business technology leaders talked about “making a difference” in a male-dominated industry.
Lyndal Stewart of Business Mechanix: Get ready for the ‘new normal’
“Obstacles are a state of mind. I face challenges head on,” says Lyndal Stewart, CEO of Business Mechanix.
“I don’t let my gender define my talents,” says Stewart, who is also director of startup Find My Study and a group fitness instructor.
She says having this mix of interests is critical to managing stress.
“I truly operate balance in my life,” she says. “I don’t work weekends, so I can take the time to recharge. I teach fitness classes so I’m IT-free for at least an hour,” she says, smiling.
Stewart started in the finance sector, before moving into technology roles.
She also had stints in sales and marketing and they were good for her career. “I had a mixed background of technology, HR and finance”, which was helpful when she became CEO.
“No matter what age you are, you can learn,” she says. Stewart also mentors, and says she learns a lot too from her mentees.
Her take on the gender diversity issue is this: “We need to stop hiding behind badges and work in the new normal – mixed gender, mixed ethnicities.”
“The best thing I ever did was believe in myself,” she states. “It does not matter what critics say, just keep believing.
“Surround yourself with people you admire. Do not waste your time with people who bring you down, be with people who bring you up.”
Catherine Fletcher, ASB: Making a difference is a personal choice
Catherine Fletcher now holds a business related role, but the majority of her career has been centred in or around technology.
Fletcher is now general manager of wealth and insurance operations at ASB Bank. She left school at the end of year 12 and started working in the male dominated share broking industry.
She also started her own company, OutSource IT Limited, and one of the things she focused on was customer service.
“We put experienced people in customer sites and took care of their technology like it was our technology.
“I made a career as a translator,” says Fletcher. ‘’The skills I have are [around creating] an understanding of the business for technical people and helping the business understand technology.
“Business and technology are inextricably interwoven, it is not one or the other,” she says. “It is not them and us – we have to work collaboratively and together.”
Making a difference is a personal choice, she says, quoting the British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall.
We always think about the “people impact”, she says. “Customers walk into your door physically or through the virtual door. Do not lose focus on the people aspect,” in things you do, she advises.
She says among the insights that worked for her is, “just put yourself out there, take every opportunity that comes to you”.
Helen Ward of PwC: Inspiring future technologists
“It’s a great time to get involved in technology,” says Helen Ward, consulting partner at PwC in Auckland.
The past five years have seen an exponential change in the industry, she states.
There are new and exciting fields to explore that include human centred design (“a great field to combine creativity and technology”), robotics and big data. There are also new roles like that of data scientists.
She is also excited about the increasing use of technology to improve people’s lives. “We are combining technology with biology and human sciences to design technology that works well with the human body.”
She points out participation of women in science, engineering and technology has increased significantly since the 1980s and continues to grow strongly.
Yet, she echoes the challenges discussed by Liz Coulter and Elinor Swery that there is plenty of room for change.
These include changing employer attitudes to career breaks and providing significantly flexible work options for women. There should also be initiatives to purposely reduce unconscious bias, she says.
“We are still judged by how we look and dress and sadly it is not just our male colleagues that do this.
“As more women take on leadership roles in technology, there is an opportunity to change things,” she states. “We need to lead the change.”
Milena Velez of Blacksmith: Collaboration imperatives
Milena Velez, culture and development consultant at Blacksmith, talks about collaboration as a key skill in the current workplace.
“Collaboration is a co-creative human endeavour that requires facilitation, not control,” says Velez, who started her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Thailand. She now runs leadership workshops for Blacksmith.
Find and ask questions that will find new ways of thinking.Milena Velez, Blacksmith
She shares the four ‘core muscles’ for leading and working collaboratively:
Pausing: Creating space and slowing down enough to maintain a consistent space.
Asking generative questions: Finding and asking questions that will find new ways of thinking.
Navigating power: Recognising and navigating group dynamics and their causes.
Listening actively: Listening for understanding.