For a woman who once questioned why anyone would want to work with computers, Laura Molony has built a curious career: it’s wall to wall computers.

After completing a degree in commerce in Auckland Molony joined NAB as a business graduate. Throughout the program she particularly enjoyed stints working in the realm of digital innovation which provided the platform for her career in tech.

She now leads a product team at Versent, a Melbourne based IT consultancy, for a product called Stax that was initially brought to life by three cloud-savvy employees who were frustrated with the uncertainty and lack of visibility surrounding cloud deployments. They brought it together in a short period of time and now compete with global companies far bigger. 

She doesn’t code, she doesn’t like star wars and she loves working in technology. How does it all fit together? In her words, connecting people and translating technology to what the customer wants and vice versa, is her sweet spot.

We asked Laura more about her career here.

Has your tech career been planned or did it just happen? 

I remember sitting in ‘Infosys 101’ at University and thinking ‘why would anyone work with computers?’ But then I learned more about technology and creating products for people to use when I left and realised some sort of career in technology was for me.

I completed the graduate program at NAB and met some great people and role models. I started working in the ATM team, then the digital team and now I’m at a fast-growing IT consultancy building a technical product for IT Managers called Stax. After a few years, I recognised that there is a whole industry of intelligent, fun people who build technology products and that I could contribute something to that industry.  

What qualifications (if any) do you have that support you in this role?

I studied Commerce – Marketing & Management at the University of Auckland and beyond that I’ve done some agile training. Other than that, it’s really been experience that supports me and learning from those much more talented than me.

Do you know any coding languages, is this relevant to your career?

No I don’t. I haven’t needed to and I don’t plan to learn how to code either. What I have learnt is understanding how the building blocks of technology fit together and how that impacts the user experience we’re creating. I’ve had a few moments in my career when I thought that I needed to learn to code, but the reality is, I’d be a terrible coder. I’m much better at connecting people, at translating technology to what the customer wants and vice versa.

What’s your proudest achievement so far in tech?

Launching our new tool Stax to the world earlier this year. In about six months, we built a new product and brand and launched at AWS Summit. This small team in Melbourne is now competing with companies who have been building similar products for many years. It feels great to be the new kids on the block and having built a product that customers really need - especially in such a short period of time.

Why is diversity so important in the tech sector?

Because customers and users of technology are diverse! People build products and people use products. If the people building the products don’t reflect or understand the people using them, the product fails.

Diversity – whether that’s gender, ethnicity, religion, music preference – means that more perspectives can be considered, which results in more balanced, inclusive experiences. And I think that’s great.

What do you want all girls and young women to know about careers in tech?

That it’s not all so technical! The majority of my role is about people – working with customers, stakeholders, my team – and facilitating the right conversations. You don’t have to be a self-identified ‘nerd’ to work in tech either. I think some girls think that if you don’t love Star Wars, you won’t fit in. I’ve never seen Star Wars, and I don’t plan on changing that!

What do you personally do to raise your profile and voice as a woman in tech?

To be honest, not a lot. I get involved in product or design meetups, I attend conferences. But really, that’s because I enjoy what I do, and I want to get better at it. I like to think that I should do those things because I’m passionate about my industry, not because I'm a woman.

How can we get more women speaking at technology-related events?  

Continue to promote tech as an industry that woman can thrive in. Ask women to speak about things that aren’t about ‘being a woman’, but about being awesome at what they do.

Can you run us through an average day in your life? 

We start the day with a standup every morning, so the whole team is across what we’re working on, issues can be raised and fixed to keep things moving. The rest of my day really varies. I could be helping scope product features, testing the product, doing sales, account management, developing support content, working on marketing initiatives... the list goes on. The Product Manager role in a startup is really broad, which is why I love it. You need to be able to juggle many things at once, all while keeping an eye on moving in the right direction.

What more would you like to see the tech industry doing to better support women in the field?

I think we’re heading in the right direction – continuing to create environments that support women, acknowledging that there is a gap to close and being open to talking about what that means. But most of all, ensuring that women are promoted and talked about, because of the great work that they do, and not simply to fill an agenda item about being a woman, because that’s what we’re ‘supposed’ to do.

Finally, who are your tech-related role models?

There are a couple of women and men who I’ve worked with in previous roles, who encouraged me to move into digital and technology and learn how to recognise the value I can bring to the industry. They continue to inspire me, along with the myriad of very smart people I work with every day at Stax and Versent.

 

A few years ago Fortescue Metals Group was the last ASX50 company to have an all-male board. Less than three years on, it will become only the second ASX-listed company to have a board dominated by women.  

