Aussie women in IT want more flexible workplace

Top-level management must endorse flexibility and facilitate unique work-life balances to attract women to IT, according to female IT managers.

Speaking at a Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications (FITT) event in Sydney this week, senior IT professionals at Optus and IT services firm ASI urged more than 70 female counterparts to pursue flexibility in the workplace.

ASI director Maree Lowe said businesses can attract and retain IT staff by endorsing flexible working conditions and facilitating a variety of work-life balances.

“Work-life balances are relative to ages and lifestyles [and] are key to retaining staff. Workers will be motivated if they have flexibility and are involved in decision-making and are free to comment on operations,” Lowe said.

“Women don’t promote themselves enough or bother asking for things so they often fall short.”

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She said business can retain IT professionals, women in particular, if teleworking, flexible working hours, and job sharing are facilitated in organizations wherever possible. Lowe has been a director of IT companies for more than 22 years and has served on the NSW government State and Regional Development board for small business development.

ASI grew from two to 185 employees under her directorship and regularly holds cultural days for all staff across its seven sites.

Optus senior manager Narelle Clark said inflexible workplaces lose staff when career expectations encroach on external responsibilities such as family commitments. “Tele-working is difficult to manage but its success comes down to staff results; inflexibility should not be tolerated,” Clark said.

“But the work-life balance [as an independent notion] is actually a little absurd because the workplace is about balance, choice, priority and aspirations.”

“Businesses should have flexible working hours, work-from-home, and offer allowances like maternity leave, phased retirement, workforce re-entry schemes and [allocations] for child care.”

Clarke, who has more than 20 years of IT experience, is in charge of Optus research and development, is a director of the Australian chapter for the Internet Society and has previous involvement with the FITT steering committee, and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Red Rock Consulting associate director of support Dianne Phelan told Computerworld flexibility is the most important cultural value of the workplace.

“Management has to flexible so part-time staff can work earlier or later, or work from home if it is feasible, otherwise business just loses staff,” Phelan said.

“There has been a mind-shift in the last few years, more so in the big IT companies, towards flexibility.”

“Surprisingly, its often the small companies that are the [least flexible], especially when the founders have come from bigger companies with no culture and it filters through.”

Phelan supports predominantly Oracle customers, working in change management and database administration. Her company offers flexible hours and has concessions for tele-working, and has had a notable increased in female employees over the last five to six years.

She said the stereotypical image that IT entails “long hard hours of mathematics” has contributed to the industry strain to recruit people into IT.

Belinda Leatham, a consultant at Tauri Consulting, said people are discouraged from unnecessary fixed work conditions because it can interfere with external interests like study and family.

“[Flexibility] means it doesn’t matter if you work from afternoon to midnight or spread out across 10 days – as long as you get the job done and make your targets,” Leatham said.

“People have better Internet connections and everyone uses e-mails, so work-from-home is more feasible now, but face-to-face meetings have to happen if they important to the business.”

Leatham admits that pushing for flexibility is not easy in organizations that have an impersonal culture. She said flexibility must fit into business operations before it should be lobbied in management.

“If it works in the business, you should only ask once; but have a business case and start a trial with staff who will work-from-home and not taint the idea because they stop producing results,” she said.

“Go to top management if you have to; remind them that staff have two options, stay on the job and put up with it, or leave and either way is bad for business.”

A female IT manager, who requested anonymity, refuted the claims that “women demand flexibility” and said the need for good work culture depends on the individual rather than gender.

“It depends entirely on the person and their personal life; it has nothing to do with whether they are a woman or a man,” she said.

“Just like most things, women’s advocacy groups push an agenda, which happens to be complete BS.”

Another project manager, who requested anonymity, questioned the link between women and the need for better work-life balances.

“The same groups that carry on that women are smart enough to take on any male-dominated job are pushing for the ‘male work culture’ to change. Isn’t this hypocritical? If things have to [change] then they need to independently of [gender],” she said.

The Australian Women in IT and Science Entity (AWISE) co-founder and president Sonja Bernhardt said there are many women-in-IT groups because of industry fragmentation.

“AWISE is an umbrella organization. The industry has been fragmented for many years, and as a result there are many women and girl-in-IT groups,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt said AWISE, an organization focused on collaboration in the IT, biotechnology and nanotechnology industries, has become an interest group for women only by circumstance, but will participate now increase its focus on the IT industry.

“It’s about moving away from the gender issue and making it more of an economic issue. The lack of women and girls in IT – yes, that’s gender related – but the reason we should be listening to that is because it’s an economic and participation in society issue, and we have a skills shortage in the industry,” she said.

— With Andrew Hendry.