Female participation in sectors such as the Internet of Things has to improve and everyone has a part to play, according to three leading women at the front line of technology innovation.

Despite recent appointments of women to top IT positions, such as Sarah Harland’s appointment as Suncorp’s CIO and Kate Carruthers’ promotion to chief data officer at UNSW, there is still a dearth of female involvement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines in general, and IoT in particular.

The position paper ‘Women in STEM in Australia’ [PDF] released last year by gender diversity advocacy group Professionals Australia showed that in 2011, only 28 percent of STEM jobs were filled by women, with this figure falling to 25 percent for information technology roles, and as little as 18 percent in engineering.

The Federal Government has recognised the need to encourage young women to take up STEM roles, and introduced a $13 million scheme to encourage girls and women into these industries as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

IoT Hub spoke to three women in prominent positions in their STEM professions about the lack of female participation in IoT and the steps required to address it.

IoT benefits 'lost in translation'

Catherine Caruana-McManus, director of Giant Ideas and sales and strategy director of IoT start-up Meshed has seen the lack of female representation at the numerous events she has attended and hosted. She said that the creative and cultural benefits of IoT “have been lost in translation,” causing the female population to “switch off.”

“The majority of discourse relating to industrial and commercial IoT from vendors and governments has focused almost entirely on the technical aspects of IoT, the billions of devices that will be connected, the billions of dollars that will be made by telco and IT companies and the issues with standards and security,” Caruana-McManus said.

“Stories and case studies about how IoT is going to make our lives better to prosper in a more productive and equitable society are hidden amongst the hype.

“The conversation needs to change in order to attract girls, women and young people in general.”

Caruana-McManus points to the wearables and home automation sectors as moving in the right direction, with more balanced marketing appealing to broader segments of the community.

Complementary gender values

Danielle Storey, chief innovation officer and co-founder of Brisbane-based IoT systems integrator Smarter Technology Solutions, launched the company with her female counterpart Ash Hare, and said that IoT provides an “even playing field” to give women an opportunity to contribute in multiple ways.

“Yes, it’s quite engineering-focused, but it’s less about the technology and more about customer relationships, understanding their problems and how to solve them,” she said.

Storey sees the general technical proficiency among males and critical thinking in women as providing the balance needed for more valuable solutions.

“I think the complementary values of both genders create an equaliser in IoT, because it is less about the technology,” she added.

She also sees women’s tendencies towards empathy and positive interaction as being important for innovation in areas such as user experience.

“Simplicity [in user experience] is key for IoT, and in smart homes, for example, it will become one of the enabling factors,” she said.

“But even in enterprise, IoT is not typically IT-focused, it’s end user-focused, and generally those end users are not overly technical; they just need a system that works.”

Inspiring young female STEM students

University of Sydney professor Branka Vucetic, whose ground-breaking research into near zero-latency wireless networks won her an Australian Laureate Fellowship, is also the recipient of the 2016 Georgina Sweet Fellowship, where she has an ambassadorial role to promote women in research disciplines.

One of the initiatives that Vucetic is currently working on is creating an engineering kit to be distributed to young women in schools and help them to learn about computing and telecommunications in a fun and engaging way.

As part of this program, teachers will also receive training in the use of the kits, and university equipment will be donated to various schools to promote the program.

Vucetic told IoT Hub of the female engineering teacher at her high school who inspired her to take the path towards a career in physics and wireless engineering.

Like the teacher from her childhood, she believes the onus is on the women participating in STEM disciplines today to encourage interest in the next generation of female scientists, engineers and technologists.

“My experience with that teacher helped me understand how important it is to inspire others and inspire young minds,” she said.

“I think that girls lack the role models, confidence and awareness of career advantages in ICT and STEM disciplines, which discourages them from studying things like mathematics, for example.

“It’s also not good for society because we’re losing half of the population in disciplines that will spawn multiple jobs in the future.”

Storey is also a firm believer in the critical role that women already in the IoT industry have to promote the field as a potential career path for the younger generations.

“It’s critical to the development of the industry [to encourage female participation], because apart from the fact you’re missing out on 50 percent of the employment population you also miss out on their perspectives,” she said.

Storey sees women choosing to pursue creative digital career paths such as film or advertising rather than the technical roles, and she believes that this occurs due to the lack of understanding of what a modern technical role actually involves.

“If you asked most young men or women what technology jobs look like, I’m pretty sure half of them would still tell you it’s developing websites, so there’s a long way to go in the perception of what a STEM or technology job actually is,” she said.

Need for systematic change

Caruana-McManus believes that Australia must start to systematically equip young women with an appetite for learning and engagement in STEM disciplines.

She’d like to see dedicated STEM teachers to infuse creativity and diversity from primary through to postgrad studies, support for female STEM academies, educate parents and society at large of the value and opportunities available in technology courses, and build technical colleges in urban and regional centres.

Caruana-McManus also wants to see greater investment in the TAFE system, particularly as a bridge for girls in high schools that don’t provide sufficient STEM education.

“The technical certificates IV and V that are offered by TAFEs in IT, network engineering, electronics, and others are a critical pathway for girls who are finding that their schools – either private or public – do not offer strong engineering, robotics, gaming or software coding classes,” she said.

“Encouraging more schools to partner with TAFE from years nine through twelve could be a game changer.

“The challenge right now is to really understand how girls and women can be part of our innovation future and to cater for different nuances as to what ignites their interest in learning and driving careers in this space.”