Towards equality: Championing women in Australian tech

FOREWORD BY ZACH KITSCHKE, HEAD OF PEOPLE AT CANVA

As a global tech company, Canva serves a community that comes from every walk of life. Building a great product for every single person necessitates truly empathising with everyone who uses our products.

The research is clear: a more representative team leads to better product design, decision making, problem solving, creativity, and ultimately—success for our end users.

One of our core values at Canva, “Be a force for good”, means we are actively working towards a world that isn’t just good for a small few, but one that’s good for everyone. We believe deeply that bringing together diversity of thoughts, perspectives, and expression is key for building the best product for our equally diverse community. To achieve this, we need to be proactive with our inclusion efforts.

The gender imbalance in the technology industry in Australia is often covered by local media. Despite many reported efforts from various organisations designed to improve parity in this sector, there’s still a long way to go, particularly for technical roles.

The need to cultivate a more welcoming and supportive work environment has been a big focus for us at Canva, and whilst we’ve been making huge strides in the past 18 months—there’s still a lot more we can do.

A few months ago, a group of us at Canva started discussing what more we could do to better share and learn from other tech companies trying to also work towards a vision of a diverse and inclusive technology ecosystem.

This report is an extension of these conversations. The more we started talking to each other, the more we realised the benefit in sharing what is working well within each of our companies, to learn from each other’s successes and figure out what more we can do as an industry.

We’re really excited to share with you our very first Women in Tech report, featuring a range of voices from companies and organisations such as Atlassian, Campaign Monitor, Code Like a Girl, Envato, and Canva. Our vision is to build upon these insights each year.

In the pages that follow, you’ll hear some of the positive progress we’ve been making as an industry, and hear how we are supporting women in our industry through every step of their career, starting from:

  • Removing unconscious bias through the recruitment process;
  • Introducing new management styles that promote supportive and flexible work environments, without sacrificing output;
  • Encouraging more women to consider coding as a career; and  
  • Amplifying positive role models who are playing key roles in changing the narrative

A special thanks to Amy Taylor-Kabbaz, Aubrey Blanche, Vanessa Doake, Jade Kolber, Karen Clark, Brooke Cushing, Dan Draper, Diana Mesanovic, Liz McKenzie, Scott Crowe, Hannah Hefferman, Shipra Mahindra, Ridhi Shad and Linda Lin, for pitching in their time to see this report into reality.

If you’d be interested in contributing for future reports, please let us know.

Inside the boy’s world of tech: Changing age-old perspectives

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Traditionally, the technology industry has been considered a bit of a boys’ club. Images of ping pong tables, Xbox consoles, and male software developers in hoodies dominating the workspace were the norm. There may have been the occasional woman, but they were usually found manning the reception desk. The industry has been slow to address this imbalance—both perceived and real—but in a younger, more nimble technology sector of Australia, things are looking different. Not perfect—far from it. But changing? Yes.

Currently in Australia, just 14 per cent of executive roles in the technology sector are held by women. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women make up 46.2 per cent of all employees, but in technology roles the percentage of women drops to between 28-31 per cent. It’s important to point out that it’s even worse in the United States, where just 25 percent of tech roles in the technology sector are held by women.

As an industry characterised by a strong male stereotype, the technology sector in Australia has a significant opportunity to lead the change in the way women are trained, attracted, and retained within the workforce. Given the rate of innovation and change that is also synonymous within the industry, it is in an excellent position to move faster than other more traditional industries. And within Australia, there’s a willingness to admit that we have a long way to go—something that is not so apparent in the US market.

Up till now, coding, IT, engineering and technology have been perceived as a man’s world. And this perception has been a big challenge to change. As Diana Mesanovic, Diversity and Inclusion lead for Talent Acquisition at online design and publishing platform Canva, states:

“At the beginning of this journey, I honestly didn’t think that solving this problem would be that difficult. In reality, I couldn’t have been more wrong."

"Solving a representation problem requires time, dedicated effort and improvements to many processes by a team of internal stakeholders.”

Within the younger technology businesses in Australia, there has been a unique opportunity to change the way women are trained, recruited, and retained—right from the beginning. Whereas large multinational companies have years of policies and legacy systems to shake up in order to change the status quo, the smaller, startup tech companies featured in this report have the significant advantage of being able to build their organisations with this opportunity front of mind.

Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the collaboration software company Atlassian, says it’s very exciting to see what’s happening in the country  in terms of gender diversity and support.

“I think one of the most exciting things about the Australian tech scene, and diversity in particular, is that the industry here is such a young industry. I mean that not in terms of the individuals that make it up, but it’s so nascent. It’s really just beginning to get momentum.

