How Telstra is helping bridge the gender gap within the tech industry

March 4, 2021

11 min read

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International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It’s also a time to examine how much progress is still to be made when it comes to the way women are perceived in society, women’s rights and issues like gender equality and equal pay. 

To explore some of these topics, we recently interviewed two Telstra leaders: Tara Kristick, Head of Wholesale, Americas; and Adam Day, Head of Enterprise and Technology, Americas. Below is a transcript of that conversation edited for clarity and length. Both Tara and Adam are involved with promoting a range of initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion at Telstra and shared their different perspectives on a range of issues including: how they experience and view gender dynamics, how women and men can have a positive impact the next wave of women employees, and what Telstra is doing to create a more equitable workplace environment.

What are your overall thoughts on these issues?

Tara Kristick: It’s no secret the technology sector, like many industries, is lacking gender diversity. Throughout my career, more often than not, I’ve been one of the only women “in the room”. While it's been getting slightly better, we’re still repeatedly asking ourselves the same question: “how can we get more women into technology?” 

What I hear most of the time from women is that they don’t have an interest in technology because they don’t have an understanding of where they would fit, especially if they aren’t math, science or engineering minded. “Technology” automatically infers, for many, that you need to be more “left-brained” and more analytical, methodical and math-focused. There needs to be more awareness raised about the roles within technology that could actually be really cool and exciting for women – whether they’re left-brained or right-brained or a little bit of both. 

The most important component here is bringing together a diversity of thought, style and perspective, which is needed in every industry – technology or otherwise – to grow the business and explore new ideas. It’s incredibly important that girls and women understand the wide range of opportunities available in tech. 

Adam: The workplace, and our teams, should look and feel like our communities and the customers we serve every day. Fifty percent of the world's population is women, and when more women work, economies grow. The consulting firm McKinsey has said organizations that are culturally and gender diverse at leadership levels outperform those that are not by up to 33 percent. 

From my personal experience, from a young age I was always surrounded by strong women in my family, and they are the ones who raised me. If it weren’t for those women in my life, I would not be who I am today, nor would I have had the opportunities I have. I’ve also worked with and for some incredible female leaders in my career who had a significant impact on my personal and professional development. Both of these experiences are a large part of why I am so passionate about these issues.

How are women perceived in workplace?

Tara: I have run into my fair share of situations where, even though I’ve advanced to a leadership position, people will assume that the man in the room is the manager. People may pay more attention to him or ask for his advice and feedback over me. I still see a lot of assumptions and biases on that front. More often than not, my team takes it in their stride, and they have no problem saying, "Oh no, she's the one in charge here!” We all laugh it off and carry on, but it’s something we all need to be more aware of and look to change.

Many times women will present a great idea, but it then gets overshadowed by a man who may follow up with the same idea worded differently or may try to explain why their version of the idea is better. It’s the exact same output, but people buy into it or get excited about it even though it was a repeat of what the woman had said. On my team, we have made a practice of calling people out when they do this during meetings. Just doing that one simple thing has made people more aware that it happens, and, as a result, I’ve seen this happen less and less at Telstra, which is encouraging.

Adam: It's clear that gender bias still exists. I am seeing many companies, including Telstra, and other groups spending a lot of time on uncovering and bringing awareness to unconscious bias, which is good, but we have a lot more work to do.

There are plenty of instances of men raising concerns about their own career and promotion opportunities to overshadow conversations around women representation and measures to improve that. That’s clearly unconscious bias.

Another trend that has to change is how we perceive our leaders. A strong, confident man is seen as “ambitious” while a strong confident woman is too often, and unfairly, described as “aggressive,” or worse.

How are you mentoring the next wave of women?

Tara: I do see a good part of my role, which I love, as helping the next wave of women to grow their careers, find their voice, build their networks, and create allies across the organization. We've hired quite a few younger women either right out of college or just a couple of years out, and I’m so excited to see this new talent coming on board and growing.

I spend a lot of time mentoring and talking to them, not just to help them be successful in their day-to-day roles, but also to get them to see, “Oh, this is fun, this is interesting and my perspective does matter.” Not only do I need to mentor and support these women, but I also need to amplify their voices across the business, showcase their amazing work and sing their praises, and encourage them to take opportunities to “share the stage” with senior leadership (including me) in meetings and presentations.

Adam: As a senior leader at a technology company, I see my role as both being very self-aware, helping drive awareness, and being a champion and ally in pushing for positive change across the workplace. Part of that is trying as hard as I can to build and develop diverse teams, and to actively promote and invest in women as we look to help build our next generation of leaders.

What are the barriers to women entering technology fields?

Tara: There are more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses now throughout K-12 and higher education, which is helping, but the biggest issue is still too few women applying to technology jobs.

