They are senior and strategic IT managers within their organisations. They cover the medical profession, education, engineering and property services, and banking. They firmly believe business skills are just as, if not more, important than technological ones. And they are also women.

The challenges facing women in IT have been discussed for years. They begin with technical subjects in primary and secondary school, and perhaps earlier.

Encouraging kids of any gender to do science and technology is difficult thanks to perceptions that both are too hard, too nerdish, and hold limited employment prospects.

These views extend into adulthood, but the differentiations evident between women and men become accentuated the higher up in the industry you go.

According to research issued by the Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (now called Science and Technology Australia) in 2011, the plain fact is that at mid-career level, the number of women involved drops off. "It is rare to find women holding high-ranking positions in academia," the research states.

The organisation cites the CSIRO, where 39 per cent of employees are female but only 8 per cent are at Level 8 (on a scale of 1 to 9). While this represents a 4.5 per cent increase over the past decade, "At this rate of increase it will take about 60 years until the number of women at Level 8 is equal to the level of [overall] female representation at CSIRO".

Female engineers make up about 10 per cent of the workforce, the FASTS report says, but 77.8 per cent of them are in lower responsibility positions (Levels 1 to 3 on a scale of 5). The Learned Academies offer no good news either -- their fellows, among the most eminent and respected scientists in the country, are overwhelmingly men.

Of the Fellows of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, 6.5 per cent are women, while the Academy of Science has just seven per cent. In government, the technology divisions of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) have just 5 per cent female participation.

Retaining talent

If getting women into science and technology is difficult, keeping them is even more so. A survey by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA) says the reason women leave their field include lack of flexible working conditions, lack of career development, workplace culture and pay inequality.

IT is no different, though the games environment may encourage more boys into the field. The latest figures from the Australian ICT Statistical Compendium, due to be published by the Australian Computer Society later this year, show the percentage of women employed in ICT occupations across all industries has increased to 169,400, or 28.34 per cent of the workforce. This is up 24.1 per cent from 2011.

However, the ratio changes significantly depending on the areas of ICT being studied, ranging from a participation figure of 16.94 per cent (13,000) in ICT trades, to 40.81 per cent (38,000) in ICT industry admin and logistics support. It drops to 24.5 per cent (53,500) in technical and professional occupations, but rises to 32.6 per cent (55,000) in ICT management and operations.

Women as IT managers

Arguably most worrying is that less than a third of ICT management is female. Some suggest the figure is even lower, especially as you move up in the ranks of management responsibility.

Michelle Beveridge, CIO for Open Universities Australia, claims to see less than 10 per cent female participation at ICT conferences for CIOs and senior managers.

"Either the women are not in the roles or they are not networking and working on their careers as well as the men. I suspect it is both."

"IT is proving less and less attractive as a discipline for women," says Anne Weatherston, group CIO for the ANZ Banking Group.

"This is a concern, given the importance and significance of technology in our world today. There are countless books and articles written about the value of increased representation of women at senior levels of organisations, and yet sadly the statistics point to the fact that the numbers are going the other way."

There have been efforts in the past to encourage a different image of female IT workers, such as calendars of semi-clad "film goddesses" designed to counter the image of Plain Jane women in IT. Many times these have been derided as demeaning of women. The same criticisms have been applied to female-oriented award systems.

Most working women would prefer to be highly regarded more for their professional skills than their swimsuit style. But, nonetheless, there are barriers, and not just of the "women must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good" type. There are serious cultural and financial inequities too.

Despite an age where paid maternity leave is seen as a given, there is often a need for more formal schemes designed to encourage and entrench women in particular industries and roles, and such schemes have been endorsed by women, including those leading Future-State CIOs interviewed for this article.

Sarah Parton, general manager for business engagement, architecture, design and innovation with construction and property asset managers Transfield Services, claims she didn't feel disadvantaged in her early years of working in IT at Accenture in the UK. "At the time I joined there was about a 60/40 men/women graduate intake, and a healthy mix of genders.

"Over the years the numbers thinned, particularly as women started having children and made alternative priority and lifestyle choices.