We’re already starting to think about diversity, gender equality and culture, and have conversations that took many more decades for places like Silicon Valley to have.

“We’ve seen how difficult it is to move the needle once these industries have become truly established. So, that makes me very optimistic, and I think, in a lot of ways, that Australia will be able to be a leader if we make the right investments. As I like to say, it’s much easier to turn a sailboat than the Titanic. If you think about, from my perspective, using a gender perspective—it’s much easier to come in and be the only woman on a team of four than the only woman on a team of 50.”

It is these more adaptable and collaborative tech companies that are leading the way with diversity and cultural change, and showing the way forward for a more inclusive and thriving industry.

Challenging the stereotype: Coding is for women too

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It doesn’t take long for the conversation about women in tech to very quickly turn to the issue of stereotypes, and the struggle to attract girls into the industry in the first place. The issue at the top end of the funnel is just as pressing, but to make lasting change, equality needs to be addressed from the roots. With coding, engineering, and gaming still seen, in the main, as a ‘guy’s job’, girls have been reluctant to choose these areas of study  at both school and university, despite recent reports showing that in actual fact, girls out-perform their male counterparts in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) subjects in Australia. When it comes to numbers within each class, the boys win. Follow that statistic through to university, and it gets worse.

“There are still only one in ten enrollments into IT-based degrees that are women,” says Vanessa Doake, co-founder of ‘Code Like a Girl’, which runs low-cost workshops, events and classes for girls to make coding more approachable for young women. “Women still only make up just over 20% of the IT workforce, and women are dropping out of technical roles at a much faster rate than men.”

This issue of encouraging younger women to view a future career in IT has seen a number of companies work with organizations like Code Like a Girl, Women Who Code, and Women in Tech, amongst others, and ensuring they work closely with these groups at the coalface of the next generation of coders and developers.

“You see so many top-tier technology companies in Australia making huge efforts to attempt to change this, but it’s still very much a work in progress,” says Jade Kolber, Email Marketing Manager at Envato, developers of digital marketplaces that sell creative assets for designers. “It’s going to take a long time to shift this. We understand the issue of women in tech, and even more broadly, diversity in tech is going to take years to fix.

"We know it comes down to education: starting young, getting into schools, and changing that perception of what a developer or a computer scientist looks like.”

“We try to be really active in supporting our coding community,” says Linda Lin, People Team at Canva. “We work with a number of different community partners, such as Code Like a Girl, Learn to Code and Women Who Code and many others to run events, conferences, workshops and hackathons that are focused around encouraging women in pursuing opportunities in STEM.”

Vanessa Doake from Code Like a Girl agrees there are some positive signs with the younger generation. “Definitely with the younger group of girls, it’s very positive. They’re really excited, they’re very engaged with the digital aspects of the workshops. I can definitely see that the younger that we try and engage, and present technology in these areas as not just a boys’ thing, the better the result.

“As we get older, however, we’ve noticed that it tends to be slightly harder. For our older age groups, the 12-15-year-olds, the ideas that they have about science, about working in technology, about coding, are more set. We’ve found it difficult to try and challenge, or break down, these attitudes—a little bit harder than the younger group. We’ve had the greatest success when we’ve been able to show the very creative aspects of technology. So creative coding seems to speak to them.”

It’s also important to look beyond the types of roles they will eventually have, but also look into any negative stereotype young girls may have about the subjects they need to study. Doake points out that there is a belief that to pursue a career in STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), you need an innate level of super-high intelligence that can’t adapt or be shifted. It may also be the learning environment: a study, released just this month, has also highlighted that girls in same-sex schools are more likely to select STEM subjects thanin a co-ed schools, highlighting perhaps another future area of focus to encourage girls to choose, and stick to, maths and science subjects.

The fact is, without these grass-root initiatives to address how girls think about the industry and the subjects needed, there will always be a struggle to attract women into the industry.

Insight: Vanessa Doake, CEO and Co-Founder, Code Like a Girl

“It’s always a challenge if everything is a bit of a fight. It starts at school: you’re one of only very few girls studying this. You’re going against the grain, you’re constantly challenged with ideas of, ‘Am I supposed to be doing this? I can’t see anyone else like me doing this. It doesn’t feel quite right, but I really enjoy it, and I like it, and I’m passionate about it, so I’ll keep persevering with it.’ Then you might go to University, and you’re one girl out of ten in your degree. ‘This doesn’t seem quite right either. All the boys relate to each other, they’ve got a lot in common. I don’t, I stand out. A lot of the girls around me, they’re dropping off, they’re doing other things. I guess I’ll keep at it.’

