Society as a whole has been trying to address the issue of gender equality in the workplace for decades, and the technology sector has been no exception. Women in the tech industry have long been outnumbered by men and by a wider percentage than the rest of the economy, as TechRepublic detailed in our award-winning 2015 cover story that also looked specifically at the challenges in venture capital.

But the traditional stereotype of the tech industry is changing in Australia. It is one country where the industry has ramped efforts to purposefully encourage more women to enter the industry, as well as stay and climb the corporate ladder.

And, the numbers are starting to reflect it–if only modestly.

Australia’s IT industry is slightly better at appointing women to leadership roles, in comparison to the rest of the world. Eleven percent of Harvey Nash’s respondents to its 2015 CIO Survey were female IT leaders, 2% higher than the global average of 9%.

And, if we take a look at some of the major tech companies in Australia, females are starting to take top roles:

  • Pip Marlow, managing director at Microsoft Australia
  • Kate Burleigh, managing director at Intel Australia and New Zealand
  • Karen Stocks, managing director at Twitter Australia
  • Joanne Jacobs, who is a Code Club Australia board member, Telstra industry advisory board member, and NSW government Digital Government Advisory Panel member

Within the startup community there are women such as University of New South Wales physics professor Michelle Simmons, who is expected to make real headwinds in quantum computing, after picking up AU$46 million in funding from the Australian government, as well as the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Telstra. The funds are expected to support Simmons’ development of silicon quantum computing technology.

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Canva founder Melanie Perks, Shoes of Prey co-founder Jodie Fox, ShowPro founder Jane Lu, and OneShift founder Gen George are also among a handful of successful Australian tech entrepreneurs, who all happen to be females.

Microsoft’s Marlow told TechRepublic that gender inequality as a topic in tech is more important than ever, given companies are out there designing solutions for the general population made up of 50% females. Not only that, it’s a huge emerging market, Pip said, pointing to the US, for instance, where women account for $20 trillion in consumer spend every year.

“More and more product designs, more and more solutions for customers has to not just be for men, but for women, and putting women at the centre of the technology that is being designed is so important,” she said.

What are businesses doing to push this further?

Over the last few years, one of the first initiatives large organisations including Dell, Twitter, and Microsoft have introduced to combat gender inequality within their companies has been unconscious bias training. While unconscious bias is an ideology that cannot be completely reversed, Psynapse founder Jennifer Whelan said bringing awareness into the equation helps people make more conscious decisions.

During the training process, companies are encouraged to openly discuss the contributing factors of unconscious bias to ensure that from the top down there is a cultural awareness, and businesses are putting in place appropriate processes for recruitment, promotion, and performance evaluation. This can vary from including at least one female in the recruitment process on both the applicant and employer side; and consciously giving women the opportunity to rise to leadership roles.

“Frankly, everybody took something away from [the unconscious bias training]. It’s more than just the gender bias; it’s that knowledge you’re presenting and the lens you’re putting on the world, and how that may influence your decisions or the opportunity you give people,” Dell Australia and New Zealand managing director Angela Fox said.

But the unconscious bias training doesn’t stop at gender for Microsoft. Marlow’s own personal philosophy at the firm is to “lead with inclusion” across gender, as well as skin colour, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

Drawing from her own needs as a female leader, Marlow has long been an avid believer in promoting “work-life balance” for both men and women. She said it helps address a common concern for many females who question if they can successfully be a mother, wife, employee, and leader.

During her interview with TechRepublic, Marlow admitted despite having an arm injury that prevented her from physically going into the office, she was still able to work from home.

SEE: 10 signs that you aren’t cut out to be a telecommuter (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

With the rise of technology, the line between life and work has blurred, giving people the opportunity to work the hours they want while attending to family life.

“We have the technology and the ability now to create creative workplaces, so that actually means that I can attend the swimming carnival or I can go to the school graduation or [a] play, and I can still do my job,” Marlow said.

“I don’t believe work is a place you go; it’s a thing you do, and if you take that into account, then you can tap into the minds of 100% of the population.”

Flexible working hours is also a priority at Dropbox, which recently partnered with Diversity City Careers in an effort to attract and retain women who may also be primary caregivers at home.

The need for flexible working hours became apparent to Dropbox Australia managing director Charlie Wood during his days as the founder of SocialCRM. At the time, Wood hired a team of women, who he described as having “amazing talent” but needed flexible working hours because they could only work between 10am to 2pm, and couldn’t drive from Sydney’s Northern Beaches to the city.

The benefits of flexible work practices were also experienced firsthand by Accenture Technology’s Livesey, who was promoted while on maternity leave to her current role. She acknowledged it was only possible because of the support of her team.

“We talk about ‘flexing for life’, and that’s for all of our staff. It is about helping our teams get what they want out of their career, and, if anything, we’re seeing a lot of people feeling–particularly as they’ve been on maternity leave–really empowered to come back to the business and contribute. But, on their own terms.”

Pinterest, Twitter, Intel, and Accenture are some companies holding themselves accountable to improving the gender imbalance by publishing diversity data and setting target goals around overall female representation, female representation in management roles, and female representation in engineering–the hardest one to crack.

In 2016, Twitter is striving to boost representation for women in the global workforce to 35%, and female representation in tech roles to 16%. The priority for Pinterest this year is to lift female hiring rates for full-time engineers to at least 30%, which in 2015 was only 19%.

“You have to be transparent and start looking at the numbers. I think you have to take the attitude of ‘stop making excuses’. If there are not enough women there, I think the question is why aren’t there enough women there, and start asking very fundamental questions right back to your recruitment process,” said Twitter’s Stocks, who said it is not uncommon to see no females during a recruitment process.

