Female leaders from across Australia’s technology sector have taken centre stage at RMIT to provide inspiration and encouragement for women following in their footsteps.
Women Taking the Lead in Tech drew a diverse crowd of students and professionals, keen to hear about the emerging opportunities and challenges facing women in the digital age.
The event kicked off with keynote speaker Peggy Renders, head of Customer Solutions at SAP Australia and executive sponsor of their gender diversity program, and continued with an all-female panel taking questions from the floor.
The panel offered valuable advice on how women can play a larger role in the industry and redress the current gender imbalance, and Renders shared several key ideas on how to lead, solve problems and think creatively in the digital era.
Empathy is good for business
Renders believes that empathy will play an important role in navigating an organisation's digital transformation.
"Every organisation should start thinking about who their digital customer is, and how they’re different to the traditional customer," she said.
"One tool that we use often is 'design thinking' – when you put yourself in the shoes of your end customer and focus on their frustrations— that’s when you come up with the best ideas around new business models and processes.
"Ultimately, you need to have empathy for your end customer to understand what they’re looking for. And the reason I’m excited for females is because I think empathy comes built-in for women—that’s why I think they have an amazing opportunity to step up in this digital era."
Great leadership fosters technological innovation
According to Renders, traditional leadership and innovative thinking often clash.
"Innovation is messy and hard to structure—you can’t force people to innovate," she said.
"What you need to do as a leader is to create the right environment for innovation. You have to provide support and mentorship. As a leader, I push people out of their comfort zone and challenge them on their beliefs.
"You need to reward and recognise your people, and that includes rewarding them for failures, because out of failures, the best ideas grow, and that’s all part of the process"
Diversity is vital
As business transactions inevitably rely less and less on human interaction, Renders believes this will have a significant efffect on their customers.
"Think of tomorrow: if you want to apply for a loan it’s very likely that the outcome will be decided by a robot, but it will be based on programs and code that have been written by people," she said.
Renders added that it's crucial for organisations to embrace diversity, as this will have a direct impact on their output.
"Because of the people who are writing code, unconscious bias exists in artificial intelligence, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about getting women and people of different ethnicities writing the code of the future."
Following Renders' presentation, the floor was opened up for the panel to share some of their experiences, discuss ideas and take questions from the audience.
The panel members included:
- Maria Markman, Victorian Chair of the Australian Computer Society and specialist in business development and disruptive technology;
- Lisy Kane, producer at League of Geeks and co-founder of Girl Geek Academy;
- Deirdre Diamante, founder of MIA Consulting and the #TechDiversity foundation, while also serving as Deputy Chair for the Victorian Council of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), which is the peak representative body and advocacy group for the ICT industry in Australia;
- Jacqui Loustau, founder of the Australian Women in Security Network (AWSN) and employed in a senior cybersecurity role at ANZ Bank;
- Microsoft’s Emma Simons, who acted as MC for the audience Q&A.
The discussion covered topics as broad as managing a work-life balance, travelling the globe, promoting equality and starting your own business, and despite their decidedly different backgrounds, all four women unanimously agreed on one issue: workplace structures and societal norms are being disrupted, but authenticity remains as important as ever.
"During my university days studying computer science, I was aware of the pressures to be ‘that’ stereotypical technology student, wearing the Minecraft t-shirt to try and fit in and feel accepted," said one audience member.
This comment sparked a conversation about how important it is to be true to your own personal philosophy, and to create strong, supportive networks around you.
Lisy Kane, co-founder of Girl Geek Academy, said that her career path only began to take shape once she realised what she was genuinely passionate about.
"I've always loved technology, I played lots of games as a kid, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school," she said.
"I didn’t realise you could study game design at university; I thought they were made by machines in America. So as soon as I realised that there are human beings behind these things that I was so passionate about, I fell in love with the industry and did as much as I could to get my foot in the door.
"It required a lot of networking; it saw me co-founding Girl Geek Academy, because I wanted to continue running events and meeting women in the industry. I ended up meeting my current boss that way."
Kane now works as a Games Producer for Melbourne studio, League of Geeks, and was recently featured in Forbes' 30 Under 30 Gaming list, the only Australian to do so in 2017.
"RMIT has a really amazing games design program and some of their graduates are creating games which are incredibly innovative," she said.
"It's a really creative industry, but at the moment, only about 15% of the workforce is female.
"Women have an opportunity to tell their stories and express themselves through games and new technologies, and the more we see this happening, the better."