“Then you’ll get into your first job, and you might be the only girl on a development team. You might be the only girl in your entire office. You start to struggle. Boys are creating cliques, they go out for beers, you don’t often get invited because you’re not one of the boys. Your supervisor can be a bit awkward with you because he’s never had to manage a woman before. So, you’re not really getting the support, and you don’t feel like people really understand you.

“I guess it’s that kind of repeated experience that builds up over time. You get a bit tired of the fight.  You start to think that maybe it would be great to work in something that doesn’t feel like so much of a fight all the time. You want to work somewhere where you feel included, where there are other people like you, where you can see opportunities for career progress and leadership. Where you don’t feel minimised or shut down.

“I think in the media, with women in technical roles, we always hear the really extreme examples of harassment, and things like that. But it doesn’t always have to be those extreme examples. There are a lot of women that have worked in technology who haven’t experienced those very, very negative situations. But it’s more often those small things that really stack up over time, and just chip away at you. It’s get tiring. I think that factors into the reason why perhaps more women leave the industry than men, and we need to look at that, too.”

Making the sell: Advertising and hiring women

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For many years, it was believed that the solution to diversity was to just get more women into the roles. Advertise the jobs, and wait for them to come in. Thankfully, that thinking has shifted, and the unconscious bias and deeper understanding of how men and women approach recruitment is now changing the way roles are advertised and applications are handled.

Equality does not mean we approach everything and everyone as equal.

There has been significant research undertaken into how men and women approach job ads, interviews, and salary negotiation differently, and to address the inequalities of hire rates, it must be acknowledged that all job ads are not created equal. This is something that tech companies are widely accepting.

“Back in my earlier recruiting days ten years ago, and even three or four years ago, the applicants that we were getting in were predominantly male,” says Karen Clark, Head of Employee Experience at internet marketing service, Campaign Monitor. “I think back then, that had a lot to do with the fact that not many female grads were actually coming out of University. We’re seeing that shift now, but we’re also seeing women come into technology roles from other industries now too.”

One of the big shifts in recent years amongst these fast-moving tech companies is the way in which they appeal to women.

“We’ve become a lot more aware of how we’re writing our ads,” continues Clark from Campaign Monitor. “There’s significant research about how to write an ad so that it’s inclusive. The language that you use, especially in our industry in the past, was often inadvertently insinuating that it might be a boys’ club playing ping pong in the corner, and if you’re not into that then you’re not going to fit in. So, we’ve been really conscious about making those changes. Yes, they’re perks, but that’s not necessarily everyone’s perks.”

Linda Lin from Canva agrees.

“One thing we did was change our job ads. We wanted to make sure the wording we used was inclusive."

"We used to say, ‘We’ve got a climbing wall, and beer taps.’ We’ve changed that to say, ‘We’ve got flexible working, and great parental leave.’

Oftentimes, tech companies tend to use overly masculine language such as ‘dominate’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘ninja’. Even subtle words that a company uses in its job listings can reveal a lot about its culture, and can affect the type of candidate that applies.

Another example is, for certain roles, as part of the interview process people need to do a challenge, which is like a take-home exercise that gives us the opportunity to see whether or not they have the right skills for the role, but we found this excluded some people,” says Lin. “In engineering interviews, we now give candidates a choice to do a take home exercise, or a phone screen. Not having to do a take home exercise means that we allow a broader range of people to participate in our interview process, especially if the tasks may take several days to complete, and parents or anyone with carer responsibilities may not be able to complete it in time.”

Using job boards tailored towards women and targeting job ads on LinkedIn and other social and online websites is also another key strategy used to ensure opportunities are being seen by a diverse group of women. There’s even tools that can now help recruiters reduce hidden bias or unintended signals in the ads.

“Sometimes there is an unconscious bias that both female and male recruiters are unaware of, so it helps that there are tools out there we can use to ensure we take notice of this,” adds Brooke Cushing, who is the APAC Regional Manager for Customer Success at Campaign Monitor. “I’m hiring for a role at the moment, and we ran the ad through a great tool called Textio (a proven online augmented language and writing tool to improve job ads) and realised it had way too many bullet points. Women often feel if they don’t tick all the bullet points, they won’t apply, because they don’t have all the necessary skills and experience. Men don’t do this—they look, see they have most of the points, and will apply anyway. So you can run your job postings and your recruitment emails through something like Textio to make sure they’re gender-neutral. It makes a huge difference.”

There is also growing evidence about the different standards that can be set, depending on whether the applicant is in a minority group or not.

