FITT for management?

25 June 2009, 01:37

Tonight I went to the inaugural Females in IT & Telecommunications event in Melbourne. Now FITT is a non-profit crowd and this event was organised by volunteers, and I recognise that you can never please everyone, but nonetheless… I have some feedback.

Now Telstra was hosting and sponsoring this event, so fair enough, there was some Telstra involvement. The host, Michael Lawrey, was a chap from Telstra. (An undoubtedly impressive chap, but was it really so difficult to find a single woman in Telstra who might be able to talk about women in IT/telcos? And if so… what does that say?) So, no worries. A chap from Telstra talking for 20 or 30 minutes as an intro to a panel. And no one from FITT was even introduced.

Then the panelists were… “past Telstra Business Women Award winners”. Let’s check the panelists have all the relevant fields covered:

  • Fashion/retail: check.
  • Education/economics: check.
  • Publishing/bridal: check.

IT or telecommunications? Oh, well, you know, they’re all big users and fans of technology… In a sense we’re all women in IT these days, aren’t we?

I held out hope it might be redeemed by the panel interaction. No such luck. It was the strangest panel I’ve ever seen: the host fed canned questions to the panelists, most with no bearing on technology (and the few times they had to talk about the impact of technology, they struggled to say anything insightful), such as, “How do you measure success?”

“What have some of your milestones been?”

“What would your advice to others be?”

“How’s your work/life balance?” (I’m not sure if that was really a question… it might have been. In any case, I didn’t realise until now that work/life balance was like code for How do you assuage your motherly and wifely guilt for daring to leave the house? — Or perhaps I had this under repression.)

The most baffling thing was that the host asking the panel questions accounted for about 90% of the panel time. What kind of bizarro panel is that? I was very tempted to break out some spontaneous audience participation, but I didn’t feel certain that the rest of the audience wasn’t actually loving it. Then there were 3 quick questions from the audience at the end. And all this took over an hour, I’d say.

So basically the whole thing was uber-business geared and there was next to no IT/telecommunications specific content. Oh wait, I lie: after the panel, there was a Telstra promo video about their cable to Hawaii… no particular relevance to women, though.

During the post-panel “networking drinks and canapes” I took it upon myself to speak to Lawrey. I gathered a drink and stood in the vicinity of a conversation he was having with another chap from Telstra. (There were about 5 men of maybe 50 people there, and I guess they were all from Telstra. Good that he was taking this opportunity to talk to all these women present…)

First I asked him if there hadn’t been any Award winners who had worked in IT. He couldn’t think of any. I tried to make the point that there was little IT-specific content in the panel. We also talked a bit about “how to get more women into the industry”, which he talked about in the introduction. He had mentioned the need to market the industry better, e.g. by going into schools and talking to grade 10s. I said I thought they should be engaging primary school kids, which he laughed at in surprise. A 15 or 16 year old girl who has it fixed in her head that she could not be “techy”, is not likely to have her mind changed by a Telstra suit doing a fly-by promo.

He also mentioned maternity leave…. but again, this is something that applies across the board. It is not something specific to the IT industry that keeps women away. In his intro he talked a lot about women’s participation in the workforce more generally. My interest is: what is it about IT that makes it in particular unattractive to women? To the extent that participation has decreased since the ’80s? I tried to engage him on this but I don’t know how successful I was.

While the panel was going on, on a board at the front was a big list of FITT’s objectives:

  • Encourage more women into the ICT industry
  • Inspire women in the industry to achieve their personal aspirations and potential.
  • Assist women to broaden their understanding of the ICT industry.
  • Facilitate networking opportunities.

I was thinking about which of these the panel was fulfilling. It must be the second. And it just seemed to say, “Management straight ahead for you!” And I wanted to ask, what else might success in a technical field look like? Is your career stalling unless you are making slow march towards management? I would like to think not, because let’s face it, if you’re aiming to end up in management, there would be far more direct routes to take than via an IT career. Just go do freaking HR or something. Geez.

FITT has certainly done some interesting stuff in its twenty years of being. (Twenty!) But comparing this with past events with groups like LinuxChix or Girl Geek Dinners, FITT will need to lift its game.

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  1. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

    I wonder if part of the problem lies in the lack of comprehensive career support for IT workers.

    If you become an accountant, or a doctor, there is very comprehensive training, mentoring, career path planning and representation by respective industry bodies (e.g. Institute of Chartered Accountants or the AMA).

    Similar career-long support really does not exist in ICT in the general case.

    I’m not sure if women would tend to evaluate this aspect differently to men, although it certainly can’t help attract more women into a male-dominated field.

    What do you think?

    — James Morris · Jun 25, 11:14 PM · #

  2. Hm… maybe you are right, but is there a predictable career path in IT? Even saying “IT” is a pretty broad umbrella.

    Even if there is no single career path, it would be interesting to know, what do potential career paths look like? Because actually at the moment I would say I don’t really know (besides ending up in project management).

    I guess there is the ACS, right? But they don’t have a nice mandate like the AMA etc to really be that relevant.

    pfctdayelise · Jun 26, 02:20 AM · #

  3. Hi – thanks for your feedback on the FITT event in Melbourne. Let me respond – I am a proud Telstra staff member and FITT Steering Committee member who was involved in delivering this event.

