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IWD 2023: How can we help more women achieve international careers?

Every International Women's Day, we celebrate the incredible achievements of women around the world and reckon with the challenges we continue to face, including the underrepresentation of women in the technology industry, particularly in leadership and international roles. 

I've forged an international career in technology that's taken me from the United Kingdom to international roles with global remits and now to this side of the world, where I lead the talented New Zealand team of technology and payment innovation company – Mastercard.

Encouraging more women into the global tech industry represents an opportunity for businesses to tap into bigger talent pools, diversify skillsets, and, as has been proven many times by the likes of S&P Global's Women CEOs: Leadership for a Diverse Future and The Wall Street Journal's The Business Case for More Diversity reports, better business outcomes. While women are exploring the tech space to build careers, MYOB's 2019 Women in Tech report states they make up only 23% of professional technology roles, indicating there are still challenges to entry and success. 

My story should be instructive. But if I were to speak to a girl or woman today who wanted to follow in my footsteps, it's not as simple as saying "do what I did". As we look at this year's International Women's Day theme of 'embracing equity' - I struggle. It's too warm and fuzzy. Equity doesn't need a hug; it needs a kick up the backside to get it higher on the agenda so that my story is less of an outlier. Women face the challenges of deep-rooted societal & organisational structures and attitudes - it's crucial for organisations and leaders to normalise women in technology, encourage them, and give them the tools to succeed. 

I've been fortunate to find myself in an environment where the support and policies have aided my journey at critical moments when for so many other women following ostensibly parallel paths, the same cannot be said. 

I've had leaders who were willing to sponsor me into roles to grow my understanding and responsibility. These leaders also had and continue to have strong convictions about the value of greater gender balance in leadership roles. Their conviction wasn't just a nice thought they had from time to time; they implemented concrete policies requiring gender-balanced candidate slates and plans to achieve gender balance at the GM level. 

When I was in the UK on maternity leave with my first child – a precarious moment when many women feel they're 'thrown on the pile' career-wise – I was offered a promotion and the chance to move to New Zealand within my organisation. These sorts of outcomes don't happen magically. They're downstream of serious organisational introspection and robust policy development.

Could you argue I've been the beneficiary of positive discrimination? Absolutely. But has the business performed? Yes. We need to take more chances on women leaders. I don't want to turn this into a puff piece for my employer; there's still work to be done at Mastercard – our latest gender reporting showed while globally, women at Mastercard earn $1.00 to every $1.00 earned by men, the higher up the chain you go, the greater the proportion of male employees - but I need to be clear: my career has benefitted hugely from some transformational policies and an organisational culture that urgently needs to filter into the wider corporate landscape and government policy.

Too often, the responsibility for achieving equality seems to be placed on women. If only we could sort ourselves out and be more confident like men, ask for pay raises like men, and balance our lives better, so we don't let other aspects influence our ability to work like men. But that's unfair to women and also to men who don't have the structures or policies in place to support more equality. For example, New Zealand is trailing among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations when it comes to paid parental leave. Partners in NZ get 1-2 weeks of unpaid leave. Hardly inspiring. You can split your leave, but this requires the fairly outdated view of having a 'primary' and 'secondary' carer. What if it's more fluid than that, or do both parents want/need to be off at the same time? Plus, the administrative burden of making the formal switch. The fact fewer than 1% of men in NZ take paid parental leave shows how effective it is... And so, more often than not, we default to traditional gender roles. 

I strongly believe both partners should have the opportunity to play an active role in child-rearing – sharing in the joy but also shouldering what is, let's face it, sometimes a slog. Mastercard provides 16 weeks of fully paid parental leave for all parents, which has enabled me to be present with my family without sacrificing my career. 

Those of us who are fortunate to work in environments like this can't simply say 'lucky us'. We know firsthand that it can and should be better, which makes it more distressing these supports aren't more widespread, and the benchmark is so low. There is a role for corporates and the government to play.

This is why we need to actively work towards removing unconscious bias and gender norms to ensure that girls and women interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) stay interested. I was one of two girls in my maths classes for my A-levels and one of three in physics. And sadly, those ratios haven't improved dramatically since I was at school and are similar in NZ, with less than one in 20 girls considering careers in STEM, compared to one in five boys. 

This is why Mastercard's signature education program 'Girls4Tech' is so important. It's driven by an interactive, hands-on curriculum that connects the foundations of our business to STEM principles and inspires girls around the world to build skills that will help them become the leaders of tomorrow and pursue careers in STEM. Since the program's launch in 2014, we have reached more than 2 million girls in 50+ countries and territories.

I firmly believe the value of Kiwi women building international careers in tech is immense. The exposure to different market nuances, diverse perspectives, and ideas are transformational and empowering. But the ability to take that leap starts at home. It starts with how businesses operate locally and how we support women to succeed. I'm proud that in the last year, we've moved two fantastic women from our team in NZ into roles in the London office – the first step of what will be fantastic international careers in technology.

This International Women's Day, I've been thinking literally about what it means to be an international woman. About how we can help more Kiwi girls and women make it on the world stage and the untold value that would unlock. Step one is ensuring women have the tools, resources and support in place to succeed. Step two is breaking down the social stereotypes and structures that create limiting beliefs about women and technology, and what success looks like. I have every faith we are going to get there, but let's get there sooner.

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