It’s a pipeline issue

Regrettably, the lack of women in technology is not only a business issue, but also an education problem.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), women tend to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and training. In 2015, for example, there were only 3,900 females studying computer science, versus 14,600 males. A similar slew of statistics was also evident in information technology, engineering and related technologies, and electrical and electronic engineering and technology.

Communications Minister cum Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull admitted last May the number of students taking up STEM learning has dropped significantly, saying that “the country has gone backwards”.

“Of our 600,000 workers in ICT, more than half work outside the traditional ICT sector. Seventy-five percent of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM skills, but only half of year 12 students are studying science; that’s down from 94% 20 years ago. That is really a retrograde development, and we have to turn that around,” Turnbull said.

At the end of last year, under its National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian government pledged AU$51 million in a bid to help students in Australia embrace the digital age and prepare for the jobs of the future, along with AU$48 million to inspire STEM literacy and AU$13 million to encourage women to take up roles in STEM sectors.

The AU$51 million will include the formation of IT summer schools for students in years 9 and 10, an annual Cracking the Code competition for those in years 4 through 12, and online computing challenges for years 5 and 7 students.

Teachers will also receive assistance with access to online support for preparing digital technology-based curriculum activities.

The Office of the Chief Scientist published the first national STEM Programme Index (SPI) at the beginning of 2016 to give schools access to a list of more than 250 STEM programs such as competitions, excursions, and online activities available to students.

Some may argue kids these days are tech savvy enough they don’t need to study STEM subjects given that they are born into the digital age. But Intel’s Burleigh argued “it couldn’t be further from the truth”.

“You actually get more removed from the technology … so it’s the right thing that we’ve dumbed it down, but … you have to be prepared to literally get a screwdriver out, pull your phone or laptop apart, and understand how the technology works. It’s that person who does that [that] I want to employ; not the person who knows how to use it,” she said.

But the onus isn’t just on teachers but parents, too, ACS vice president Arnold Wong stressed. He believes parents are guilty of stereotyping tech as an industry for men only.

Psynapse’s Whelan said any unconscious bias formed at home carries over to how children interact with each other when they go to school, and ultimately impacts students’ interests during the “crucial moments” of years 9 and 10 when they have to choose electives.

The world of marketing

Sera Prince McGill, former Girl Geek Sydney lead organiser, highlighted that since birth, we have all been exposed to the vicious cycle of gender stereotyping–everything from clothes to toys have always been marketed with a gender divide. Such marketing exacerbates the gender bias, she said, and therefore determines what activities are appropriate for each gender.

“The result is that women have been systematically socialised away from technology. Marketing has created a societal bias, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, that computer science was for boys,” she said.

However, the gender bias hasn’t always existed. Dating all the way back to the 1800s, Ada Lovelace was, of course, one of the earliest computer programmers.

It wasn’t until 1984–the same year Apple released its first Macintosh–that the uptake of computer science by women began to plunge, while studies in medicine, law, and physical sciences continued to surge, as reported by National Public Radio.

McGill, drawing on research by Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of California, suggested from the early 20th century to the 1970s, there were far fewer gendered toys or clothing. Leading the charge of the social-gender divide in technology was the video game industry.

“1983 had seen a huge crash in recession in what [the game industry] had been up to … so one contributing factor was the lack of marketing; so enter the marketers. Their research found children who played games in the 1980s, 70% were boys and 30% were girls,” she said.

“Games companies wanted to ensure they could move product and create profit, so of course they went after the male demographic only. There is no denying it made them money; Atari and Nintendo became household names. The upshot of this approach was that it spilled into the toys market generally, because if the toy market is divided, there might be a greater chance of profit.”

Women in business turn to tech

Interestingly, many of the women who have risen to the top of technology companies have come into the industry through other fields such as marketing, sales, and accounting.

Australia has traditionally become a hub where companies come to establish local presence through a support centre, rather than a central location for product development.

SEE: Solving for XX (CNET Special Feature)

Harvey Nash managing director Bridget Gray believes this perception is a contributing factor to why the demand for engineering skills is relatively lower than other skills in Australia.

“It’s critical that Australia is viewed as a desirable and supportive location for startups and product development if we want to seriously play in the global digital economy,” she said.

“Australia would be in a better position to offer more opportunities to engineers of all levels, and retain top talent if we were able to attract a greater volume of companies, large and small, to headquarter their product development and innovation centres locally.”

Intel’s Burleigh is one example of the women who have found themselves working for a tech company after spending years in sales and marketing. Given the nature of the sales and marketing industry, where there are typically more females, Burleigh said she never noticed the gender imbalance. It was only when she started putting her hand up for enterprise sales roles that she felt she had to justify her job a little more.

“It wasn’t that it was harder, but I had to have that second or third conversation that I really was serious and I seriously wanted it, because were a few question marks over could you really do it, and I could never say it was because I was female, or was it because my skills were [such that] I was identified more strongly as a consumer marketer,” she said.

Due to the lack of females coming through the education pipeline, businesses such as Microsoft have begun broadening their searches–and it’s starting to pay off. Women now make up at least 50% of all of Microsoft’s new university graduates being hired.

Despite decades of roadblocks for women in technology, the answer to the problem is nothing but a social evolution, according to Whelan. She believes that with the attitudes of newer generations changing as they go against “social norms”, such as seeing more women work outside of the home, it’s only a matter of time before there is an evolutionary breakthrough.

There are “glimmers of hope” with female CEOs already leading the likes of Twitter, Intel, Dell, and Spotify in Australia, Marlow said.

“This is a time for us to push harder, and drive the change we want to see.”