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New tech, old bias: women in emerging tech industry speak out

During the same week Australia’s first female intelligence agency chief, Rachel Noble, remarked how the glass ceiling is “actually a concrete block” a group of technology professionals, predominately women, gathered in a Big Four consulting firm’s skyscraper boardroom and sought to answer ‘where is a woman’s place’?

The organisers of the Women in Emerging Tech conference, a part of the Victorian Government’s Digital Innovation Festival (DIF) and sponsored by Deloitte Digital, held in Melbourne this week argued how a woman’s place is at the forefront of technology.

Emerging technologies comprise the world’s newest and some of the most innovative sectors such as artificial intelligence, fintech, NFTs, the metaverse, blockchain, and cybersecurity. While these industries are new, their gender dilemma is old.

With only 19 per cent of Australian STEM graduates’ degrees being held by women, it’s hard not to feel like an imposter, said guest speaker and best-selling author Elizabeth Gould.

Dr Amina Crooks, a Director at Deloitte who specialises in bringing artificial intelligence to Australian companies says that the implications of women’s lack of participation in emerging technologies, such as AI, are massive. As artificial intelligence is programmed and learns from its human coders, it will inevitably pick up biases those coders and engineers hold, this extends across race, gender and sexual orientation.

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The conference highlighted the persistent barriers many women face while entering the emerging tech industry, both systemically and mentally.

Susan Brown, partner at Deloitte Digital told the crowd how her path to success in the technology sector had its share of roadblocks. After being introduced to coding by her father as a child, she was one of two female graduates in her computer science degree in the 1990s.

She remarked how as a young software professor she was often the only female in the room instructing a classroom of all male students. Nearly twenty years later, only 8 per cent of software developers in Australia are women.

Then after moving from academia to the private sector, and with a hefty track record of running successful projects under her belt, Brown questioned a manager as to why she wasn’t being put on any of the ‘more exciting’ long-term projects. “He told me, I try not to put women on multiple-year projects as I’m not sure when you’re going to fall pregnant,” said Brown.

Brown insisted and continued to insist throughout her career, which she credits as one of the keys to her success in a male-dominated industry.

But as women leave the technology sector at a rate nearly double of men, according to Forbes, it’s not only attracting women to the industry which is an issue for closing the gender gap but also retaining them.

Kelly Hutchinson, manager of Victoria’s DIY says her advice to women in the tech sector is to “work in every industry”. She says to try out different areas of interest, as skills across the technology sector are more transferable than you’d think. As a bonus, it may help combat the tech sector burnout which is heightened for women.

While the technology sector overall is lacking female participation, female leadership is even worse off. Of the forty-one Fortune 500 companies in the technology sector, only five have female CEOs.

Karen Cohen, Director of Emerging Tech Talent says one reason for the lack of female leadership is visibility. She was surprised when she joined Australia’s burgeoning blockchain scene in 2017 and made national headlines for making a seemingly innocent remark; that there should be at least one woman on every newly created blockchain board.

One solution brought to the leadership deficit is mentorship. Phil Ore is one such mentor, he’s a global ambassador for Rare Birds an organisation that supports the progression of women entrepreneurs. He spoke of the importance of mentorship as well as male allies in male-dominated industries like technology.

A lack of capital can also handicap female entrepreneurship in emerging technologies. But Paul Naphtali, co-founder and managing director of Rampersand, a venture capital fund focusing entirely on early-stage Australian technology companies, says it shouldn’t be. Naphtali says diversity benefits not only the industry overall but positively affect profits.

“All the studies point to diverse-led startups being more successful, which means more money for us,” says Naphtali, who thinks more funds should recognise this trend.

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