I led an initiative to increase the number of women returning to work after maternity leave from 55 to 80 per cent by introducing stay-in-touch days, pre- and post-maternity mentoring, paid leave for fertility treatment [which appears to be an occupational hazard for hard working career women who leave it later to start a family], nine months fully-paid maternity leave, opportunities for part-time work [for both mothers and fathers] and role modelling.

"We saw good results from this campaign, and other big organisations in the UK were undertaking similar exercises to retain their talented women."

In Australia, however, Parton noticed a big difference, even though she was working for a big bank. "Maternity and paternity policies were archaic compared to Europe; there were very few women in senior roles and not a lot of impetus to change things," she says.

"From my observations and commentary from peers, it also seems a very high proportion of CIOs are men and many recruit in their own image. In one particular organisation, the CIO recruited his skiing and drinking buddies who proudly displayed photos of themselves together in their offices."

This concept of "hiring in your own image" is supported by Beveridge. "Without guidance, managers of a particular cohort will tend to hire people within the same cohort," she says.

"In the ICT industry, that has contributed to the male majority perpetuating the male majority. It is often an unconscious thing, and it's one of the reasons HR professionals have developed tools and techniques like behavioural interviewing.

Positive discrimination is an additional mechanism to broaden the candidate pool to include a representative group that is 50 per cent of the population using our products and services."

Jennifer Biggin, IT manager for the Australian Medical Association (NSW), says the difference in percentages of male versus female should not be a killer issue.

"When I did my initial degree there were two other women in our final year of 120 students. Throughout my career I have always been in a male dominated IT environment.

"You can't let that worry you -- nor the endless need to have to show you know your subject each time you meet a new person."

Weatherston hasn't found the barriers for women in technology any different from other disciplines. The challenge for all companies, she says, is to assist women to rise through the ranks. As a way forward in IT, she cites several current moves in the UK and US to encourage girls to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers.

"In the US, there are non-profits such as the National Center for Women and Information Technology and 'Girls Who Code'. The goal is to educate and inspire high-school girls and women to consider careers in information technology. There are similar initiatives in Australia including 'Go Girl IT' and 'Women in IT'. "But the jury is still out."

ANZ, she says, has set targets for at least 40 per cent female representation among participants in its key recruitment, talent and development programs. It also has a medium-term goal to achieve at least 40 per cent representation of women in management overall.

"I owe my early career step up to an organisation that worked really hard to identify and nurture talent regardless of sex, colour, religion or disability," Weatherston says. "Good people and specifically good leaders are in short supply; we must work harder at identifying and building talent."

This concept is particularly strong for women looking for role models and, more personally, direct mentors.

Biggin and Beveridge agree having good women as mentors early in their careers helped. "It was difficult to find female mentors, and I often worked with teams where I was the only female," Beveridge says.

"There have been times when managing a technical team was difficult because the boys thought a woman, let alone one with an accounting background as I have, couldn't possibly understand technology. There was always that little extra I had to do to earn credibility and respect.

Happily, I have seen attitudes change. Increasingly I hear male CIOs lamenting the lack of females in their teams and recognising the value diversity brings to team dynamics and effectiveness."

It all starts at the top, says Parton, and not with words but with action and role modelling. "A very successful senior woman I know working in wealth management has a high performing team who are predominantly women.

She told me her team had come up with a core principle by which they would operate, that 'we have got each other's backs', which I thought that was amazing and inspirational," she says.

"Imagine a leadership team that works as a united group - no wonder they are so successful. I compared that to the predominantly male leadership teams I have worked with and for and thought of the occasions I witnessed a real lack of cooperation, the establishment of fiefdoms and the battles of egos."

Ultimately, it's about being the best fit and demonstrating confidence. For management and society generally, Weatherston says that means obtaining a better understanding of the barriers to women's progress and "doing everything we can to remove them".

"There is now new and pretty consistent material emerging that shows the two major impediments to women's progress are, firstly, self confidence and belief as women set high standards for themselves; and secondly, unconscious biases that they encounter in the workplace. If we can help women overcome those two barriers to success, the rest will follow."

Forging a career in IT

Where women are accepted into leadership positions, it should be due to their skills in succeeding as CIOs and senior IT managers. Senior IT management must possess those same attributes of self-confidence and belief, not to mention strong communication skills.

