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When Lee Barnett entered the workforce in 1974 gender discrimination was rife. At AGC where she got her first job, there were officers and clerks: men made up the officer ranks and were paid more, women were designated clerks and were paid less.

When the company hired a senior programmer from the UK, in order to pay her the salary she expected, AGC had to code her as a man in its payroll system.

There has been a marked improvement in the lot of working women over the intervening years – but Barnett, the chief information officer of AMP, remains one of just a handful of female CIOs in large enterprise in Australia.

On average about one in six IT professionals in Australia is female. AMP’s got a healthier ratio; “About 40-45 per cent are women,” says Barnett, though she admits that; “When we do the grad intakes it’s always a bit of a struggle to get the right balance. I guess when get into a lot of the infrastructure areas and telco areas, the closer you get to engineering women are even thinner on the ground. But I think things are turning and changing a bit.”

According to Barnett; “I think IT roles in the corporate sector are incredibly interesting – you are at the intersection of business and it gives you the best of both roles. I’ve never been particularly tempted to have a purely business role because I think it’s the impact of technology and how that’s changing business that’s so incredibly interesting. Now more than ever the opportunities are there.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve done better than many other places in gender diversity stats is because there is a female CIO and that provides a role model, and on my team I have a lot of women. For younger women it’s a view of the fact that you can be successful and you can reach the top of the profession.”

“I am a very strong believer in diversity from the gender and demographic perspectives. At its best diversity is a catalyst for innovation and at a minimum it is an insurance policy against “group think”.”

Barnett herself almost stumbled into an IT career. Having failed at attempts to be accepted as an air hostess, a nuclear medicine technician and a travel agent, she decided to hit the phone books.

“I’d been looking in the papers and been seeing roles called data processing, and didn’t really know what they were. But because they were new I was interested. I was trying everything from the papers but ended up resorting to the phone book. I started with A and got as far as AGC, and met a guy called Bill Barrett.”

Barnett told him she was interested in data processing, but he started her off in an administrative role in the company’s note and debenture registry. “Whenever there was overtime going I would put up my hand and do different people’s roles. Although they didn’t have their ownIT systems - most people just processed their general ledger in a bureau - they were getting positioned to do their own IT development and set up an IT department.”

She was offered the position as the firm’s first trainee programmer, was handed a box of video tapes and told to go and teach herself Cobol.

“I do have a logical, analytical mind and was very good at maths – the things we used to look at back then were those sorts of skills, I took to it well.”

At school though she hadn’t been given the same sort of encouragement. “Gender discrimination was also rife. I remember the economics master counseling me not to take economics because women aren’t logical. I took great pleasure accepting the economics award from him at graduation.”

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Beverley Head

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Beverley Head is a Sydney-based freelance writer who specialises in exploring how and why technology changes everything - society, business, government, education, health. Beverley started writing about the business of technology in London in 1983 before moving to Australia in 1986. She was the technology editor of the Financial Review for almost a decade, and then became the newspaper's features editor before embarking on a freelance career, during which time she has written on a broad array of technology related topics for the Sydney Morning Herald, Age, Boss, BRW, Banking Day, Campus Review, Education Review, Insite and Government Technology Review. Beverley holds a degree in Metallurgy and the Science of Materials from Oxford University and a deep affection for things which are shaken not stirred.

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