    The enthusiasm with which the volunteers within Telstra and FITT was great and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from all those who assisted. We had 75% responses giving the event an EXCELLENT rating and 29% GOOD rating.

    In recent times, FITT are new to running joint events with sponsors in Melbourne so we will fix a few things next time. It is a fine balance to get right and FITT were thankful that Michael’s business unit in this economic climate was willing to not only provide a venue, pay for the catering, organise some speakers and manage on ground. Actually, these TBWA speakers have been used for many womens internal Telstra (being a techie telco) events successfully. I think it just depends upon your perspective as we were trying to add some value to a networking event by providing some interesting speakers especially when it was free of charge. We are happy to run events in non-hosted venues but we need to charge you then and its more work onground to source speakers and relevant topics. If you can help, that would be great! If we were to take the position you are essentially advocating however, then FITT would have to avoid all sponsor-hosted events. But then we wouldnt get sponsorship for all the other things we do for the greater good – so its a fine balance. BTW, the submarine video was meant to be run in the background while networking but it got played at the wrong time. woops.

    Let me also say something about FITT. Comparing FITT with Geekgirls or ACS or others is like comparing apples and pears. FITT acknowledges that you can never be all things to all people. Geekgirls, Linux and ACS and all those groups fulfill a valuable need that we could never cover all of them. We have always aimed to partner with these and compliment each other.

    With FITT (a not for profit), there have been 120 VOLUNTEER women over the 20 yrs who have been on the FITT Steering Committee (SC). For those 20 yrs and just about every year, we have run not just networking events/dinners/lunches, but mentoring programs, skills development workshops, careers days, supported University students to attend our programs, and generally kept the agenda of women in IT&T alive for 15 years and helped women in the IT&T industry be better workers, managers and leaders. These are all delivered by FITT SC members on weeknights, weekends in our time, etc using our networks to gain funding year after year after year. The FITT SC is consistently delivering, reliably and professionally run with a structure, democratic decision making, supported by the AIIA and a mission and most of us have a technical background but just happened to move into management roles. Males and females who have been influenced by FITT and others achievements over the years could be your manager, lecturer, or colleague. We don’t all have to be technical to achieve this. We need to understand that we all have an important complimentary role to play. And be cognisant of how one critiques FITT lest it reflects upon all those before me and the achievements they have made.

    How about FITT doing a joint event with GeekGirls? You can contact me at media@fitt.org.au and someone from the FITT SC are always happy to have a chat.

    Mary McLeod – FITT SC Member, Telstra staff member

    — mary mcleod · Jun 26, 07:19 PM · #

  4. James, I think you may be on to something.

    I joined the ACM and IEEE last year as an experiment in whether they offer this in a way relevant to non-academic software people today. I concluded they did not and I won’t renew. This may be of course experimental error – perhaps I was doing it wrong or not putting enough effort in. But basically, although I went to one interesting event about electric locomotives, there was little that really developed me personally compared to reading good books, going to community conferences, or reading the better bits of the web. I feel there ought to be something about developing one’s professional as opposed to technical life but I didn’t find it there.

    It seems like they spent a lot of my money on mailing me paper focused on their internal processes.

    I’ve been meaning to blog about it for a while…

    Martin Pool · Jun 29, 05:28 PM · #

  5. Hi Mary, thanks for your response.

    If FITT members responded overwhelmingly positively, then I don’t think you have much to heed in my complaints. As you say different groups serve different purposes and in that case it’s probably just me & FITT that is the bad match.

    I don’t at all advocate that any non-profit group should avoid sponsors; indeed it would make life very difficult. But I think I would have been frankly more interested in hearing from you, as you are are not just a Telstra employee but also a FITT ctte member! I didn’t have a problem with it being Telstra people, just that I didn’t feel the most relevant people were present.

    I am involved with several volunteer/non-profit/community groups myself so I know how much time they take and how thankless they often are. It is why I thought a few times about whether or not to actually publish this, but in the end I don’t think it helps to shy from critical opinions. And I don’t think it’s fair to try and immune oneself from criticism by saying it will reflect badly on “those who have gone before”. Maybe having this discussion helps to crystalise understanding about FITT’s purpose or target audience. (At least with myself if not with you.)

    And as you commented I did perceive the “main event” to be the panel rather than the drinks/networking themselves.

    I will think about what kind of events might work as joint GGD/FITT affairs. Thanks again for your reply.

    pfctdayelise · Jun 30, 12:03 AM · #

  6. Martin:
    I find the Books24×7 and online courses that come with ACM’s $19/yr student membership to be great! The courses include trainings for certifications, and the books include quite a lot of use to programmers.

    How events go depends on your chapter though. Our chapter had a “state of the job market” thing with recruiters, for example. We also had Brian Kernighan explaining UNIX design decisions. We have a Professional Development Seminar each year where full-day and half-day training sessions are offered (network security, secure programming, QA, etc).

    Mackenzie · Jul 1, 01:54 AM · #

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