For open positions, it’s common we’ll receive 30 resumes, but only two may be from women. We've talked about and done analysis on how people write job descriptions, and found that a majority of women will only apply for jobs if they meet 95 percent of the criteria. Their attitude is often, "I’m not qualified enough, so I shouldn't apply."

On the other hand, men will still apply if they only meet 50 percent of the requirements. We have to get that balance to shift so that we get more women in the mix for a variety of positions in the technology sector. Part of that is on us – how we write our job descriptions and how we advertise our roles – so we are working on a program to fix this.

Adam: I agree that we need to rethink how we write job descriptions. More broadly, we also need to reassess how and where we advertise our open roles, and how we define success for a certain role.

Take a new sales or engineering role, for example. If our default hiring criteria is limited to “years of experience at a variety of companies with a rolodex of contacts,” we are never going to change the narrative and the culture. We need bold, progressive leaders who will take the arguably riskier position of looking more for motivation, attitude and ambition over experience particularly in an industry historically dominated by men. Fundamentally flipping how we think about talent will help us balance immediate results with building for the future.

There is significant demand for technology workers across the U.S. and Australia. If we’re truly interested in casting a wider net in our recruitment efforts, let’s challenge ourselves to find that different target audience, and challenge recruiters, too. If we find the majority of resumes are coming from men, instead of shrugging and saying, “Oh well, that’s the way it is,” instead let’s ask, “Why is it that way, and how can we find a wider, more diverse pool of candidates?”

Do you see the industry changing?

Tara: Yes, slowly, but it’s definitely changing for the better. Our partners and customers are getting more diverse and they’re also hiring more diverse groups of employees across the board: race, gender, age, experience, and socioeconomics. There are also more industry events and associations that we are involved with in the Americas and globally. For example, at every conference or trade show, there’s now always a women’s panel or session. That’s a big change from as recently as a few years ago.

What's interesting is they want men to participate as well, because it's not just about the women coming together. Diversity is only diverse when everyone is involved.

Women often say they need allies, and it doesn’t always have to be another woman. In fact, it shouldn’t always be. Sure, it's on me to support, encourage and advocate for this next generation, but that also applies to men. If we truly want different perspectives and a broad, diverse group of people working across the business, then it's on the men as well to recognize we need to give a voice to everyone in the room.

What is Telstra doing?

Tara: I help lead the diversity and inclusion efforts here in the Americas and I’m encouraged by the fact Telstra has definitely focused on recruiting and hiring qualified and interested women candidates.

It’s about getting different perspectives, insights, and ways of breaking down problems. Having all that, not just with women, but also with different ethnicities and age groups, is all really helpful. With many of our younger employees – women and men – all they’ve ever known is having a device in their hands and being “always online.” So, they're coming into this field already with a leg up in many ways. But at the same time, since they grew up with it almost since birth, they've also never paused to understand or even truly appreciate what technology can do or what Telstra provides for its customers. That is a huge opportunity to bring an entirely fresh perspective to our business and to our customers.

Adam: Telstra historically was an engineering company at heart, more than 100 years old, so we have come from a place of a heavily male dominated workforce. We recognize a successful gender diversity strategy must be embedded from the top, and throughout the entire organization. It’s imperative we have strong female leaders in all areas and regions across the business. Women make up 40 percent of Telstra’s board of directors and over 30 percent of our leadership in the Americas. That’s compared to an average of 20 percent for almost all corporate boards of directors at publicly traded companies in the U.S., according to the latest data from data governance company Equilar Inc. We’ve made a lot of strides as a company, but we still have work to do throughout the organization.

Importantly, there are a few initiatives at Telstra I’m proud to call out that are making a difference toward removing barriers:

  • Parental Leave. This policy launched in 2019 in Australia and removes the distinction between primary and secondary carers, enabling any parent to take on caring responsibilities with up to 16 weeks paid leave.
  • All Roles Flex. This effort was in place even before COVID, but it’s helping our teams find their own balance of home, family and caring responsibilities.
  • 50/50 recruitment policy. This policy mandates minimum woman representation of 50 percent on interview shortlists for all roles.

What are some individual steps men can take to champion women in the workplace?

Adam: Be super conscious of those seemingly small moments that create an exclusive environment: small talk in a customer meeting being about sports, customer events focusing on golf, customer lunches or dinners at steak houses – all these instances that still are often 90 percent men in suits.

Have lunch or coffee with a woman colleague – at least virtually for now – and ask how you can help and get involved. Explore getting involved with a diversity and inclusion activity or group at your company. Look for opportunities to call out what is unacceptable, or what our culture has deemed to be “OK.” Create opportunities for the next wave of women leaders. Be a change maker (one of Telstra’s core values).   

Bottom line: get involved, be vocal, be an ally and help drive positive change, one person at a time.

For a list of our current job openings globally, check out our LinkedIn page. Additionally, you can find more resources about our diversity and inclusion efforts here and a blog about the recent mentoring program for women we participated in here.