It is a question I have been pondering for a while after I presented at a storage seminar a couple of weeks ago. That’s ‘storage’ as in ‘data storage’ rather than in ‘furniture solutions’. I was talking about IT infrastructure and relatively technically at that. So no surprise on the size of the audience – about 50 well-qualified customers and prospects, all of whom had a deep interest in storage solutions and many of whom had a technical background.
As I walked to the front of the room to deliver my speech something suddenly struck me. All 50 attendees were male. Not a member of the fairer sex in the audience. The lack of diversity (and probably the relatively small attendee size) was no doubt due to its specificity and its technical nature. Let’s be honest, it isn’t glamorous, however much marketers like me try to ‘big it up’.
(Apparently there was one lady who had registered but she hadn’t shown up. Perhaps she had glanced in the room and thought it was a meeting of the local masons chapter and just kept walking).
So why there are relatively so few females in the storage industry and in IT generally. Is it not sold well to the younger generations and especially ladies?
It is certainly true that numbers of undergraduates studying computer science at UK universities fell by an alarming 25% from 2003 to 2010, the only broad-based subject to see its numbers fall. This covers male and female, but as a matter of note – there are more females in higher education in the UK than males. Is it because of a lack of role models? Well, there are some very impressive and high ranking IT execs who are female. Take Cisco’s CTO Padmasree Warrior, for example. Indeed in my own company NetApp, our CMO and our EVP of HR are ladies – and excellent they are. However you may say, ‘not surprising’ as the Marketing and HR functions are frequently led by women. But our CIO is a lady, and one of the best and most impassioned CIOs in the business. Several other senior placed execs are also female.
The sales side has traditionally been male dominated but here we have some female senior execs who are highly successful. NetApp drives a diversity policy and selects on merit. So perhaps we are just not getting the message out that IT can be a fulfilling career for women and one that can allow them to reach the echelons. So in order to get the female view I spent some time talking to Maria-Jose Miranda, our Country Manager for Spain & Bruna Bottesi, our Country Manager for Italy, both of whom have key roles in our field sales operation. I wanted to get their perspective on the opportunities that females have in IT, and Storage in particular.
I started by asking them how they had seen the position of women change over their careers:
MJM: It has changed according to the number of women in University Technical careers (not necessarily IT). They are in general less attractive to women, but on the other hand, women are more focused and committed to succeed in them. The number of women in IT positions has increased along these years but still it is not enough. This is even more dramatic in top positions. In general there are more women in software companies than in hardware. It is very much related to the cultural characteristics of these kind of companies. In general hardware is tougher, much more competitive and less culturally open. I am pleased to say that NetApp is an exception!
BB: When I started my career in HP, 20 years ago, the company already considered diversity as an asset. This created the right conditions to measure myself with the many roles and many job types that I took. I think today we have a better women coverage than in the past but still most often the roles that women hold are related to sales, marketing, HR, account management or operations, but it is more difficult is to find women in high level business job position, general management or executive roles.
I was curious also about what they thought might be behind the drop in the number of females studying ICT to university level and whether they thought it was relevant or not, or whether it was not something with which to be overly concerned:
MJM: I don’t think one necessarily needs to study IT/Computing in order to have a fulfilling career in an IT company. There are other University studies you can take to become a great professional in IT. I got Computer Engineer degree and at that time the program was closer to Business Administration than to pure IT concepts and programming. Nowadays, it may be too technical, and this is not close to the majority of women’s way of thinking and biological behavior.
BB: There are a lot of women working in tech even not having a degree in computer science and many of the roles within IT companies require other type of skills such as business administration, marketing, economics etc. Rather than focusing the discussion on the women tech degree trend, we should move the conversation toward the thinking that the success of a company is determined by a numbers of different roles, not only the tech one, and that women can bring a strong and diverse contribution in those roles.
So, the message seems to be, let’s not be too concerned about the decline in women taking tech classes, but think about how women can make a contribution at a senior level across multiple functions and departments.
Finally I wanted to know how they felt about NetApp specifically: how diverse they feel NetApp is and how important the aspect of diversity is to the company, from their vantage point.
BB: I have been at NetApp for 6 months and clearly I’m an example about diversity! That said I think that storage is still a very male driven world and NetApp in this sense is aligned to the market. For my past experience having a focused program that sustains diversity, not only gender, is certainly helping the organization to evolve and grow talented diverse skills. It’s a cultural shift and this is the reason why it needs a structured approach if we want it happen.
MJM: We, women are very good both at technical and sales sides of the industry and I would emphasize even more in sales. Diversity is the best a company can have for not losing talent (any kind of diversity but specifically gender). I do not like positive discrimination, since it can bring the wrong people in. It should be natural and in a similar context.
I think they both make excellent points. Clearly we want to encourage diversity of all forms, and in the case of this topic specifically, we want to encourage the best to work at NetApp regardless of gender, race, religion or any other form of categorization. That said, we have to accept that IT Storage Infrastructure as a discipline, could seem a little off-putting to the fairer sex.
But the final word must go to Bruna who makes a really interesting point when I ask her how I should persuade my daughter that a career in IT would be a fulfilling one:
BB: I think that there are no specific sectors for ladies or men, simply some that require one set of attitudes rather than another. I would underline that today technology is inherent in everything, so technology is one of the essential ingredient of many aspect of our life and work . We shouldn’t think of IT as specific areas like datacenter, for example, but we need to look at the technology world in general: smart cities, digital houses, internet, social networks…. Young people are digital natives and think already digitally and this will surely help them to understand which careers to pursue.
Educating these digital natives on the backbones to all the social media they use might be one way to raise the level of interest in storage and infrastructure in general. So, I hope in a few years time that as I get up to speak to an IT audience, especially one in storage, I am confronted with a few less ties and suits and more blouses and twin pieces!