Fortescue’s chairman and founder, Andrew Forrest, was unwilling to underplay the significance of this.

“It is the first time in history that there will be five women on a top ASX20 company board,” Forrest told Women’s Agenda.

While making history - or gender specific appointments - was not the objective, Forrest doesn’t retreat from the fact the resulting diversity is critical.

“I’m not arguing that women are better directors. Men and women bring equal value to the table but there is real danger in a lack of diversity in a board because of the echo chamber effect,” Forrest says. “For us it was a completely natural evolution – two of the three women directors didn’t want to retire and two of the guys wanted to.”

The search for directors to replace Geoff Raby and Owen Hegarty, was extensive. Forrest says youth, experience and ‘hard-core’ strategy were the not-negotiable criteria the board sought from the fifty or so candidates it considered. The two selected, and announced yesterday, are Penny Bingham-Hall and Jennifer Morris.

“The women on the board led the interrogation of the fairness of the recruitment process to ensure – when we announced and would become the first major listed company in Australia to have more women on its board than men – it was beyond question,” Forrest says. “If it were a gender specific selection it wouldn’t have got through.”

It got through because of the calibre of both new directors.  

“Penny Bingham-Hall spent 20 years-plus at Leighton, where she was head of strategy for a time. She’s on the board of Blue Scope Steel and she was a classic stand out choice,” Forrest explains. “Jennifer Morris, aside from being a twice Olympic- gold medallist – so she knows all about strategies for winning - and young – is a strategy partner at Deloitte. And at the partner level at Deloitte, they take no prisoners. You perform or you’re out. What a smacking good choice? I would recommend her - like any of our female directors – to any board in Australia.”

So why did it take Fortescue until February of 2013 to appoint a woman to its board?

“Fortescue was strongly oriented to the CEO and the speed of the company’s development perhaps needed that,” Forrest says. “But I also found that if you went to high level executive and director recruitment firms the list of names you were given were all men.”

In 2012 Forrest asked for a list of women. “I was staggered,” Forrest says. “The quality of the women I was shown was amazing, and if I’d never asked the question – I wouldn’t have seen them.”

When he asked why he hadn’t seen them before the answer was frank.

“They said ‘You never asked’. I had to cop that,” he says.

In February 2013 Elizabeth Gaines was appointed to the Fortescue board and in November of that year she was joined by Sharon Warburton. Dr Jean Baderschneider was appointed in January of 2015.

When asked if the board dynamic changed noticeably with the presence of three women, Forrest didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely. I found a heighted energy level and found the dynamism of the three women on the board to be very strong,” he said. “Their propensity to stand up to management was welcome and management appreciates it. Management need their decisions to be improved by a board.”

Judging by the company’s performance, it seems this is happening. Fortescue’s share price has grown by 400% this year. Forrest is confident the new board will continue functioning as successfully.  

His message for other business leaders?

“You need to be really careful to choose on merit but don’t forget that diversity is an extremely strong factor in merit. If you have no women on your board and you are looking at a new director with approximately equal skills, for the sake of your shareholders choose diversity.”

 

Everyone needs a girl gang. In real life, I’m lucky to be surrounded by a group of courageous, intelligent, funny women who can deliver the right dose of honesty, feistiness and care.

But I also have dream girl gangs. You know, the women you most admire who would give you the advice and solutions you need to take over the world. Women like Michelle Obama… Ok, at the moment, I could just stop at Michelle Obama – with her in your corner would you need anyone else in your life?

But in all seriousness, I love it when a great group of women succeed - and are celebrated - together.

Which is why I was so excited when the Daily Life's 2016 Women of the Year finalist list appeared on my news feed last night. As I began to scroll I was thrilled to see so many champion women: the fierce, intelligent and witty Anne Aly; the kind-hearted and honest Noni Hazlehurst and the laugh-until you cry writer Constance Hall.

I will never forget watching Linda Burney address a small dinner crowd of mostly young Indigenous kids when I was just 19. The way she spoke to those young men and women about staying true to their values and the need to keep pushing on despite the setbacks before them gave me goose bumps.

There’s no doubt that the ten women featured are truly remarkable. But as I scrolled to the end of the list, I couldn’t help but feel let down. I felt, once again, that women like me hadn’t made the cut, and when I say women like me, I mean women with disabilities.

