Standing in front of the ACS SA Leaders Lunch – titled The Power and Promise of Female Leadership – Managing Director Advocacy and Public Affairs at ISACA, Tara Wisniewski, asked “What does female leadership mean?”

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is a more effective style of leadership. According to Wisniewski female leaders are rated more positively than their male counterparts, they’re more inspirational and motivational and, often, they’re credited with significant net revenue increases.

“Women are better at bold,” she says, explaining that these bold women leaders flourish in “traditionally male dominated fields” including R&D, manufacturing, sales, engineering, and – of course – ICT.

However, not all of the statistics and figures Wisniewski presented the audience were this positive.

“When you think about the numbers on the leadership, it doesn’t match up with the research about women’s leadership qualities,” she continued, explaining that fewer than 25% of the international IT workforce are women and this is about the same number as in 2015 despite efforts to get more women into the industry. In some sectors it’s far less, revealing from the recent launch of the Australian National Cyber Security Strategy that women make up less than 3% of the Australian cyber workforce.

“Women are tremendously underrepresented,” she continues, "and It’s not just in ICT". Internationally women represent less than 20% of technology leadership roles – 18.1% in North America, and just 11.2% in Europe, from one study. “We have a responsibility as an organisation, as part of our purpose and promise, to actually do something about those numbers,” she says.

A quick check of leadership effectiveness in IT-related fields shows women outpacing men by at least 10%: Zenger Folkman reports that women are rated more positively than men in 12 of 16 competencies, including taking initiative; developing, inspiring and motivating others; displaying integrity; communicating powerfully; and championing change. “It is a well-known fact,” says Jack Zenger, CEO and co-founder of Zenger Folkman, “that women are underrepresented at senior levels of management. Yet the data suggests that by adding more women the overall effectiveness of the leadership team would go up.”

One aspect that Wisniewski finds particularly interesting is the trickledown effect – putting women in visible leadership roles in ICT and other industries has an impact nationwide. As girls grow up seeing female leaders, their academic performance increases, as measured by improved scores in maths and other STEM subjects. It’s not just the girls, either: women in leadership roles bring different ideas to the entire workplace, introducing policies like paternity and parenting leave and reducing discrimination in the office.

Putting more women in top jobs also benefits the bottom line. A 2016 survey by the Peterson Institute for International Economics showed that by simply bumping the number of women in leadership roles up to 30% created a net revenue increase of more than 15%. Reaching gender equality across the ICT workforce would add an extra $12 trillion to global growth.

The question, however, is how we do this: how do we get these women into leadership roles, particularly in the male dominated industries?

It will take time, says Wisniewski, explaining that this is one area that still needs further investigation and investment. She points out that, until 2020, it will continue to be difficult to recruit women into ICT fields. We are likely to see a slow, but steady, increase in the number of women in mid- and senior-level positions, but a real shift in leadership is still a while off. More and more girls and young women are becoming interested in STEM subjects and working with computers, but they are still several years away from joining the workforce and stepping into these leadership roles.

Rather than waiting for them, she urges companies and groups to start making smaller changes right now – such as creating more flexible work schedules, incorporating organic mentorship programs, and simply exploring alternatives to the old ways of doing things. "These changes won’t just benefit women, but will help improve the work/life balance of everybody in the office."

Interestingly, Wisniewski explained that two methods commonly used to incorporate more women into ICT – organised mentorships and quotas – have shown to be ineffective. Figurehead female CEOs do not have the same impact as women in more hands-on roles such as female executives or females serving on boards. Countries such as Norway, Denmark and Finland, which have mandated quotas for women on boards have seen little to no effect on a company’s profitability.

Instead of simply placing women into positions of leadership to make up the numbers, Wisniewski urges people to “forge new pathways”, something ISACA is able to help with, running programs to both attract women to the profession and to build networking opportunities for women who are already there. These are currently in the pilot stages but will launch properly in 2017.

In elaborating she refers to three Es: Engage, Empower, Elevate. The second two are self-explanatory, but it’s the first that provides something to think about. Groups like ISACA are “a little late to the table,” she admits. The space is fairly crowded, with myriad groups and projects targeting women in tech industries such as Lean In, Million Women Mentors, Society of Women Engineers, UN Women, the Clinton Foundation and Girls Who Code. Wisniewski says she’s excited to explore how to “not only enter the landscape but also pull the landscape together”.

Engaging women in technology is critical, given the future and the opportunities offered by the industry – but she’s still trying to determine the best way to go about it.

In closing, Wisniewski asked the audience to think about whether or not you are participating in building pathways towards leadership for women. Are you being an advocate for women leaders in the organisations where you spend your time? By connecting what we’re all doing, and leveraging our shared knowledge, we can create the paradigm shift we’re all looking for – and maybe speed up a long-overdue process.