Despite recruitment policies that explicitly favour diversity, experience shows that many managers are perpetuating “blokey environments” and still haven’t internalised the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), an ACS Think Tank panel has highlighted.

Although there are many outward signs of progress towards recognising underrepresented populations, many companies “seem to be paying lip service to it,” Dr David Cook, vice president – Academic Boards with ACS, told the recent ACS Think Tank, Addressing Gender, Diversity and Inclusion in Technology.

“We’ve put different pronouns onto business cards, and we seem to be saying the right things, but my real question is: are we doing the right things?”

The gap between theory and action had driven a few eye-opening experiences for Katharine Enderling, CIO at the South Australian Department of Treasury and Finance, who recalled a situation where a hiring manager was complaining loudly about department policy mandating that half of the job interviews be awarded to female candidates.

“He was really upset and railed against it because he could not find the candidates,” Enderling said, noting that the security role was for an already all-male team. “He felt he shouldn’t have to have the policy in his job ad.”

Even the very wording of job ads can discourage potential women candidates by using male-focused language – which is amplified when biased content is used to train AI-based recruitment tools.

When applied to contemporary recruitment activities – which often exclude transgender, neurodiverse and other marginalised employees during ham-fisted DEI attempts – such discrimination has created problems for companies like Google, which was last year fined nearly $5 million for underpaying and ignoring female and Asian job applicants.

Policies won’t change attitudes overnight, but they can and do make a difference if applied by people eager to change the situation.

When a recruiter sent her a list of potential candidates for a recent role and all were male, Enderling recalled, “because of this policy, it was very easy for me to say ‘please send me an equal number of female CVs’.”

“I got sent them, and eventually it did end up being one of the female candidates who was hired. I’ve seen a few times that policies can have a positive impact – but they are a small part of the answer.”

A much bigger part is the executive’s willingness to drive real change.

Fixing cultural issues “is a lot about education, and leadership from the top,” advised Gail Jackman, a training manager and learning specialist with the Australian Cyber Collaboration Centre (A3C).

“If somebody is different in any kind of way, they are often targeted. That must be called out when people are behaving like that.”

Yet what is to be done when the one behaving like that is a senior executive?

Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing, Enderling added, recalling her work at a previous startup that was “very, very diverse” but had a “toxic culture… to the point where the CEO would be making rude gay jokes about the one person who was openly gay.”

“Although it was diverse, there was no inclusivity.”

Diversity picture still incomplete

Despite the industry’s steady march towards diversity and new career programs designed to engage with women, non-specific corporate policies and lack of enforceable standards has left each company to implement DEI on its own terms based largely on the mindsets of individual managers in what Cook said are often “very blokey environments”.

“We need to get into not just diversity, but the inclusivity part of it is maybe even more important to be able to create a system which becomes self propagating,” Enderling said.

“That makes a difference in terms of how the team looks at hiring, and thinking about it, because inclusivity becomes an explicit part of your culture.”

Yet with few metrics to track the changing composition of Australia’s cyber, ICT, and related industries – and most discussions revolving around shared anecdotes and frustratingly consistent studies about gender pay gaps – some believe the information vacuum has made it hard to progress more meaningfully from discussion to action.

Despite widely quoted statistics such as women holding 17 per cent of Fortune 500 CISO roles, the industry still lacks detail about the participation of groups such as neurodivergent people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, non-binary and transgender men and women.

“I have no idea how many are engaged in technology, because we just don’t have those statistics available to us,” noted Jo Stewart-Rattray, a long-time CISO and ACS community boards vice president, flagging a lack of visibility that is only starting to be addressed.

“There are definitely some real issues out there,” she said.

“How do we bring these people into our sphere of influence in the tech workforce, and make them feel wanted and included?

“I think we’re getting better with the cultural sides of things,” she said, “but we’re not particularly good at dealing with some of these other areas.”

Despite a large proportion of the Northern Territory’s workforce coming from a migrant background, said Dr Edwin Joseph – president of the Multicultural Council of the Northern Territory (MCNT) – Australians’ many entrenched biases not only keep skilled migrants out of leadership roles, but taint everyday interactions in the workplace.

Australian employers “are very, very ignorant” by global standards,” he said, recalling a Christmas decoration contest where a judge “failed to identify” that one of the team’s IT workers was a non-Christian and “was actually struggling to answer” her questions about Christmas in India.

Australian workers “fail to identify and actually acknowledge the diversity of people,” Joseph explained. “They mix work with life, use a lot of jargon when compared to other international environments.”

Festering ignorance continues to compromise grand corporate visions around DEI, Joseph said: “There are so many companies that have diversity as part of their visions or values in strategic planning,” he explained, “but the practical implementation is not happening.”

“In practice, many are very ignorant about other cultures,” Joseph continued. “It’s not only about putting it on paper in the strategic plan, but it should be communicated well to employees that diversity is not a pain. It’s actually a blessing.”

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