“Research shows that one of the core challenges is that people from majority groups, whatever the majority group is, tend to be judged on their potential,” says Atlassian’s Aubrey Blanche. “While people from those from minority or marginalised groups are judged on what they’ve already accomplished. What that basically means is that we actually require the folks who are minorities, in a sense, to meet a higher bar of qualification in order to be given an opportunity. So, we know that those things happen on the basis of gender, also on race, and cultural background.”

“What we’ve found is once women and men enter our funnel and our interview process, they actually have a very similar rate of conversion to a hire,” adds Canva’s Linda Lin. “This seems to indicate that both men and women have an equal chance of succeeding  through our hiring process. This is why a lot of our recruitment efforts are focused on actively sourcing for and attracting candidates at the top of funnel. As long as we focus our efforts on getting more women into the process, then the thinking is we’ll end up with more potential hires.”

Beyond beers and table tennis: Shifting the culture and bias

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Beyond leisure activities and wording in recruitment ads, another key area these fast-moving tech companies are looking at is unconscious bias, and how it might be showing up within their organisation.

Unconscious bias is when your background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context have an impact on your decisions and actions without you even realising. The fact is, we all have biases, and some of them we aren’t even aware we carry. To address ‘boy’s club’ culture within the tech industry, these biases need to be brought to light and discussed. With that in mind, a number of these organisations have now rolled out ‘unconscious bias training’ to all staff.

“I’m biased, you’re biased, we’re all biased in different ways."

"Basically, everyone is biased; it’s just the way our brains are wired,” says Canva’s Lin. “So we want to be really proactive about creating awareness around that. Once you accept the fact that you have bias, then you can actively start to work on how do you reduce those in certain situations. For instance, in a meeting scenario, if there are ten men and one woman, how do you, as a man, recognise potential biases during the meeting? Or, how do you help to be an ally for the minority, and allow everyone the opportunity to speak?”

Another key cultural change that comes up time and again in discussion is the acceptance of different styles of leadership and management. Historically, what was considered ‘good leadership’ was very masculine—tough, unemotional, and separated. This is changing. Within these younger and more nimble tech companies, there is a lot more acceptance of a diversity in styles of management and leadership. This is particularly important when looking into what causes ‘glass ceilings’ for promotion: it is believed that to be in an executive position, you need to be outgoing, self-promoting, charming, loud, or even aggressive—a stereotypical white male leadership style.

Jade Kolber, Email Marketing Manager at Envato, explained it like this: “It’s one thing that, as a manager and someone who aspires to be more senior in the tech industry, I grapple with daily,” says Jade. “I’m quite an empathetic person, so I like to manage people on a person-to-person basis. I like to allow people to grow, allow people to make mistakes.

Often, I probably notice myself being too soft, or not forceful enough. Certainly, looking at more senior male managers has forced me to evaluate, at times, my management approach, and whether as a woman and a mother, I can thrive in this kind of industry.”

At some level, the unconscious bias around leadership is still there. But the answer, for someone like Jade and others struggling with this assumption, is not to become more masculine in the way they manage their team.

“I think it has to come from the top,” says Jade, “and I think there have to be programs and training within workplaces that allows not just women—anyone really who is moving into a more senior management role—to know that different management styles are OK.”

After becoming emotional in front of a male colleague recently, Jade says she felt embarrassed, ashamed. “I felt like I’m playing into that female archetype: that I’m weak, that I’m not up to the job because I’m crying and I’m showing too much emotion. My manager didn’t make me feel bad for getting emotional, but it’s the pressure we put on ourselves to be a certain way all of the time that I think has to change. We need to say it’s OK to be you, and you don’t have to be this kind of robot. This stoic, unshakeable person. There’s a very real fear of being perceived as not strong enough to do the job.”

In truth, diversity of leadership and emotion is important in an organisation. Emotion is not gender-specific, and as companies adapt to new leadership and culture, this stereotype of a particular type of leader must adapt too.

“It’s about empowerment,” says Karen Clark, Campaign Monitor. “We want that diversity of thought, we want that diversity of emotion, and we want that diversity in our culture. I’ve seen emotional moments from male leaders as well as female, and it’s nice when you see it on both sides, so you take away that gender bias. It’s just about different management styles, and different ways of coaching people. I think that’s what’s important, finding what’s right for your team and the members that you manage.”

Insight: Melanie Perkins, CEO and Co-Founder, Canva

“If you look at any of the statistics about the number of startups that fail, or the number of women CEOs who have raised venture capital, it’d probably scare anyone away from starting. But for me, if someone says something can’t be done, I consider that a good reason to give it a shot and make it happen. I spend all of my time and mental energy focusing on the things that I can improve, things that I can change, new tactics, new strategy. I spend very little time thinking about other people’s biases and simply try to find people that ‘get’ what we are doing and want to get onboard.

