Diversity, equity, and inclusion: How Australian IT is doing

While diversity and inclusion are common discussion topics, addressing them may not be as simple as some think. But trying to solve all diversity measures at once could be a recipe for disaster, experts say.

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Conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion are growing across the country and across IT, such as removing bias from artificial intelligence or how diverse organisations fare better and are more profitable. Although it is a good thing to have those conversations, it is even more important to start acting. Australia is already a very diverse country, so why do organisations struggle when it comes to equity and inclusion?

One reason may be focussing on too many measures at once. In a recent Gartner study on diversity, the analysts suggest that an organisation pick one or two measures to focus on rather than try to tackle everything, as that could lead to lack of focus and failed measures.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in IT

Data from the 2016 census showed that unemployment rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were higher than those for non-Indigenous people, across all age groups.

One of the many considerations an organisation must have in mind when looking to attract Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander IT candidates is to look beyond the candidate but also to their family and to the community they are a part of. Organisations should first have defined why they are looking for First Nations people: what is the motivation, the purpose, and the impact it wants to drive.

Neha Kumar, a CIO advisory director at Gartner, tells Computerworld Australia that organisations achieving meaningful progress hiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are those that understand that a sense of community is important: “Building deeper connections with not just that person, but also with their family with their community, even thanking their community for the people that have come from that community. Building firstly those deeper connections there and showing them the kind of work that they do, how does it bring value back to not just themselves but to their community.”

Family and community are important, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are connected to both and often prefer to stay within the community. When they go to university to acquire a degree, they often intend to take that knowledge and give back to the community.

Organisations looking to employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need an understanding and respect for the candidates’ histories and culture. By doing so, an organisation shows commitment to the candidate or the community and that it can provide a safe environment.

Technology consultancy Thoughtworks has announced a First Nations delivery centre that will hire a minimum of 50% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander technologists. The centre’s goal is to create software career opportunities for Indigenous technologists in Australia and move career pathways beyond existing internship and graduate programs.

Forrester analyst Sam Higgins tells Computerworld Australia that organisations also need to have in mind that there may not always be enough First Nations people to satisfy an organisation’s requirements. But there is an opportunity in such cases to contribute or support First Nations people in other ways. “Employment might not always be the right answer. There might be other things we have to do. When I think about that from a Forrester perspective, I think about things like we’re a research company, so should part of our contribution to some of the diversity challenges of our industry be by making sure that we provide data that actually always includes those elements?”

Women and gender diversity in IT

When it comes to diversity, one of the biggest focus areas in Australian IT has been gender diversity. Most organisations are working on how to attract women as most are not gender-equitable. According to a 2019 Gartner study, unfairness-based turnover in tech is a $16 billion-a-year problem. Women leave technology jobs at twice the rate of their male counterparts. By the time women reach the midpoint of their careers, 56% have dropped out.

Reasons include the culture in an organisation: how women are perceived or treated, if they are given the same opportunities of promotion as their male counterparts. The Australia federal government’s STEM Equity Monitorshowed just a 1% growth in 2020 in the number of women enrolling for STEM courses, completing those courses, and being employed in STEM areas.

Ironically, programming went from a career for women to one that heavily employs men. Programming, writes Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal in her book Mother of Invention, was a profession that hadn’t existed before the World War II. ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer, was originally programmed by six women.

A decade ago the conversations about gender diversity were immature and focussed on bias such as “women are more understanding” and “women communicate better”, Forrester’s Higgins says. Today, the conversations have matured: “It’s much more about true equity [now] in terms of financial equity, treatment, safety.”

Attracting women to organisations has been, in Gartner analyst Kumar’s conversations with IT managers, the first issue to address. One thing that is widely understood, and which Kumar confirmed, is that when women see they meet between 60% to 70% of the job description they are reluctant to apply to those jobs, whereas men would do it readily. “That is something that’s a given for men that they don’t see the need to meet all criteria on Day 1, whereas women feel like they need to meet at least 80% of the criteria. This is a reality.”

To solve this problem, she suggests organisations minimise the must-have requirements to those really expected of candidates to have on Day 1, rather than also include those they can learn on the job.

When it comes to gender diversity, it is important to notice that, if an organisation isn’t attracting candidates from all genders, the issue may be in the language used when advertising. Job advertisements can often be gender-biased, and companies should pay attention to the use of pronouns.

A related suggestion: Remove the biases of job advertisements such as “coding ninja” or “rock star” as these kinds of words do not resonate with the talent pool an organisation may be looking for. Kumar says that there is also a role played by HR, which is removing any kind of words that may bias the hiring manager.

