Female IT workers push for flexible workplaces

Conference hears differing viewpoints on achieving goal

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 recently, senior women IT professionals at Optus and Australian 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."

She said business can retain IT professionals, women in particular, if tele-working, flexible working hours, and job sharing are facilitated in organisations wherever possible.

Lowe has been a director of IT companies for more than 22 years.

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," she 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."

Clark, who has more than 20 years of IT experience, is in charge of research and development aty Optus.

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

"Management has to be 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."

At Red Rock, 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 emails, 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 isn't easy in organisations that have an impersonal culture. She said flexibility must fit into business operations.

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."

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 organisation. 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 will participate now increase its focus on the IT industry.

"Its 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.

- Additional reporting by Andrew Hendry

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