“Building a tech startup is filled with challenges. There are hundreds, if not thousands of rejections. Rejections from investors, rejections from potential team members, rejections from early customers. If I had attributed success or failure to things I couldn’t control such as my gender, culture or ethnicity, I would not be empowered to do something to improve my chances of success. I have always preferred to pour my energy, time and creativity into things that I can change. When I was rejected, I worked on refining my strategy and improving my pitch deck — things that I can influence. Maybe some people rejected me because of my gender, but a whole lot more rejected me because they didn’t like my idea, they wanted data when we had a vision, they wanted a software engineer while I am a product person. Most people rejected us. All I had, and still have, is the ability to find people who support me and want to help see my vision turn into a reality.

“I guess I’ve always held pretty high standards for myself, but I think that drives me forward in many ways. I always want to improve my performance and do better. I think having a high level of self-awareness is very important to business success as you constantly need to adjust and improve.

“We have the best of the best working at Canva, so it should go without saying we have a lot of incredible women at our company across all aspects of our business. Perhaps having a female CEO (me) people who have any biases against women, probably wouldn’t join our company or invest in us in the first place—which helps gives us a nice insulation against archaic, dinosaur views.

“When I look around at the industry, I want women across the globe to have the same opportunities as men—to have a great education, to choose where they work, to have equal pay, to have an opinion and to be able to express it. I feel like I’ve had all of these and would love for all women throughout the world to have the same opportunities.”

Work life balance: Returning to work and parental support

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One of the most appealing aspects of working in the Tech industry is the flexibility of time and location. Back when working from home was a rare reality, the tech industry was leading the way with allowing remote access and shifting schedules. Nowadays, it’s even more common. The ability to work from home, work within school hours, and return to work in a flexible way is common across the board. As are parent’s rooms, breastfeeding support, and kids hanging out at the office during school holidays.

In fact, it could be considered one of the biggest appeals of the tech industry for women.

“I moved into tech for the work-life balance,” says Campaign Monitor’s Karen Clark. “I’d come from the recruiting space, where you work very long, long hours, and I was really looking for something that gave me more flexible hours and the ability to work from home. Even ten years ago, when working from home was so much less accepted, it’s always been a given here, which I think is because obviously we’re at the forefront of the technology that’s coming out. So, working from home was not a costly endeavor for the business, because we had access to the technology already. Whereas maybe for other conservative type industries, the shift would be quite significant.”

Whilst the flexibility is there, one area that was highlighted that still could be addressed was the judgement—perhaps unintentional and unconscious—around a woman leaving her role to have children, and her ability to perform her tasks when she returned. It’s not uncommon for women to feel fearful of what a pregnancy and subsequent leave will mean for her career path—even if that fear is not based on anything tangible.

“I remember finding out I was pregnant and being quite terrified about what it meant for my career."

"Especially as I was pushing for a bit of a step up in my role at the time,” admits Jade Kolber, who recently returned from maternity leave to Envato. “I was worried that they might think that I’m no longer committed.”

The perceived step away from your career for maternity leave can be a struggle for women who have worked hard for many years to get to where they are. Even though Jade points out Envato was completely supportive of her plans, it brings to light an area that is still somewhat of a ‘silent’ struggle for women.

“I’d like to see more support and coaching for women during this difficult transition in their career. We need to be offering support both before maternity leave and when returning to work.”

A ‘Parents Returning to Work’ buddy system is one suggestion.

“I think you’ve got to approach it from two different areas. One is practical: ‘This is what’s going to happen, here’s your desk,’ to make you feel welcome and reintegrated back into the business. It would be great to be reassured that it’s OK that you’re going to skip meetings and not be available for every single meeting straight away.  The other is emotional, which is never discussed: what it’s like to be back at work, and leaving your child.”

“The other area is to have some sort of discussion with a senior manager, a coach, or a mentor, around your career now and your progress. To have someone guiding you through that. It can be a very isolating process, having those thoughts in your head like, ‘OK, I’m back. What are people going to think of me? What does this mean for my career? Would I still be up for any promotions, if a more senior role came up? Is it OK for me to apply if I’m only four days a week? Am I still entitled to apply for more senior roles?’”

Demystifying the process of returning to work would alleviate a lot of the uncertainty, isolation and unsettling emotions of those first few months back a work. Support amongst the women who have also returned to work, if available, would also be hugely beneficial.