Now let me be clear - my disappointment isn’t directed at Daily Life or the ten women who made the shortlist. My disappointment lies in the fact that this list, for the most part, accurately showcases the women whom we have paid attention to in 2016. The list says something about who we celebrate and value - and who we don’t. Which is why the lack of representation of women with disabilities is so jarring.

There can only be two reasons for the lack of representation of women with disabilities. Firstly, that there are no women with disabilities who are achieving at a high enough level to be worthy of a top ten spot. Let me call crap on that argument; to begin with, 2016 was a Paralympic year, so even if we were only to look at athletes, there was a smorgasbord of choices.

Did you know Paralympic sailor Liesl Tech won a gold medal in sailing for Australia in Rio, following her gold medal win for the same event in London? Oh, and London followed five previous Paralympics (Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008) where Liesl competed in an entirely different sport - Wheelchair Basketball, winning three medals for Australia. On top of all that, in 2010, she co-founded Sports Matters, a charity that promotes sport for people with disabilities in developing countries. Plus, anyone who has met Liesl knows she’s the life of any party with her infectious laugh and positive attitude.

So the problem isn’t that these women don’t exist - the problem is, you don’t know about them. To be frank - I don’t even know about that many of them - and I’m disabled. If you take out athletes and the Paralympics, I could count the number of disabled women achieving high-profile success in their chosen field on one hand. How can that be? How can I be so ignorant?

I think it comes down to the fact we don’t talk about them, we don’t see them, so we don’t know about them. I don’t know about you, but I feel like when it comes to disability awareness and a platform for our stories (again, particularly for women), we are going backwards.

Some of that (but clearly not all) is connected to the death of Stella Young. A high-profile writer with disabilities who had an uncanny ability to say exactly what I was thinking or how I was feeling - but in a way that made everyone laugh. Her humour made the uncomfortable issues she was raising relatable and easy to digest for disabled and non-disabled alike. She started conversations that broke down barriers. But how did we even get to the stage where we were largely relying on one (remarkable) woman to advocate and shine a light on our issues in the media?

And if there are others, why don’t I know about them? We’ve lost our platform and I for one want it back. So how do we build a louder - more diverse - collective voice that cannot be ignored? There are probably many great ideas out there. We just need to share them and back each other up. Promote each other and not wait for others to notice us. We need our own girl gang.

Hearing another educated and skilled friend lament the fact there was “no point” in returning to the workforce, gave SAP President Adaire Fox-Martin an idea.

“I have a son who has just finished the HSC and a number of my friends are at a similar stage with kids finishing school and starting uni,” Fox-Martin explains. “Many of these friends of mine started their careers on a fast track in various streams and companies. For those who decided to stay at home when they had children, they have developed vast capabilities in everything from managing finance, to logistics, to running and marketing events on a shoe string. But after a long absence from work, it is really hard to get back in.”

The idea that these women are without skills or value is absurd but the Asia Pacific and Japan president of software company SAP could see that it was tricky. Many of these women would have to start well below the level they were at when they left work.

“One of the advantages of being in a role like mine is that when you want to make a difference and do something – you can,” Fox-Martin explains. “So I thought I’d look at what we could do as a company to bring this untapped resource back to work.”

The result is SAP’s Back to Work program, an initiative supporting professional women looking to re-enter the workforce after a career break by offering project-based assignments. Having been successfully rolled out in Japan and Korea, it is now on offer in Australia.

“Both Japan and Korea have an aging population and there is an ongoing challenge around talent, and almost half the talent of the country is on the bench,” Fox-Martin tells Women’s Agenda. “We launched Back to Work because it’s an opportunity to bring talented women back to work, but also to balance our workforce and introduce a new calibre of talent back into SAP.”

The program is open to applicants from a variety of fields, who have spent a minimum of two years out of the workforce but of the 12 women brought on board, the average break from the workforce is around five to six years.  

The company identifies projects and considers what the project would require in house to complete. An hourly rate that is commensurate with the job grade and experience required is then agreed on and the project is open to applicants.

“Typically for a contract role we’d use an agency to manage the application process but that isn’t going to work here. This is a high-touch, humanistic recruitment process,” Fox Martin explains. “As our back to work talent comes back, we want them to have confidence and feel that they’re being nurtured.”

To this end successful candidates are provided with a mentor, the option to work in the office or from home, with complete flexibility. Any equipment required for the role is provided, along with training to ensure the technology and equipment can be used. Meeting the deliverables set at the outset in consultation with a manager, is the only requirement.

“The minimum duration for a project is 3 months and at the end of 3 months, if we like what we see and they like what they see, we will offer a permanent position in the company,” Fox-Martin says.  

