As we mark another International Women’s Day, today is all about stopping to reflect and celebrate the achievements of women. But it is also a moment when we acknowledge the work that remains to be done to further embrace inclusion and gender equality. Particularly when it comes to leadership in the technology industry, there is more work to be done.

Heading up communications in Australia & New Zealand, I am fortunate that I connect with so many of our team right across the business, every day. I feel privileged and inspired to work with such a diverse group of individuals and leaders. Given this years’ #IWD theme is ‘Choose to Challenge,’ I choose to seek out and celebrate amazing women!

I connected with a number of our female leaders across Cisco in Australia to understand more about their career progression into leadership roles, what they’ve learned over the years, and uncovered their unique perspectives, as well as my own reflections.

Julie Canepa is our Chief Information Officer (CIO) in Australia & New Zealand, Karen Negus, leads our service provider business in Australia & New Zealand, Cassandra Crothers, leads our virtual sales team in Australia & New Zealand; and Allyson Corcoran, leads our software and services business in Australia and New Zealand.


Starting out in the technology industry

There is a surprising mix of how each started out in the technology industry. There is not one pathway – Karen joined following university through the Telstra IT graduate program, Cassandra was inspired to join following working on IT projects at a customer service company, and some of our leaders even stumbled into the industry by chance and have established extremely successful careers. I worked in the teaching & learning technology department at my university and led the content development of the CD-ROM for student orientation! It was leading edge tech back then…

Julie reflects, “in my early days, I thought there was a path which I was supposed to follow to find success. In a new and dynamic industry such as IT, no two individuals have the same career journey.”

Karen says, “I just happened to end up in a sales and marketing graduate program within the IT sector. To be honest, at that time I didn’t realise that my first job would indeed shape my entire career!”

“Upon joining the IT industry, I realised quickly there was a lot to learn. I realised how different the industry was and that it was really exciting to be part of ground-breaking technology in some small way” said Cassandra.

“I’m not naturally drawn to the latest innovation and frankly, it is a struggle for me to keep up with the advances in technology. I would say to people with a non-technical background, don’t be intimidated by the technology or turn you off a career in IT (unless you are after an engineering job!), reflects Allyson.


Progressing into leadership

When thinking about progressing into leadership roles, they all had a passion for people and leading teams. Some recognising this very early on and starting out as team leaders or finding opportunities to represent their team or even asking to become a manager.

Cassandra shares “I was determined that I wanted to move into leadership roles and I was given a lot of opportunity to take on informal leadership roles all the time. I had to ask, a lot, to finally get a manager role and I took a role which terrified me at the time, leading engineers in our support centre. I learned so much from them and they were such an amazing team, I’m definitely glad I took on the challenge.”

Karen reflects, “I had the pleasure of having a single direct report, whom I invested so much in and had the absolute pleasure of watching her grow and succeed.”

“You have the ability to shape your destiny and career. I wish I had learned this sooner as I spent a lot of time waiting for answers or guidance. In technology you need confidence to drive your path forward and to take risks.  New IT roles are being created every day, follow your instincts and passion and you can curate your own leadership role,” said Julie.


Leading when you’re a minority

Gender diversity within the IT sector still has a way to go with females only accounting for 28% of IT workers, as compared to the 45% across all other professional industries. What is it like leading in an industry where you make up less than and third of the total workforce?

As female leaders who advanced through business, one of the common attributes shared has been their determination and openness to try and experience roles right across the business.

Allyson reflects, “In the technology industry there is certainly a gender gap. The challenge is building awareness and letting women know the types of roles that are on offer, and the range of opportunities in the industry.”

Julie shares, “I spent the first few years reading and learning everything I could. I took opportunities to try out new skills and I asked a lot of questions!  There are unending acronyms and constantly evolving names, don’t be afraid to ask for a translation. By learning, experimenting and asking questions, I found… to my surprise I was able to add significant value very soon early in my IT career.”

