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.