It was Maria Markman’s father who urged her to pursue a career in IT. He could see his daughter’s passion for tech and the myriad opportunities she’d be exposed to if she committed to this trajectory.
Thankfully, Maria followed this advice, enrolling in a software development degree in Moscow, followed by a bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (IT) at Melbourne’s RMIT and finally a Master’s in Business (IT), giving her the perfect springboard to become an industry heavyweight.
Now the Chair of The Australian Computer Society (ACS) in Victoria as well as a budding tech entrepreneur, it’s fair to say she’s achieved just that.
But Maria acknowledges that most women are not afforded this same encouragement, which has led her to become a passionate advocate for increased representation of women in the industry.
“In the past ICT, was not seen as an attractive career for women,” she tells me. “There were so many stereotypes of what a typical programmer looked like that scared them [women] away. I would estimate that less than 30% of my fellow students in my bachelor’s degree were female.”
These stereotypes have also historically influenced recruitment in IT, where conscious and unconscious biases withhold women from climbing ranks.
Maria believes the tide is turning however, with more businesses and Government implementing programs designed to foster female talent within STEMM.
“There are so many programs and initiatives encouraging young girls and female students to choose STEMM subjects and pursue tertiary education in these fields,” she says. “They need to be engaged early – even as early as primary school, because that’s when those choices are influenced, and connections are formed.”
Despite certain programs working well to entice girls into the ICT industry, there are still significant challenges when it comes to talent retention, says Maria.
“I personally witnessed many examples of organisations and individuals paying lip service to the importance of gender diversity under pressure from the community or feeling it was expected of them, without taking any concrete steps,” she explains.
“In some cases, even when there is a genuine desire to make a difference, many women still fail, due to the lack of a coherent strategy. They get fed up dealing with these issues and are then happy to take roles in other functions where they feel like they belong rather than being an odd one out.”
In Maria’s eyes, there are a range of measures organisations can take to ensure women don’t leave the industry prematurely.
“In order to accelerate the change and not wait for the younger generation to come through, we need to encourage more women in non-IT jobs who have an interest in technology to engage more deeply with their ICT functions, so they can shape the outcomes rather than being right at the end of the production line,” she says.
“Moreover, women entering the tech sector need mentors, executive sponsors as well as role models to aspire to. They need people like them they can look up to. Hopefully, without biases and prejudices working against them, women would see the incredible opportunities for creativity, connectivity and shaping the future that ICT offers.”
She also hopes to see a shift in the number of women at the top, and believes this to be an important development for businesses of the future. Her own board career has allowed Maria to create a positive impact in the ICT industry and drive transformation for the Victorian branch of the ACS.
“Women bring diversity of thought, experience and approach. We lead differently, we build connections and relationships differently,” says Maria.
“Having more women on boards will give another perspective on decision-making and strategy. I believe businesses will become more human-focused, humble and sustainable into the future.”
For girls considering a career in STEM, Maria has some key advice: “Reach out to as many tech leaders as possible and hear their stories,” she says.
“LinkedIn is an amazing tool to build your personal and professional brand, promote yourself and network. Include a good quality photo and summary of your strengths, inspirations and ambitions and include why you’d like to engage.
“It’s well known that 80% of jobs aren’t advertised, most of the time it’s about who you know. So, start growing your professional network now.”