“No country in the world can claim to not have a gender gap when it comes to pay,” says Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop.

Speaking at the celebration of Dell’s Women in IT Executive Mentoring (WITEM) program’s 10th year, held at Parliament House earlier this month, Bishop said every individual has the power in their day-to-day work to change the status quo.

“I’ve been part of these discussions for such a long time,” she said.

“I’ve been a champion of mentoring programs, formal or informal, throughout my professional careers and I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas.

“Back in another life when I was the managing partner of a national law firm I had in place informal mentoring programs—that was when being the female leader of a law firm was still a curiosity.

“The fact is mentoring works.”

Bishop’s words come as Dell’s mentoring program reaches nearly 700 participants, who over the past decade have been actively working to increase participation of women and minority groups in industries like the information and communication technology (ICT) and government sectors where they remain significantly underrepresented, especially at senior levels.

While some change is happening, startups and the broader ICT sector have a long way to go before it can pat itself on the back on the issue of diversity.

Earlier this year, StartupSmart attended a CIO conference along with a range of established and industry-leading companies, and the statistics in its brochure about the grim lack of female chief information officers was mirrored by the women missing from the room.

That Startup Show producer Anna Reeves recently questioned why investment in women-led startups is so low.

“In Australia, currently only 5% of female founders of tech-based startups are funded, so my immediate question is: Why?” Reeves told StartupSmart.

Even global tech giants like Google, which are building product and tools for the world, are failing to represent the world they’re creating for.

After pledging $US150 million to address its diversity problem, Google’s workforce remains more than 60% white male.

Deliberate action is needed

Angela Fox, senior vice president and managing director for Dell in Australia and New Zealand, tells StartupSmart change will only happen if businesses make a deliberate effort to represent all people.

Mentoring, she says, is one way to do just this.

“In a recent mentor-mentee survey, 35% were promoted [and] 60% of mentors and 25% of mentees made structural changes to help build the pipeline of female talent in their own organisations,” Fox says, referring to the Dell mentorship program.

“It’s a program that was initiated to be a very practical program to support the advancement of female talent into senior position.”

A key focus of the program has been to understand the barriers preventing women from achieving success and to accelerate development of their leadership opportunities and competencies.

The program, which matches mentees with senior executives like chief executives, chief information officers or chief technology officers, provides monthly training and networking opportunities to participants over a 12-month period.

Fox says the program has not only opened the door to up-and-coming talent but it has given executive decision-makers visibility to the barriers and biases in their companies that are holding back marginalised employees.

Learn more about enhancing workplace diversity and types of unconscious bias at your business

“The success for us is that both the mentors and the mentees have taken some value from their participation,” she says.

Mentoring is not a silver bullet

Fox notes that mentoring programs are only part of the solution to building diverse and inclusive businesses, and that Dell’s research over the years has shown some pivotal drivers of change.

“Research shows that simply being exposed to diversity can change the way we think,” she says.

She says businesses with inclusive workplace strategies have also achieved higher staff retention, improved attendance and made greater profit.

For startups, she says the inhibitors are universal, with access to capital, education, technology and networks among the most common challenges for female founders.

When building a business, she says policies around parental leave and flexible work should not be gender-specific and that every employee should be supported and encouraged to voice their opinions.

“Underpinning any company [should be] a culture that is inclusive and diverse,” she says.

“So people feel supported to find their voice and come to the table and present their authentic self.”

Fox believes the bottom line on diversity and gender equality is commitment and continuous education.

“It’s an ongoing journey, it’s not an end destination,” she says.

“To stay competitive, you need to be continually innovating. At the core of that is technology but it’s also great people.”

StartupSmart attended the WITEM event as a guest of Dell.

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