Promoting diversity and flexible working isn’t just about feeling good — if done well, it might increase the number of talented people wanting to work at your organisation.
At least that’s the experience of Claire Foo, chief information officer at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the only female CIO in a Victorian government department.
Foo, who recently won a TechDiversity award for her advocacy for women in technology and public service management, has noticed a “huge increase” in both the number and calibre of job applicants thanks to DELWP’s promotion of diversity.
Creating a supportive culture plays a big part. Foo makes a point of “broadcasting” the fact she sometimes leaves work to pick up a sick child or attend parent-teacher interviews. This ensures other staff know it’s okay to work flexibly, she tells The Mandarin.
It’s something the department is known for — secretary Adam Fennessy has been vocal about his own effort to balance work and family, having done a stint part-time to care for children and still working from the country town outside Melbourne where he lives one day a week.
But leadership is about more than just setting norms. Since 2015 Foo has supported the establishment of a Women in ICT network in the department, which now has over 200 participants, who come together to network and listen to guest speakers. There are plans to expand it to other agencies.
You also need to be insistent. Being firm that she expects a 50-50 gender split on recruitment shortlists has led to an increase in the number of women being hired.
“Within roles in IT I’ve had to push very, very heavily to get that. I’ve often had the response that ‘in this particular field that’s not possible’,” Foo recalls.
“I say ‘no, this is your role, I’m asking you to do this, I expect 50-50’. I’ve had to push that very strongly. I’ve had a lot of pushback on that, which I think is surprising, particularly coming from a female CIO — you’d naturally assume that might be a focus.
“So part of my advice is to push on that, and demand it. It’s not unreasonable to ask for that 50-50 split.”
‘People in leadership roles are not perfect’
To promote increased representation of women in the department, Foo has instigated a student internship program within her division and is passionate about mentoring.
“Mentoring assists women significantly. I’ve got a number of people I mentor at the moment, because I think it assists them to build up that courage,” she explains.
“And perhaps understanding that people in leadership roles are not perfect, they’re people as well. So understanding I’m sometimes second-guessing, wondering about this or that, juggling home life et cetera. There are those challenges for everybody. For females especially it helps to see the breadth of people.”
Gradually more women are becoming involved in both technology and the upper reaches of the bureaucracy. Although IT in particular still remains heavily male, cultural change is happening.
Foo also thinks that as tech has come to be seen less as a back office operation and more as a core part of business, more people without technical backgrounds — including many women — are becoming interested in it and changing the face of IT.
It’s not just about the organisation changing, though. Foo believes women need to back themselves to succeed and branch out on new challenges. As someone who started out studying Italian at university and ended up running IT for a large government department, it’s something she knows a bit about.
Foo notes that research shows men are more likely to apply for a job even if they don’t meet all the criteria; in a similar situation women often won’t take that first step.
“My background from years ago was not actually in technology, so I’ve come into it through a fairly circuitous route in that ‘okay, give it a shot, back yourself’. I guess that Cheryl Sandberg ‘lean in’ type approach,” she says.
“Can you do it? Well if a male thinks he can do it, why don’t I think I can do it? Ask yourself those kinds of questions.”