Karen shares, “following the arrival of two gorgeous boys and a 4 year career break, I then had to re-enter the workforce and commence a new role in a new company. From this point I started to experience the newfound challenges of ‘juggling’ young children and a new career. The big challenge here was to back myself to re-enter the workforce after a 4 year break, which felt like a huge chasm as the time.”

Advice to aspiring leaders

There is so much experience and wisdom in this select group of Cisco women – I could write a book! However here is a selection..

“Learn about yourself first. Self-awareness might sound cliché, but it is so vital to making us all better leaders. Knowing where your strengths are, how others perceive you and your actions, how you come across, what you need to develop and be mindful of, what motivates and just as importantly demotivates you, so you can balance yourself. If you don’t understand yourself and your own drivers, you won’t be able to unlock the potential in others,” shares Cassandra.

“Lead like a Girl is my new mantra. Definitely inspired by Michelle’s Payne’s story of being the only female jockey (so far) to achieve victory at the Melbourne Cup. I used to think that I had to ‘be one of the boys’ or ‘man-up’, but now I know I need to be true to myself and bring true diversity to the table, which means being myself”, shares Karen.

Cassandra: “Have a voice, don’t be afraid to speak up. People will not always agree with you and that’s ok. It takes many diverse opinions to grow a business, make yours count.”

Allyson: “Authenticity, being honest and approachable is key to building your relationships and trust. I’ve learnt over many years that trying to be someone you aren’t doesn’t work and actually works against you.”

“Technology is constantly evolving and, in our industry, it requires us to be lifelong learners. Have patience. Rising up too fast doesn’t always create the best leader. Some of my favourite leaders were those who had a wide range of experiences behind them. Don’t force leadership… it’s not a job title or a promotion, it’s a quality and a confidence that comes from within.  It comes from a person who has talent, experience, courage and EQ.” Shares Julie.


Final reflections on leading in the IT industry

“I’ve been lucky enough to be in IT for 14 years now and it’s hard to imagine not being involved in this industry now. I know I have a different mindset and have vastly different experiences to a lot of my peers, so I bring a different perspective to things. I also challenge things that I don’t believe are right or for the best for everyone,” reflects Cassandra.

Allyson: “being in the tech industry has also allowed me to work flexibly, travel the world and develop my career in diverse areas of business. I have been fortunate enough to hold senior positions in finance, sales, operations and technical services during my time at Cisco which has allowed me to develop as a broad business leader.”

Karen shares, “working in tech I have learnt the fundamentals of business, humanity, health and more about myself than I ever thought I would want to know! A career in IT encompasses so much. I am a minority in so many senses – a female, and I am not technically trained or an engineer – sometimes this is my strength! My mantra, is if you can explain it to your grandmother, you can explain it to your customer! Let the engineers engage with their peers and allow the commercial decision makers to feel empowered by understanding the fundamentals.”

“Technology is for humans. Being able to communicate well and understand people and business are essential skills. Those who can bridge the gap between the technology and humanity, those with high EQ’s who are tech savvy are going to do well. Women have so much to offer our industry. Diversity is key.” Wise words from Julie.

As a leader, you have a point of view, a voice and are looked upon by those advancing – role models for so many. Supporting the next generation of female leaders is something they are all passionate about and committed to advocating for change and opening up opportunities. There is still a way to go when it comes to full spectrum diversity in leadership in tech. The future looks promising as we have brilliant young women, moving and developing their careers. You can check out their perspectives here.

We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. For us, at Cisco, diversity and inclusion is a huge part of our culture.

Cisco Australia has been inspiring women into the technology industry for years. Our Networking Academy offers entry level courses for free into areas like cybersecurity and Internet of Things. Not to mention Cisco’s industry leading mentoring program, ‘Mentor Me’ which has grown in recent years to over 150 female university mentee and Cisco employee connections – to support the progression of a career in technology. Cisco is working to bring IT to the front of mind of girls, to help them consider a career in STEM with Girls in ICT Day. Find out more, here.


What do you choose to challenge?

From left to right, Cori Drogemuller, Karen Negus, Cassandra Crothers, Julie Canepa, Allyson Corcoran.