Aside from the potential benefit to applicants, it is providing SAP with exposure to talent it was previously missing out on.

Tapping into the latent talent of women currently out of the workforce is part of the reason

Deloitte consulting is launching a pilot program called Return to Work next year.  

“We are looking for talented individuals who have had time away from work - for parenthood, family care or other reasons - with the aim of helping them transition back into the working world,” Deloitte Consulting Partner Kaylene O’Brien says. “It not only benefits us by opening up the talent base to highly-qualified, experienced, motivated employees who offer maturity and stability, but also gives these individuals the confidence to continue their career progression despite the fear of being behind or lacking appropriate skills.”

The 20-week program is designed to support experienced individuals return to the workforce after a career break of two or more years. The firm will offer 12 part-time, paid positions based out of Melbourne and Sydney to begin in February of 2017.

The program is modelled on a program Deloitte in the UK have successfully implemented.    

“They received over 1000 applications and enquiries from people who wouldn’t have normally applied for permanent positions,” O’Brien told Women’s Agenda. Many of the participants went on to become permanent employees and Deloitte here is hoping to replicate the UK’s conversion rate.

“Why it’s been so successful is because we have really thought of the experience of the employee,” O’Brien says. She knows firsthand the difficulty – real and perceived – in returning to work after a break.  

“I took a career break after having twin daughters and I was really thinking about the work mode I previously had and I wasn’t sure how I could do that with 1 year old daughters,” she told Women’s Agenda.

For O’Brien the transition back to work was successful because she came back part-time with flexibility and was then quite quickly promoted to partner. Not every person has that luxury though.“There is a part of the market who are trying to imagine what it might be like to return to work after a career break and it’s tricky. They are asking themselves ‘Will I have flexibility? Do I have the knowledge and skills?’ We have specifically developed this program with a significant training component to build confidence,” O’Brien says. “The aim is to bring people up to speed quickly and the program is part time because coming back part-time, with flexibility helps put the toe in the water.”

It was barely a week ago and yet, thanks to an eventful election in between, it feels like it took place in a different world.

On Tuesday night, over 400 men and women gathered in Sydney to partake in the Diversity Council Australia and National Australia Bank annual diversity debate.   The question dissected with wit and insight was this: “Is engaging men the game changer for gender equality?”

 

The affirmative team was made up of the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, Microsoft Australia MD Pip Marlow and NAB’s Stephen Barrow.

The negative team comprised Associate Professor from the University of Wollongong Dr Michael Flood, TV screenwriter and columnist Benjamin Law and author and broadcaster Clementine Ford. ABC host Tony Jones served as the moderator and interrogated each debater’s argument with some ferocity.

Attendees were asked to cast their votes before the debate commenced and 71% of attendees were on the affirmative team’s side. By the end of the evening, however, votes had swung. As Kate Jenkins put it, her team managed to steal defeat from the jaws of victory.

The “the” ended up being important. Is engaging men “a” game changer? Yes. But “the” game-changer? Perhaps not.

Kate Jenkins made the case for men's engagement.  “We are not saying that men are more important or should be running the show, but they can work together with women in the fight for gender justice. If we can engage the large majority of men in our community who have historically failed to pull their weight, this will make a huge difference,” she said. 

Jenkins very helpfully included some fairly simple suggestions for men wishing to shift the dial. These varied from "doing the dishes", "role modelling respect" to supporting women working.

Pip Marlow was the second speaker for the affirmative. “The reality is that men hold the majority of positions of power in our businesses, our boardrooms and our parliaments. History shows us that acceptance has never driven change so we need to engage the men who sit in these positions of influence. Their role in agitating and advocating for change at all levels is critical to driving the change required to create a better future,” she said.

Marlow expressed frustration at the lack of progress and was passionate in her call for men to get on board. "What gets measured get done," Marlow argued, making the case for accountability.

Stephen Barrow said change always begins with the individual and that the "pure mathematics" of our population requires men to be part of the solution. “The cause has been stalled by polarising arguments about men versus women. The best way to make change is through inclusive leadership, through men being included in understanding the current situation more fully and also being part of the solution," Barrow said. "This is an issue of numbers and basic psychology."

Michael Flood kicked things off for the negative team and admitted it was a tricky position given his research on the positive impact of men's engagement. Yet by focusing on the "the", he mounted a compelling case. He argued that engaging men was not a game changer because it was simply another attempt at the same game.  

