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Encouraging women into technology careers

Sarah Putt | Aug. 9, 2011
Part one of Q and A with Vodafone technology director Sandra Pickering.

Vodafone New Zealand's technology director Sandra Pickering left Hutt Valley Memorial Technical College (the school no longer exists) early for a job filing cheque books and has worked her way up the corporate ladder to become one of the few women to hold a high ranking technology position in a major telecommunications company in New Zealand.

In part one of this Q and A interview she tells Sarah Putt why she thinks women may be opting out of high profile careers in ICT.

As Vodafone technology director, you're one of three women on the company's executive team, but why did you agree to speak to me today about the importance of women in technology?

I've been in technology roles for nearly 30 years. I think from a gender perspective there is a huge opportunity for women to do more in technology roles.

I've done a lot personally and so have the people on my leadership team to encourage more and more women into senior roles in technology. I think the fact that we do have a different balance to some other companies, just makes it a much more inviting place to work for people.

It's a big part of Vodafone in New Zealand and Vodafone's global agenda. It says we will actively support women into senior roles wherever possible. That's not to say that we make decisions solely on gender but we absolutely look for the best women we can to fit senior roles.

My CIO (Claire Govier) is a woman and she was by far and away the best candidate for the job but I guess for me the sad thing is there aren't that many women to select from. And I think that's big problem.

The only way to fix that is to have more women coming in at the entry level jobs. It's a numbers game, you need more at the bottom to fill the jobs at the top. The reality is we do lose a lot of women along the way.

They make decisions for all the right reasons to stay at home and raise a family or to support their husbands in their careers. The attrition is much higher so I think in order to address that problem we need to encourage more girls into technical careers.

The overriding thing is actually making women aware of what the career opportunities are. It's not all about geeks and technical, there's actually a huge number of career opportunities -- think about the project management space, think about management roles, vendor relationship management roles, other types of leadership roles that do not necessarily require you to have deep technical expertise -- business analysts, project coordinators, just a huge myriad of career opportunities that will give women a much better understanding of what is available in these fields.

What was your training?

All of my training was on the job training. I left school and worked for a bank in a dead end job filing cheque books and then at 17. I got a great opportunity to go and work for an insurance company as a tape operator, changing these hoofing great tapes in the night shift. From there, I took different opportunities to train up.

In those days companies trained people, you didn't have to come out of university with all these qualifications to even get an entry-level job. Over the years I went to different types of roles, did on-the-job training, I did some university training later but not until much later, then wove my way around technical jobs, software engineering, business analysis and then into management roles.

You've been at Vodafone, first as CIO and now as CTO. Where did you come from?

IBM. I had lot of roles, I led software development teams across three continents to build telco software. I did all sorts of things.

I moved to Vodafone as it was a great opportunity to move into one of the premium CIO roles in the country and at an exciting time in the telco industry. It was a great opportunity for me. The only downside for me is that I live in Wellington and commute.

So what does that entail?

I normally come up here on a Monday and go home on a Wednesday or a Thursday. That's the other thing -- creating flexible working environments definitely helps women be successful in companies.

We have to balance so many different things. I've got three kids -- my youngest is 15. I've got a husband who's very supportive. He gave up his job when my son was born and has been home with him ever since which allows me to do what I need to do.

For women it's not so much what's going on inside the work environment, it's what's going on outside it. You tend to get judged more harshly by your friends and family than you do at work. I've found over the years having a supportive family and partner allows me to do what I need to do and make the choices I need to make.

When I speak to women in all of my technology teams one of the things that comes out is that they feel guilty. They feel guilty because they come to work and they're not with their kids and I think that's a society issue not a work issue.

How many in your team?

I've got about 350 permanent staff and anywhere from 600-800 contract or third-party vendor staff.

How many in that permanent staff are women?

I think I've probably got about 60 women, across the whole spectrum. I have got some very good women in network and engineering roles, as principal architects, quality performance managers, engineers.

So we do have women in very technical roles but absolutely not enough, if I could bottle them and reproduce them four times over I would.

I see so many women that get to certain levels in their career and go "I'm not going there anymore", I just don't want to be competing with men, it's too hard, there's too many prejudices, too many sacrifices.

Is it an attitude with men or with women?

I think it's about women's attitudes, I think it's about the way we view things. I think it's because we get to certain levels and roles and we carry this guilt around. I think it's us, I don't think it's men at all.

In my experience here and at IBM, men generally are wanting to have more women around because I think they do see that having women in the dynamic makes a big difference to productivity, efficiency. We definitely tend to be more collaborative and want to get things done.

I don't think it's men that are holding us back at all -- I think its our own attitudes and our own willingness to let go of our own stereotypes. Why can't we have it all? Why can't I be married and have a family and be the CTO of Vodafone?

We always think we have to make compromises but actually we can have it all. Men don't agonise over the fact they've got kids.

So you think women are opting out because it's too hard, that they're taking the easy option?

I think so, it's sometimes easier to not want to put yourself out there and fail. I think we are much harder on ourselves.

Success has to be achieved and if you're not seen to be moving up the career ladder then you're not successful whereas I think its very valid to be the best at what you do and not feel you have to be the next CTO or CIO or whatever.

How do you get that message out to 13 and 14 year old girls that are selecting their NCEA subjects, how do you encourage them to take maths and science?

There needs to be more entry-level understanding of what technology careers do. They have to see role models and they have to be talking and seeing people who are successful in these jobs talking to them and role modeling. That's the only way people can see things changing.

Do you do that?

I have done a little of it but probably not enough. It's one of the things we've talked about, we're running this ongoing programme with women in my team, in technology. We've been talking about what can we do to make a difference at a grassroots level.

For women to be successful, they don't have to be men. We are women and we should celebrate those differences and use those to our advantage as opposed to try and act like men.

Tomorrow, Sandra Pickering discusses the technological challenges facing Vodafone NZ as the company deals with the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes and looks to upgrade its mobile network to LTE.


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