In early 2015, I travelled to Fiji with my family. On one day during our week long holiday, I ventured out of the relative safety of the resort with my wife and 8-year-old son and visited a small town on Fiji’s Coral Coast.
After a few hours of being mobbed by local shop owners and their kids (my son has strawberry blonde hair so he was quite an attraction), and a few brief discussions about football, Jarryd Hayne and the mighty Parramatta Eels, we jumped on a bus back to our hotel.
Here we were, three white Australians among 30 or so Fijians on this bus, including a few huge men in the group who looked like their idea of fun was bashing into each other on the rugby field each weekend.
Now, at 197cm tall and 95kg, I am not a small person by any stretch of the imagination. I was even asked on a few occasions during my trip if I played rugby. For the record, I don’t.
But here I was, all 6 foot 4 of me, kind of cowering in my seat at the back of the bus, avoiding eye contact with the locals. It wasn’t until an old fellow rested his massive hand on my knee and warmly waxed lyrical about his proud Fijian race, that I felt more at ease.
Of course, I had no reason to feel uncomfortable. Fijians are amongst the most welcoming and warmest people on the planet. But I was in a minority – something that rarely happens to a white male who spends most of his time in Sydney.
Fast forward to last week and I was one of the 10 men out of 165 people who attended the ‘Women in Tech’ conference. What the heck? Less than 10 per cent of attendees were men? At an IT event? What was going on?
I arrived in the morning and moved to a corner, coffee in hand, wondering what it what it would feel like to be the only woman – not to mention black woman – in a crowd of mostly middle-aged and older white men.
Perhaps it’s kind of similar to the way I felt that day in Fiji amongst a sea of beautiful curly black-haired heads.
Everyone’s talking about the lack of diversity in the IT industry and the conversation – which has been going on for quite some time now – is mainly centered around gender; more so than race or culture.
So let’s look at the numbers. Almost one-third (28 per cent) of IT workers in Australia are women. Hey, that doesn’t really sound so bad does it? It feels right. I mean, that’s one in three. If the number of women was 40 per cent (a mere 12 per cent more), we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Three women out of 10 in a room is ok, right? Wrong.
Anastasia Cammaroto has worked at BT Financial Group, the wealth management arm of Westpac, since 1998. A trained engineer, she has worked her way up the corporate ladder at the organisation, becoming its CIO in April 2014.
I spoke to Cammaroto a week prior to her scheduled presentation on mentoring the next generation of women in IT at the Women in Tech event.
Around 27 per cent of BT’s 600-strong IT team are women; the number is only slightly higher in leadership positions across the board, Cammaroto says. Yes, one in three may not sound so terrible, even perfectly acceptable but as Cammaroto points out, there’s more to this picture and we need to look deeper.
“If you’ve got a team that is 100 per cent male or 100 per cent female, then they are the teams you’ve got issues with and you can’t lose that in the averages,” she says. “We are looking for diversity in all of our core teams and nobody can say 20 per cent here versus 80 per cent there averages out to be the right percentage.”
What is particularly telling is that in a room of 10, three women looks ok, but in a room of 20, it becomes visible. If there are less than 30 women in a room of 100 even more so.
“I’ve attended conferences where there’s been two females in there; that’s where you really need to pay attention,” Cammaroto tells me.
During her time in IT, she says that being adaptable and versatile in various roles has been a key lesson. With a background in electrical engineering she has moved into roles where she’s known little about the subject matter and encourages other women to do the same.
She had never managed an infrastructure team before accepting a role as head of technology, infrastructure & support at BT in August 2010.
She rightly says that women believe they need hard technical skills for some roles when they simply don’t, what they need are strong leadership skills. And there’s plenty of women around with those.
At times I’ve felt that the gender debate around women in IT has sounded like a broken record but the deeper I look, the more I’m convinced that it’s a conversation that needs to keep happening.
Because let’s face it, more ageing white men is not what this industry needs.
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter: @ByronConnolly