Another widely discussed issue is the gender pay gap. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) has published results on the current gender pay gap in Australia, which does not compare like roles, but it does give a picture of the difference in average pay. Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), WGEA concludes the Australia’s national gender pay gap is 14.2%. In May 2021, women’s average weekly full-time earnings across all industries and occupations was $1,575 compared to men’s $1,837—women earned $262 less than men.

Australia’s national gender pay gap has hovered between 13% and 19% for the past two decades. Two industries covered by ABS are information media and telecommunications and professional, scientific, and technical services, both of which include some IT roles. Comparing May 2020 to May 2021, information media and telecommunications saw a decrease in the gender pay gap of less than 1%, having a pay gap of 16.6%. The professional, scientific, and technical services saw an increase of 1.3% in the gender pay gap, with a total 25.3% gap.

The good news is that some organisations are looking to fix this issue, such as by exploring potential bias or unintended gender limits in exit interviews.

Beyond the recruiting and pay gaps, women are often challenged in getting promotions. One reason, Kumar says, is that it is hard for women to be the first. If an organisation already has women in leadership position, it becomes perhaps a more achievable future for women than when there are none.

Gail Bray, who heads up the digital training arm of the Victoria University Polytechnic, said they are consciously recruiting female teachers to improve the current gender imbalance of 80% male and 20% female. “This year, 35% of our graduates were female and in high-demand from employers with many finding job roles within six months of graduating,” she says.

Another thing that may work against women it is that women are often apologetic about their ambitions. “When it comes to ambition, it’s not just that you value it, you expect men to have ambition. Whereas women sometimes, more often than not, if they even express ambition they’re apologetic about it because they feel like they may ruffle some feathers, that they may come across as being too aggressive,” Gartner’s Kumar says. Women have had to prove themselves so much that a habit of being apologetic is sometimes ingrained in many.

“When it comes to coaching, when I talk to women leaders it is about being unapologetic about their ambition because that is something that would actually be praised if a male in their position that expressed it,” Kumar says.

Research by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC) and WGEA has found that an increase of 10% in the share of female “top-tier” managers led to a 6.6% increase in the market value of Australian ASX-listed companies, worth the equivalent of $104.7 million.

Migrants in IT

The ABS data for the year ended June 2020 found 7.6 million migrants living in Australia and 29.8% of Australia’s population were born overseas. “Nearly every single country from around the world was represented in Australia’s population in 2020,” according to the ABS.

Australia is a diverse nation and that diversity is shown across IT departments around the country. This has been supported by incentives such as skilled visas, but it appears there is a limit to that migrant-fuelled diversity, especially when it comes to more senior roles.

When it comes to promote IT staff to senior roles, Kumar says—although there is no data to confirm this—in her experience and in client interactions a favouritism exists towards Australians or those from English-speaking countries. It is a known issue but one that it is not acted upon.

Forrester’s Higgins has had some first-hand experience with this. He tells Computerworld Australia that early in his career as an IT professional he found it much easier as a white Australian male to progress to strategic roles than his colleagues who were from other cultural backgrounds. He says he learned a lot from his colleagues, and that it proved to him that diversity is important.

“But it does sadden me that over my 30 years in the industry I don’t think we have taken some of those things seriously. I look back at my career and I can see times when I know I was chosen over other people because I happen to fit the classic Australian profile, and that disappoints me. It makes me quite sad considering that many of my colleagues were better in many respects,” Higgins says.

People with disability in IT

In 2018, the ABS found 47.8% of people with disability aged between 15 and 64 were employed. While the proportion of people with disability in the labour force hasn’t changed over the past 10 years, the proportion of those who were employed decreased from 50.0% (1.1 million people) in 2009 to 47.8% (984,200 people) in 2018.

The main issue comes down to priority, and hiring people with disability is not the priority of many organisations, Gartner’s Kumar says. Yet the few organisations that have prioritised this have done so successfully, in her experience. Forrester analyst Higgins’s experience is the same. He says that discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in IT tend to prioritise gender, followed by culture and lastly ability.

Remote work because of the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the obstacles employers traditionally have faced when hiring people with disability, such as making the appropriate changes to the office settings. Blind Citizens Australia CEO Emma Bennison tells Computerworld Australia that she has heard from people who are blind that there are more opportunities today. But that greater availability is not specific to supporting the blind, she notes, but to the pandemic-enabled shift to remote work, which happens to help blind candidates.

To understand what employers may see as obstacles to hire people who are blind, Vision Australia surveyed 1,000 employers and found that 83% of employers weren’t confident in hiring someone who is blind or has low vision, and only 30% were willing to adapt the requirements of a role to suit a person who is blind or has low vision.

Karen Knight, the general manager for client services at Vision Australia, says she found this reluctance shocking. Also shocking: employer concerns about blind candidates’ productivity. Plus: “67% of the employers said that they were concerned that people who are blind or have low vision were a workplace health and safety risk,” Knight tells Computerworld Australia.

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