“I was still breastfeeding when I returned,” says Jade, “so it was really important that I was able to pump milk at least once a day to send off to childcare. It was so important to have the support of other women to do this. One particular mother in my department was so fantastic at making me feel comfortable and making it OK for me to say, “I can’t go to that meeting because I need to pump milk in that time. It made so much difference, just to have someone who understood.”

Whilst acknowledging the importance of continuing to support women to return to work after maternity leave, it’s important to point out that to make this a truly equal playing field, support for fathers to work part time, adjust their hours and take extended leave to be with their children is paramount for real equality. As long as the main parent considered to be making all the sacrifices is the mother, imbalance will continue. All family-friendly policies should be extended to both parents—without judgement or career impact.

Insight: Ridhi Shad, Engineer, Canva

“Right from the start, I had hoped to be an independent woman like my maternal grandmother—someone who would challenge traditional family values, and go off to see the world. I think it all started when I decided to take myself to school every day by using the public bus system. I would purchase my own bus ticket, behave myself, and arrive on time. Oh I forget to mention one important tidbit to this story—I was just a little six year old girl, living in a small town in India.

Growing up in a conservative place, my parents were always disapproving of my artistic bend  and of my childhood dream of pursuing art. The idea of being able to turn something into a completely new item intrigued me; being able to create a piece of art, literature or clothing fascinated me ; being able to express myself creatively fed my passion to keep exploring new ways of doing things.

So when my family encouraged me to pursue a degree in Engineering, I just went with the flow. For me, coding was a form of creative expression. I would be able to build something out of nothing that had the potential to change the world. Of course, my parents’ motives were very different to mine. Studying Engineering in college would make me more suitable for marriage—where I’m from, having a professional degree equates to being a better marriage prospect. But little did they know my ulterior motive was to get that degree and secure my independence with a real career, not just a job.

I literally jumped for joy when I received a letter of offer from a big technology consulting firm. My parents, on the other hand, were displeased to say the least when I told them I was going to take the job. For them, the tech industry was a man’s world and they feared their daughter would be subject to unwanted advances and harassment.

This was another time in my life where I took matters into my own hands and bought my own ticket to independence—with money saved up from internships. I decided I was going regardless of what was perceived.

Looking back, my parents weren’t far from the truth. I saw how women were treated differently from men in the workplace, and had my share of unfair moments too—like the time my ex-manager passed me up for a promotion because he assumed I would settle down after I got married.

It was in Australia when I first experienced working with a female manager—she set clear expectations, gave constructive feedback, and more importantly, made me feel like I was in a workplace that valued equal opportunity. I recall seeing a male colleague of mine given a lot of support during a time of personal crisis, and when it happened to me, I was offered the same patience and assistance. I was seen as an equal.

We’re lucky to live in a country where equal opportunities in the workplace is a universal goal. Sure, we’re still a far way from reaching parity, but I’ve learned that in the right environment, women can feel safe to be themselves, do their best work and contribute to the company. It doesn’t take much, just one good person in a leadership position to make this change. It begins with micro actions of equal respect, encouragement and inclusion of all which can make the biggest of changes at a workplace.

Today, I’m proud to say I am the woman I want to be and don’t fit in boxes defined by others It wasn’t a smooth path for me, but if I have one piece of advice for anyone thinking about pursuing a career in tech or any avenue you choose –– it’s that you have more power than you think, do what you would love and what makes you happy, it’s only your own happiness you can control. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to follow the career path of your choice, you cannot let people live their dreams through you. Go out and buy your own ticket to independence.”

Up the ladder: Mentorship, opportunity and equal pay

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As the world grapples with the enormous issue of equal pay, it is refreshing to know that the gender pay gap is actually smaller in the tech industry than it is in other industries. Whilst it is not perfect, statistics do show the gap between male and females performing the same role is a lot less than the national average. And whilst it is the attraction and then the retention of women in tech roles that is the biggest challenge, that is not to say that the tech companies interviewed were not actively addressing any pay inequalities. Women who start out in business roles in tech-intensive industries leave for other industries at high rates—53% of women, compared to 31% of men. Research shows that, on a global level, isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective sponsors are factors pushing women to leave. To address retention, the tech industry has really had to look beyond getting women through the doors—but ensure they want to stay, too.

One way is to first look at what women are being paid with regular annual benchmarking of salaries. This involves going through each employee and making sure they are at the right salary level, not only for their role within the organisation, but also in line with current market rates.

