by Bonnie Gardiner

Women communicating with authority crucial for closing IT gender gap

Mar 10, 2016
CareersCollaboration SoftwareIT Leadership

Teaching female workers to communicate with more authority and confidence is crucial for bridging the gender gap in IT, according to women in business mentor Andrea Clarke, who thinks too many women are unconsciously undermining their own authority.

Women in IT face many challenges when it comes to rising to leadership goals, not least of which is the lack of other women mentors they may encounter. In 2013, women only made up 28 per cent of Australia’s IT workforce, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) – a shortage that is hurting both the sector and our national GDP.

Further, recent ABS Gender Indicators data showed men continue to hold the majority of Australia’s top leadership positions. In 2013-14, just 26 per cent of key management personnel were women, along with only 24 per cent of board directors and 17 per cent of CEOs.

More concerning, a recent study by Australian diversity and productivity researcher Conrad Liveris found that the number of men leading ASX 200 companies with the name Peter currently outweighs the total number of women (6.5 per cent versus 5.75 per cent).

While removing bias and creating more workplace flexibility will play a crucial role in helping women move up in their careers, Clarke insists – much like Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg – that women need to develop the confidence to truly ‘lean in’ to be seen as an authority figure.

The confidence gap

An eight-year study by Dr Wiebke Bleidorn from the University of California found that across the globe men have higher self-esteem than women, with the magnitude of that gap surprisingly growing in more developed nations. As such, there was a particular lack of confidence from women in Australia and the US when compared with their male counterparts.

Bridging the gender gap in sectors like IT, with fleeting female recruits, would therefore require us to address this gender confidence gap, as this could see more women moving up the ladder and provide more, much needed role models for younger women and girls.

This gap is exactly what Clarke aims to resolve with a course she founded called ‘Be the CEO of Your Career’. In eight sessions, Clarke has set out what she describes as “a blueprint in building confidence” by helping women to determine career goals and teach them how to act, speak and present themselves with confidence in their own authority and expertise.

With a background working in TV news reporting, communications and humanitarian aid, Clarke said that a running theme throughout her career was that “despite working with and around incredibly clever and capable women, no one really understood what it meant to ‘lean in’”.

“I could see women hesitating – and I was even doing it myself – whether that be around a Boardroom table, in a meeting, or with people I found intimidating. And what I found was when the opportunity was live I would hesitate to speak up, even when I had something extremely valuable to say,” says Clarke.

“I thought to myself, I have had 15 years as a broadcast TV reporter, so if I’m struggling to speak up and I’m handballing it, then what’s everyone else doing? Turns out, they’re all doing the same thing, so I was really compelled to train women to communicate with authority.”

Clarke has since mentored many women both in person and via online tools, including a number of senior level female workers in corporations like Cisco, QBE and LendLease, many of which claim to have had a very positive experience, and have been able to implement their key learnings on a daily basis.

“The feedback is that this is a very confronting course, but confronting in all the right ways. Plus, I wanted to address the other pieces that were problematic for women, like managing difficult conversations, mastering office politics and even dressing with authority.

“These have been repeat themes and concerns shared with me since I started the program,” said Clarke.

Taking the plunge

Three key things holding women back, according to Clarke and feedback from her mentees, are not enough time put into building one’s personal brand, not exercising one’s ability to present or speak in a confronting context, and not enough women backing themselves up by believing in their own authority and expertise.

“All of this is about awareness. Until we set aside time to make ourselves aware of how we unconsciously undermine our own authority and break those habits, we won’t have that ability to communicate with the sincere level that we need to.

“We all need more opportunities for growth. And that means truly getting out of your comfort zone and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. I don’t know how else we can move forward unless we break through that barrier.”

Clarke’s message has also been echoed by President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, who has said “leaning in, stepping up and putting your hand out is absolutely vital for women”.

During her presentation at a ‘Women at VCE’ event in Sydney last year, Triggs said it was “extraordinary” that since 2006, Australia has fallen from 15th position to the 24th on the Global Gender Gap Index – despite the fact that Australia produces the highest number of educated women in any other country.

“Women have got to take the risk, put themselves forward and ask for the challenge. There’s no point being victims, there’s no point complaining – though a little complaining does help sometimes.”

Structured leadership development within organisations to enable and encourage women to “step up and to be recognised” – as well as men, whether bosses of colleagues, also encouraging women to speak up – is a positive way forward.

“I’m constantly asking men about their confidence level and, generally speaking, they seem hard wired to be more confident than we are, and then our social conditioning just reinforces that, and that’s why it’s up to us to close that confidence gap, the onus is on us,” says Clarke.

Developing a silver tongue

Excellent communication skills for IT workers has never been a huge issue until more recently, due to technology increasingly having a major impact on businesses. Despite this, the understanding of executive teams and Board members around how IT can contribute to their organisation’s future remains stubbornly low. It has fallen to the CIO’s lot to address this with simple and direct communication.

CIOs are also now expected to play a larger strategic role in organisations by effectively communicating with business leaders, producing regular presentations and pitches, while the latest State of the CIO report found business leaders increasingly expect the CIO to lead corporate-wide innovation projects.

Further, PwC’s fifth annual Digital IQ study found companies with collaborative relationships between the CIO and other c-suite executives are four times as likely to achieve business results such as revenue growth and high profit margins, as well as earning a higher ‘digital IQ’ overall.

But as Clarke says, people are always willing to sit back and discuss how to improve a business, but not enough people – women especially – take the time to improve their own personal brand. If women are expected to develop these skills as well as men, the issue lies not in ability, but in confidence.

“The most common issue from women in IT that I’ve trained is they have included copious amounts of technical detail, jargon, and internal acronyms that not everyone understands, so we’ve got to be very mindful about keeping our language simple,” says Clarke.

“It’s all about the audience, and it’s only about the audience. What are their priorities, how can we solve their problems using simple and powerful language?”

Things like tone of voice and body language should also become key considerations for women when aiming to speak with confidence, whether that be to your boss, your team, or the Board.

“Be aware of simple things like tilting your head, not making eye contact, twirling your leg around the other leg – these three things send a signal to the receiver that you are in doubt about what you’re saying. But you are the expert in your field, and I seriously doubt you are anything but capable, so don’t let yourself down with some piece of body language that undermines your authority.”

Practice makes perfect

The fear of presenting in a challenging or confronting context can be resolved with simple practice, according to Clarke.

“For some reason we all merrily skip along with an assumption that we should be able to speak publicly without fear. I’ve no idea where this standard narrative comes from, but we simply can’t, I’ve been a broadcast professional my entire life and I only feel like I’m getting the hang of it now.

“We need to follow a framework and practice it. You have to do it every day. I’m not going to run a half marathon unless I train for it,” she says.

Clarke says excelling in IT can only occur with the right interpersonal skills, especially now when IT plays such an important role to business, and the sector is crying out for more female role models.

“Interpersonal skills are how I feel we truly excel,” she says. “There’s no point having an incredible amount of hard knowledge if you can’t deliver it effectively.”