Tabcorp CIO Mandy Ross recognises it’s tough being a female leader in IT. But she’s managed to carve a place for herself amongst the ‘boys’ club’ in corporate life by developing her own ‘unique’ leadership style.
“It definitely presents its challenges at times. My style and approach is different and I bring female traits to the table when it comes to things like negotiation or partnering with the clients, where I do like to take quite an open and collaborative and engaging approach,” Ross told CIO Australia.
“What I find is it sometimes takes time for partners to adjust to my style and approach, which I believe is very effective and my career says it’s been very effective.”
Ross’ comments come as Tabcorp was named an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality by the Federal Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).
WGEA assesses companies based on criteria such as pay, learning and development, flexible working arrangements, as well as the leadership, accountability and focus they show in striving towards gender balance.
With a diversity program that was hatched in 2012, Ross said Tabcorp is on track to reach a target of 40 per cent women in senior leadership roles (it currently sits at 39 per cent); and has a strong commitment to equal pay with a gender pay gap for like-for-like roles of 1.2 per cent (compared to an average of approximately 23.1 per cent for other major Australian companies).
Other diversity initiatives at Tabcorp include new parental leave entitlements, including payment of superannuation on all paid parental leave and an increase to paid leave for secondary caregivers from one to six weeks.
It has also partnered with Racing Victoria to launch a joint Women’s Mentoring Program in an effort to encourage and support women to have a career in racing.
“We’re certainly the only employer in the gambling industry to have received this award [employer choice for gender equality] for the last three years. It is really unusual for a company such as ours to be taking a stand and to be very publicly acknowledging our commitment to this important issue.”
Breaking the mould
Asked her career challenges, Ross said it was initially tough being a young female CIO ten years ago – not your typical “stock standard CIO,” but where she was ‘breaking the mould’ and ticking some of the diversity boxes.
“I’m not sure what presented more of a challenge at the time, but things like being taken seriously are important. It’s not an issue now because there are more of us, but being a different type of voice, and having a different approach, different perspective and a different way of viewing the world, that’s presented challenges.”
Speaking more broadly, Ross recognised women continue to face a number of challenges, from simply “being heard” to being recognised for their valid opinions and contributions.
“Without a doubt, there are still organisations that are ‘boy’s clubs’ and there are times when I will talk to female leaders who share with me their experiences and the challenges that they’re facing in those organisations that are less progressive than Tabcorp or the organisations that I’ve worked for in the past.”
Many of the same types of people – typically older men – are filling the CIO roles, she said, explaining many of the senior IT women don’t fit that stereotype or norm and are isolated.
“They can be sidelined and feel quite isolated, so there are real and active problems in the industry in organisations that haven’t got their act together, who aren’t committed by way of policies and real action to making a real difference.”
And while it’s important to talk about the leadership piece – and how there’s a lack of women in senior roles – there’s another unique and pressing challenge facing Australia – and it goes back to the grassroots level.
“We don’t have enough young girls pursuing STEM opportunities as a career path and I think there is some grassroots activity that’s really critical to actually making sure there are enough women in the pipeline. That’s a problem we have: There are a lot of companies that would like to really address gender diversity within their IT teams, but there’s a sheer lack of volume and talented women out there.”
But the good news is there’s now awareness – it’s particularly topical in the last two to three years.
“I’m having more conversations with men and women in the industry about this. I think there’s an awareness now of the differences in style and the validity of seeing women in IT leadership positions, and the diversity in thought and approach that we can bring to the table.”
Getting down to business
Certainly, there’s lots facing Ross as she continues to tackle opportunities and challenges as CIO of the recently merged company of Tabcorp and Tatts Group.
Notably, she’s got several hot items on her priority list – a big one is to reform the technology leadership team.
“I’m looking to set a really strong direction to build a very strong empowered leadership team. My strengths are around transformation and we’re operating in a very disruptive industry where digital is playing an ever-increasing role and there’s opportunities to leverage other more emerging technologies. So my goal is to create a very nimble and responsive team.”
Under the plan, she’s looking to bring in contemporary practices around more agile and lean ways of working.
Additionally, one of her “big burning priorities” over the next 12 months is combining and integrating the businesses of Tabcorp and Tatts Group.
“Both businesses are highly reliant on technology and so it is absolutely a critical path that we get the technology integration right so we can support a successful combination.”
On the innovation front, Ross said the company will continue to improve the digital experience in the lottery business (where it made large investments last year and will continue this year), as well as beefing up the digital experience in the wagering space.
“We are also looking at transforming our retail approach and presence. We’re looking at what retail of the future looks like.”
Advice to others
In addition to her latest tech projects, Ross also wants to act as a mentor to other women looking to get into senior IT roles – and dished out some advice.
“Without a doubt, be really discerning and do your research. Talk to other colleagues, both male and female, about the types of cultures that organisations have, and understand the leadership style of any potential managers for roles that women might be applying for.
“It is so important that women really take those things seriously and align their careers with the types of organisations, types of leaders, and types of cultures that they want to work in, and where ultimately they can be successful in.”
The second piece of advice is to surround yourself with trusted advisors.
“No matter where you are in your career, make sure you do have trusted people who have other experiences, or have experience in climbing the corporate ladder – and make sure they are confidantes and you’re able to get advice on how to navigate these often difficult and challenging political situations.”