"Too often, we appeal only to men’s paternalistic concern for the women and girls in their lives, and not also to what is right, what is fair and just," Flood said. "We tell men that ‘real men don’t hit women’, when in fact it is ‘real’ men – men who are invested in sexist notions of manhood – who are most likely to hit women."

He quoted the feminist Audre Lorde who wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She might also have written, ‘The masters will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Certainly not by themselves. Certainly not without being part of a broader feminist movement. " 

“In practice, efforts to engage men often set the bar for men very low," Dr Flood argued. "They risk marginalising women’s voices. They focus too much on reassuring men and not enough on challenging systems and cultures of oppression.” 

Benjamin Law continued Flood's theme by suggesting men have had plenty of opportunities to contribute to the progression of women. How many chances do men need, he asked. “Men are already engaged – look at the myriad initiatives in every sector that have existed for years, if not decades – and there is still inequality. Men won’t end inequality, just as white people won’t end racism,” Law said.

"In the struggle for #gender #equality...men have never changed the game & never will" @mrbenjaminlaw #DCAdebate pic.twitter.com/iNXFAFFlZb

— NAB (@NAB) November 8, 2016 

'If engaging men were the answer women would still do all the work and get half the credit' @mrbenjaminlaw #DCAdebate

@mrbenjaminlaw if engaging men was the game changer, the world would have changed by now #DCAdebate pic.twitter.com/z477jP9OqU

— A/Prof Rae Cooper (@Raecooper1) November 8, 2016

And then it was time for Clementine Ford to bring it home for the negative team. "Engaging" men, she argued, is effectively calling for women to be placable and polite in requesting a more equitable division of power.  It perpetuates the dynamic that underpins inequality.    

“Too often, engaging men has been about asking men to ‘help’ women, to decide how much power to give back to women. It should be focused less on valorising men and more on changing, challenging, and mobilising them,” she said.  

Rather than devoting energy and attention to pandering to men, Ford argues women ought to be engaged so they can be the architects of their own empowerment. She cited Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and pointed out that his overt feminism is lauded in a way no female leader's feminism ever has been.  

The evening was studded with terrific gems from all speakers but Ford delivered the line of the night in her closing. "Men, I literally don't care what you do as long as you get out of the way."

The boards of family businesses are missing out on an important talent pool, with two thirds holding less than 30% females.

According to US research by Deloitte, Perspectives on family-owned businesses – Governance and succession planning, family businesses are failing to pay adequate attention to governance, board operations and succession planning, underutilising external expertise and female talent and thereby affecting their productivity and long-term success.

"In Australia, family-owned businesses may have a suitable board of directors, but the question needs to be asked if they are applying optimal governance processes. Boards need to be evaluated and assessed according to how much value they bring to the table and the long-term performance of the business," says Michael Clarke, Deloitte Private's chief operating officer, noting that the US research is "anecdotally representative of the Australian market".

"There is a danger of limiting family business' productivity by underutilising external expertise," Clarke says. "The role of external board members is vital and adds a valuable and independent commercial perspective."

The survey of 222 family-owned businesses (93% senior executives) with annual revenues from $50 million to over $1 billion revealed that two-thirds of boards have fewer than 30% female membership, 28% have no female board members at all and among the companies with revenues between $200 million to $500 million, the number without female board members jumps to 48%.

"Corporate Australia has a long, long way to go, but it seems to be getting its act together. [Female representation] is on the agenda," Clarke says of the lack of women on boards generally.

"But in private business and the family business sector, it's just as important if not more important ... but it's not as well acknowledged or evolved. The family business sector is lagging the corporate sector."

In addition to a lack of female representation, the research highlighted the importance for family businesses of setting up a board of directors in the first place and the importance of a board's composition. According to the survey, more than a quarter (28%) of family businesses don't have a board of directors at all, and of those that do have one, only 39% are controlled by a majority of non-family, non-executive directors. The boards of most family businesses are predominantly made up of family members, with 42% indicating that family comprises at least three-quarters of their board.

"Having some sort of governance structure gives a sounding board, an outside perspective and it helps take the heat out of situations," says Clarke. "It eliminates the emotion. That's one of the big things with family businesses – the complexity of an enormous amount of emotion."

The research also showed that almost half (49%) of family businesses only review succession plans when a change in management requires it and 41% don't have a contingency plan when it comes to safeguarding their leadership – factors that can be particularly detrimental to a family business, according to Clarke.

"Australian family businesses are finding that the operational demands of running their business can be all-consuming. It's therefore important for family business owners to take the time to consider how the oversight of a board may improve their business and to groom the next generation of leaders."

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