Karen Clark from Campaign Monitor explains: “Once a year, we work with all the managers to make sure that everyone is on the correct salary level, and we work with human resources to see what the market is saying about that particular individual’s role. It’s not necessarily just benchmarking internally, but it’s also looking at external market forces.

“And when we’re looking at roles, we don’t look at the individuals’ names. We’re looking at the role, we’re looking at the level the manager’s put them on, and then it’s what salary the market should be paying. It’s not like, ‘Oh, what are females being paid in this space?’”

There’s also an opportunity for coaching in salary negotiation too. Research shows that women are less likely to push for higher salaries and feel less comfortable negotiating, raising the issue of providing better training and support for this part of the process.

“We’ve recently had an example recently of a really fantastic technical female that we offered a role to, and her salary expectations were $20k less than what we believed she was worth,” says Campaign Monitor’s Clark. “It’s pretty rare that would happen with a male. I think we need to be really aware of this—that a lot of these females who are really great have been in the industry for some time, and don’t necessarily move around as much. They don’t have as much experience negotiating. It’s something I think we could really support women with.”

When considering the reality of career progression for women, there’s also the belief around progress, and what it should look like. Traditionally, vertical movement up the ladder was considered the path to leadership. But in the tech space, horizontal movement and ‘jungle jumping’ (a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg in reference to a non-linear career path) is beginning to be celebrated. This is important, because women often come from different fields or move around in different departments.

Shipra Mahindra, a Product Manager at Canva shares, “We often say some of the best leaders are T-shaped with deep expertise in one area and breadth in all other areas. But companies don’t generally give the opportunity to staff to develop breadth skills. This worsens for women due to implicit biases around gender stereotyped roles—women are more suited towards certain areas, and men can do everything. We’re trying to encourage all growth, and celebrate a breadth of skills and not just the obvious vertical ones.”

Aubrey Blanche from Atlassian agrees:

"We have had major successes over the past few years in being more open to folks who have had non-traditional career experiences."

"A lot of companies want to see that you’ve been Product Manager one, and Product Manager two, and Product Manager Team Leader, and have that very linear career path. Which is awesome, and that’s a great path for some people, but it’s not necessarily right for everyone.”

It’s the constant questioning and willingness to look deeper into these issues of bias and inequality that is allowing these companies to move so quickly. A number of these tech companies meet on a quarterly basis to share their diversity challenges, and swap insights into what’s working and what’s not. Even though they are often competing for talent. This openness is refreshing in such a competitive market, and is what’s at the centre of their success.

“It needs to come from the top.” Campaign Monitor’s Karen Clark says. “It’s about being open to discussion and giving something a try. There’s very much an attitude of ‘Let’s run with this’, ‘Let’s try this’, ‘What are we doing on the recruiting side? Why are women leaving us? What’s happening?’ Other industries aren’t necessarily the same. Maybe the demographics are different, the culture is completely different.”

“I actually think it’s critical that we do get more people that are in the majority to care,” agrees Canva’s Linda Lin. “Women in tech, as a minority, we obviously feel passionate about gender equality, but for there to be real, sustainable change, it needs to be driven by those who are a part of the majority. A good example is our Head of Engineering, Joel Hynoski. He is very involved in our Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, which really helps to create that awareness and inspire positive change. As part of the leadership team, he is a great role model and brings a great deal of influence to the cause.”

Insight: Dan Draper, Males Championing Change, VP of Engineering, Expert360

“There’s a global movement called ‘Male Champions of Change’. When the first meeting was called in Sydney, there was a discussion around this idea that calling it Male Champions of Change was almost putting men up on a pedestal, and could maybe be misinterpreted a bit. So, it got changed subtly, but language is very powerful in this. That’s something we look at a lot—the subtle bias and discrimination. I certainly hear lots of stories about casual sexism, and that’s almost more sinister in lots of ways. I think most men have probably realized that they need to change their tune over the years, but it’s the subtle stuff that still lingers. I think we’ve still got a long way to go.

Because of the current state of the tech industry, it’s important to acknowledge that there actually aren’t that many senior women in tech, so finding role models can be challenging. So it’s up to the people who do work in those roles, which is usually a man, to try to mentor others. That means that I think a lot of blokes have to change the way they think about this stuff, become aware of their cognitive biases that they may have. Start to think about how different folks work in different ways, and acknowledge performance when it’s appropriate.

It’s certainly a process that I’ve gone through. Even something so simple as when somebody says to me, ‘The developer’s going to do X,’ historically I might have immediately had in my mind an image of a male developer—not even really consciously aware of that image, it just immediately forms as a male. These days, I actually actively try to think about developers as different folks. I have a lot of female developers in my team, so just trying to retrain my brain a little bit.

