Improving equal representation of women in tech companies

Last week the Australian Securities Exchange launched its All Technology Index, shining a light on the wonderful tech ecosystem we have in Australia and its significance to the Australian economy. I was proud to see my health informatics company Alcidion listed alongside other technology-based companies looking to create new opportunities for growth, create new jobs and drive our national competitiveness.

However, I was shocked and disappointed to see that Alcidion also stood out for reasons other than its innovation. Of the 46 tech companies that made up the new All Tech Index, 45 companies were led by a male CEO. I was the only female CEO. 98 per cent of the CEOs of tech companies on the tech-focused index on the Australian Securities Exchange are men and I make up the two per cent. That’s not a statistic I am proud of and nor should any of us be.

This number means that the representation of women in leadership roles among listed tech companies on the All Tech Index is far worse than companies across all industries on the top ASX200. The latest figures tells us that six per cent of the top ASX200 companies are led by a female CEO. Of course, this All Tech Index figure doesn’t reveal much about the dynamics of Australia’s tech industry, but it doesn’t look good for an industry whose collective purpose and vision is to change the world for the better.

It’s 2020 and Australia has entered a new decade. Yet we are still telling the next generation of young leaders that tech founders and visionaries of the world are people who look like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. The reality is 50 per cent of the population don’t fit that profile. In healthcare and technology, where women make up a large portion of the workforce or as consumers of the products and services, women must be a part of the decisions made in those industries, and in all industries.

Over the last couple of years, we have seen more women in the tech industry speaking out and having the courage to come forward and share their stories. And this is driving change. But the onus shouldn’t be on the women. Companies need to take an active role in driving diversity, encouraging men and women to be advocates for each other, and ensuring that everyone has a voice and that voice is heard and incorporated into all decisions being made. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in the same dire position in the next decade.

It starts with how you represent yourself as a company. The lack of female representation in management on the tech index mirrors the lack of female representation across the tech industry in general. The same issues that face public tech companies face all companies in making them an attractive workplace for women. I am a firm believer that by creating values-led organisations we can achieve this. Living and breathing your core values inspires people, reminds people of your purpose and gives them a framework for better decision-making.

Values need to be constantly reviewed and scrutinised – not put on the wall and forgotten about. Are they still strong? Do they represent our business? Do our potential candidates hold these values? Values and diversity should be a key selection criteria in the recruitment process for all public companies. Diverse perspectives create stronger growth strategies and increase risk barriers, so diversity needs to be considered alongside core skills and experiences, and your ads, job descriptions and interview panels need to support this.

The lack of female candidates and referrals for Board roles is something as an industry we need to work hard to change. We know there are great female leaders across tech companies and there is no reason why they should not be represented at the CEO and the Board level. Formal recruitment processes need to be enforced, as there are too many cases where they aren’t followed. You really have to question whether those companies are getting a diversity of opinion if they are selecting people they know or those that come by way of peer recommendation only.

Investing in retaining and developing your people is paramount. In particular, assessing the opportunities you are providing for female employees to flourish. Out of all industries, tech companies are in the best place to do this – they’ve disrupted how and when work can be done, cultivating a more flexible work environment. Incorporating mentor opportunities and flexible working arrangements into company policies is essential to encourage more women into the tech workforce. But we also need to encourage men to take a more balanced view of their work / life, regardless of whether they have a family.

Sure, these ideas might be obvious to some, but the latest figures tell us that these basics principles aren’t being applied, despite tech companies being in a position to enact and accelerate change now. It calls for self-reflection and that’s something Alcidion has had to do as well. Today, I am proud to say that 50 per cent of our executive leadership team is female, as well as 33 per cent of our Board, with our first female Chair. We are committed to ensuring our recruitment and values initiatives attract more women and encourage them to consider technical or business roles in the health and IT industry.

It has been said that equality at the CEO level could be achieved by 2100. I don’t want to wait that long, nor my daughter for that matter, to operate in a world where we see equal representation across all levels of companies. Neither do Australian employees and increasingly investors. Employee activism and public advocacy are on the rise. 20,000 employees walked out of Google offices and the company changed its diversity policies. Amazon shareholders demanded the company diversified its leadership and now the Board is almost 50 per cent women.

The pressure is on and Australian public tech companies that don’t take action to address the gender gap across their Boards, executive management teams and workforce, will feel the heat.

Kate Quirke is Managing Director at Alcidion