An emphasis should also be placed on strategy and transformational change, and knowledge of the technology they espouse and represent to other c-level executives and the board.

Like many CIOs, the four women described here entered the industry through what might be described as the side door, and worked their way to the top. While Parton and Biggin had extensive experience in IT, Beveridge began her career via secretarial school and tennis.

Growing up in Tasmania in the 1970s, she says, there were not many career choices for women but she was hopeless at tennis and "even worse at doing what I was told, so a secretary's life was not for me".

Training as an accountant seemed the next most sensible pathway, but Beveridge soon became interested in IT while working as an office administration manager for a brick manufacturer.

"By then, IT was becoming mainstream with the rise of the personal computer, client server and automated office applications," she says. "I got a real buzz from modernising the office processes of that brick manufacturer and helping them become the market leader."

Beveridge's career has traversed various business and IT roles and across many industries including manufacturing, contract catering, postal services, insurance and education. "A common theme has been my ability to connect business and technology and to drive business change through the effective use of technology," she says.

Weatherston arguably has one of the more novel backgrounds for an IT manager, particularly for the group CIO of one of Australia's four leading banks; she originally trained as an archaeologist at Glasgow University.

"The Scottish universities followed the old medieval university curriculum of the seven liberal arts. This approach was designed to provide a broadly-based education that produced brains that were analytical, literate and inquisitive," she explains.

"All undergraduates were required to study a range of disciplines over and above the core degree subject including philosophy, science, language.

While the practical value of moral philosophy escaped me at the time, looking back it gave me the mental training for my subsequent role as a COBOL programmer. Moral philosophy was the original discipline of logic and the basis for modern mathematics."

Weatherston decided to switch careers. She was advised computers were "the thing of the future", but there were no degrees in computing in the early 1980s, so she took a graduate trainee in computing. This started with hands-on training in COBOL programming.

"After four years of being a programmer I decided I needed a better understanding of the businesses for which I was writing the programs," she says. "I returned to university to study for an MBA. This was a challenging but worthwhile decision that opened up my career."

CIOs as business leaders

Like all senior IT managers, these four CIOs are working toward defeating the IT-as-cost-centre mentality common among many other executives, and do this through proving and providing their business acumen.

"I believe there are four key pillars supporting every business: Finance, human resource management, marketing and information technology," Beveridge says. "All four should receive board and executive attention as a weakness as any one pillar will affect the foundations of the entire organisation.

"Our technology is one of the selling points for IT services, and hence has a positive contribution to future revenue. As CIO, it is not about making money or being cost neutral in my business area, it is about contributing to the revenue growth and cost efficiency of the organisation as a whole.

"My KPIs relate to organisational capabilities and how technology contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of people, processes and systems."

This might mean upsetting some attitudes entrenched among management. In her current organisation, Parton recalls amazed but positive commentary from a number of senior leaders in the operational business when the CIO opened a corporate event by speaking knowledgeably and in detail on financial and strategic elements of organisational performance.

"If IT does not have a seat at the table then it is difficult to fully contribute to the economic success of the organisation," she says.

Recent major projects contributing to the bottom line include Beveridge's replacement of a CRM system to SaaS, as well as a new free online education learning management platform. Biggin, meanwhile, has overseen a replacement of a document management system with involvement from the directors of the AMA.

And Weatherston cites the recent development of global transaction banking and mobile consumer platforms that is "central to our strategy of being the most connected bank in our region".

Keeping that balance -- being ahead of the technology game, ensuring business outcomes, while maintaining effective IT operations -- is key to the Future-State CIO.

"I have yet to meet the perfect leader or indeed the perfect CIO," Weatherston says. "The day we stop striving to improve is the day we should give up. It's incumbent on all of us fortunate enough to obtain leadership roles to keep learning. It is very important to be self aware and to constantly look to build on strengths and work harder on shortcomings."

Perfect or not, male or female, it is difficult to achieve this state, Biggin says. "My advice would to be keep flexible and open minded. However, you can only achieve something if you continue to completion. If you get side-tracked, you'll never get there."

Hopefully being a woman is not one of those issues side-tracking the career of Australia's Future-State CIOs.