As a manager, it can also be something as simple as social events. Lots of organizations have social events, team celebrations, or off-site team events. I probably didn’t realize this years ago, but I’ve come to understand that the kinds of events that might appeal to me don’t necessarily appeal to everyone. As an example, myself and probably some of my other male colleagues probably like to go to a pub, or maybe do go-karting, or table tennis or something like that. Sure, plenty of people enjoy that, but I think inclusion comes from an acknowledgment that not everybody likes all the same things that you do. We put a lot of effort into finding team events that everyone can be a part of.

Of course it can be a tricky balance. On the one hand when you’re structuring teams, you want to have a nice balance of men and women. One of the things we learned as Males Championing Change though, is if you only have one female in a team of all men, oftentimes, that woman can feel like a minority, and left out. Which has prompted me to ensure there are at least a couple of like minded folks like other women together, so they’re not isolated. It really is about constantly questioning your own bias, considering the diversity of your whole team, and being open to discussion and change.”

Towards equality: What’s next for the tech industry?

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It is, without a doubt, going to be a long-term game. Getting more women into diverse roles within tech, and keeping them there, is going to require commitment, dedication and support. As identified in this report, there has been a great many improvements from the ‘boys’ club’ of the early years, especially within Australia. There’s still much to do, and there are still many areas of the industry that are not as open and willing to address change as quickly as needed.

At each of the companies interviewed for this report, diversity, inclusion and active support for training and mentorship were all strong policies. It’s encouraging to hear them speak about working together on this issue. Despite often competing against each other for talent, these companies regularly come together with the sole intention to make tech a more supportive and diverse industry in Australia.

“I think there’s just a real willingness to talk about it, and for this topic to be out there,” agrees Brooke Cushing from Campaign Monitor. “Whether you’re a female working in tech, or whether you’re male, it feels like everybody is willing to have a conversation around it, and discuss where are the barriers and challenges. Where are people doing a really good job? I know from friends who are in dramatically different industries, this is not the case. The conversation is not happening there, and it’s not as transparent. Here, everybody wants to talk about it, wants to do better. It’s really exciting.”

And it’s starting to show. At Canva, the workforce is 42% female, and 38% of their iOS mobile team is now female. At Campaign Monitor, the workforce is 38% female, and 42% of leaders are female. At Envato, the number of women in tech roles has grown from 11% in 2016, to 17% just twelve months later, and they have implemented an in-house developer apprentice program, which takes between 9-12 months and is open to any woman who would like to apply. In the Australian branch of Atlassian, 56% of this year’s ‘Gradlassian’ class (incoming tech grads to the Sydney office) are women—noteworthy given women represent just 13% of technical degrees granted in Australia, and women represented 32% of all hires over the past 12 months, including 36% of leadership hires.

“After a career in recruiting in the tech industry, I believe we’ve made that cultural shift,” Campaign Monitor’s Karen Clark sums up. “I don’t think women at work and in leadership is a big topic for us, because it’s stuff that we’ve been talking about for years and years. It’s just kind of ongoing. But we have, as an industry, highlighted that if we really want to create change long-term, we actually have to start at the ground roots, and encouraging young girls to get into tech.”

“One of the core values at Canva is to ‘Be A Force For Good’—which is specifically focused on making the world a better place through positive actions, inclusion and diversity,” says Canva’s Lin. “It’s a really critical part of what we stand for and acts as a helpful guiding light in the absence of strict rules or processes. It means that we exist to make the world a better place, and to provide opportunities to everyone—not just a privileged few.”

And the fact is—the industry needs it. Not only because of the ongoing talent shortage. As an industry that thrives on disruptive and innovative thinking, diversity is essential.

“We need diverse thinking in our industry so we keep evolving.”

Says Dan Draper, from Expert360 and Males Championing Change. “There’s a great deal of evidence to show that diverse teams actually perform better. Research shows that when you are in a group of people very similar to you, you all have a similar mindset. You all end up agreeing with each other, and coming to the same conclusion. But in diverse teams—teams of different gender, background, race and belief systems—you’re going to have different perspectives, and it’s the process of having to challenge our own beliefs or opinions that gets us to better answers. And as an industry, that’s what we’re here to do: get better answers.”

In the future, better answers must include flexibility and equality for all minority groups too. Supporting women in tech is just one area of justice that is needed to ensure this industry continues to attract leading professionals into the future: LGBTQIA, equal paid paternity leave, flexibility for school hours and school holidays, regardless of gender.

To continue to be leaders in changing the way we work and communicate, each tech company has a responsibility to continue to ask—how can we make this better?