Melbourne women re-programming the IT sector

Chris Skipper-Conway, Chair of Vic ICT for Women

The global gender imbalance in the technology and digital industries has not only deprived many women of the chance to develop their full potential, it has restricted the growth of businesses that would benefit from their participation. A number of Victorian women are tackling the issue head on with a range of innovative programs. Here are their stories.

Chris Skipper-Conway is chair of Vic ICT for Women, an industry-driven initiative supported by the Victorian Government that aims to facilitate the entry, retention and progression of women working in ICT.

“We have a very strong footprint here in Victoria, the other states and territories don’t have anything of this size,” says Chris.

Vic ICT for Women’s ‘Go Girl, Go for IT’ initiative reached over 2000 young female students from 63 schools in Victoria alone in 2016, highlighting 123 great tech career options through over 100 speakers.

Vic ICT’s programs aim to engage with young females when they are just starting to think about their study paths. They are designed to offer insight into the opportunities available in technology if they study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.

Chris says this is the first step they try to encourage the young females into, then:
“We follow that up with programs to create networks for young women [who are] graduating, and showcase employers looking for graduates.”

The scale of the organisation also means Vic ICT can offer mentorship programs giving one-on-one access to senior industry professionals to 200 women.

“… we have just finished Bold Moves, a program to ask corporations what we could do to make a difference to companies trying to get gender balance right – looking to test high-impact initiatives, and targeting 50/50 participation by 2020,’’ says Chris.

“There are fourteen of us involved in Vic ICT for Women, none of us is paid,” says Chris, whose full-time undertaking is as CEO of recruitment specialists GMT People. “This is how we give back to the community.”

Melissa Um is president of Robogals Melbourne, a student-run organisation that aims to inspire and empower young women to consider studying engineering and related fields.

Robogals was started in 2008 at the University of Melbourne by the mechatronics engineering undergraduate student, Marita Cheng.

“We now have two chapters in Melbourne and 30 university chapters worldwide including in Canada, the US, South Africa and Japan,’’ says Melissa.

“Our primary activity is having university student volunteers, both female and male, visit girls’ primary schools to run LEGO robotics workshops, and mentor teams in LEGO robotics competitions.

“The Melbourne business community has been very supportive. We rely on them for support. We provide the volunteers, but there many other costs and we run all of our workshops for free thanks to donations.’’

Sarah Moran is CEO at Girl Geek Academy, a global movement based in Melbourne, also operating in New York and San Francisco.

“Our aim is to teach one million women to get into tech, launch their own startups and help build the internet by 2025,’’ says Sarah.

The Academy runs a wide range of initiatives to encourage more women to learn tech skills.

“We held the world’s first all-female hackathon in Melbourne in 2014, and the world’s first hackathon for girls aged four to eight in 2016.’’

Sarah says she has found in her travels that Melbourne compares very favourably to other world cities such as San Francisco when it comes to the inclusion of women in the tech community.

“I would like to see Melbourne become the best place in the world for a woman to start and run a tech business,’’ she says.

Ally Watson founded Code Like a Girl, which hosts free events and workshops around Melbourne providing girls with the tools, knowledge and support to flourish in the world of coding.
Ally moved to Melbourne from Scotland in 2014.

“I lost all my support network, and I found starting again quite intimidating even though I had six years’ experience in the industry,’’ says Ally.

“I thought ‘imagine how hard it is for someone starting out, maybe we could be doing something here’, and that’s how Code Like a Girl started.

“We run events not just for young professionals, but also for girls in Grades 1-12. We try to highlight visible role models through events, social media, workshops – it’s all about instilling confidence, aspiration and motivation, not just skills.

“We’ve had overwhelming support from the Melbourne business community since day one, I don’t know if I had started this anywhere else in the world if it would have taken off the way it has, Melbourne has such a great sense of community.

“I work for a digital agency in the Cremorne area of Richmond, it’s a great area for tech start-ups and other companies. We’ve got Uber around the corner, software companies and (co-working space) Inspire9. It’s a little hub of tech companies with a real Silicon Valley vibe.’’