‘Cracking the code’ of innovation for female empowerment in NZ’s IT industry

‘Cracking the code’ of innovation for female empowerment in NZ’s IT industry

Top industry leaders share their personal career journeys and detail their plans to help create a gender equal future for women in technology.

Clockwise from top left: Jo Haanstra (PwC), Libby Macgregor (Lenovo), Dalia Raphael (Delta Insights), Irene Naidu (Fujitsu)

Clockwise from top left: Jo Haanstra (PwC), Libby Macgregor (Lenovo), Dalia Raphael (Delta Insights), Irene Naidu (Fujitsu)

Credit: Supplied

Women in New Zealand’s IT leadership ecosystem are leading the charge towards breaking the bias faced by women.

As Reseller News’ annual Women in ICT Awards (WIICTA) demonstrates year after year, there is no shortage of incredible talent in New Zealand's IT and channel spheres. 

Speaking to Reseller News on this year’s International Women’s Day theme, ‘cracking the code: innovation for a gender equal future’, top industry leaders shared their personal career journeys and detailed their plans to help create a gender equal future for women in technology.

For Jo Haanstra, director of cyber alliances at PwC, rising up through the ranks was full of a number of “ups and downs”, but says the experience allowed her to “have trust in my inner compass and the confidence in the skills I’ve acquired” she said.

Specifically, her 17 years with Duo and helping to grow the business into a market leader in cyber security, having the opportunity to become a shareholder, co-founding the cyber security professional services business and experiencing the acquisition of Duo by Sektor has provided career-defining experiences.

“I’m grateful for those experiences and for what they taught me about myself. Without that insight there’s no way I would have been able to make the transition from Duo to joining PwC. That was a huge decision that took me from the comfort of what I had known for 17 years to something new.

“As I’ve progressed in my career - and in life - I’ve found that the more knowledge I’ve gained, the more comfortable I’ve become. It’s enabled me to be authentic in who I am and to not listen to the imposter syndrome voice in my head.”

Lenovo New Zealand country manager, Libby Macgregor, echoes similar highs and lows in the journey towards learning to “hold space” as a female leader.

“Entering the industry more than two decades ago, the stereotypes and biases that I experienced, are unfortunately still being perpetuated today.

“I am lucky to have had strong female mentors and developed relationships that have helped me navigate the industry and be in a leadership position – from holding my space as the only female in a boardroom to leading the country’s business.”

For Dalia Raphael, founder and director of Delta Insights, facing discrimination has been a theme through her career, but developing resilience in the face of adversity has helped to push her to achieve highly.  

“The biggest challenge was having to put up with the negative and demoralising attitudes from some of my peers. What made it worse was some of my managers view of me when I had my first child - their advice to me was the best thing you can do for your child is to stay home and bring them up,” she said.

“At the time these attitudes did what they were intending to do and put me down as a technology worker and as a person.  But looking back now I can see that it helped me become more resilient and determined to succeed in the industry.

“This is the biggest lesson I learnt while on my journey, you need to take each challenge as an opportunity not a stumbling block.”

Irene Naidu, infrastructure senior sales lead at Fujitsu, has also faced discrimination as a mother and experienced racism in all facets of business and employment, but has seen recent changes in attitudes around discrimination.

“I've been in the industry for over 20 years now and have experienced my fair share of lack of diversity when it came to promotions. In the past, I have witnessed bias around who to employ for roles including why women with young children shouldn't be employed - that memory is sadly forever ingrained in my brain.

“In the past, I've witnessed and been at the receiving end of racism as a brown woman in the tech sector.

“I'm happy to say these attitudes and practices have been phasing out of our industry rapidly.”

Innovating tech to disrupt the workplace

Creating true change for women doesn’t mean conforming to existing ways of operating in the workplace. True equity looks like updating processes, expectations, and systems to allow women to thrive.

By employing tech innovation, existing systems can be transformed for the better. Naidu points towards gender prejudice in hiring and promotions as an area of focus for her, as the co-chair of the Fujitsu gender equality team. She says that algorithms can be used in this area to help eliminate human bias.

“Prejudice in promotions and performance evaluations can be removed with the aid of data-driven performance metrics,” she said.

The new world of hybrid work is another area that Macgregor points out as a positive shift towards equity in the workplace.

“Technology has the power to enhance productivity and improve hybrid work life, and this can open up even more opportunities for women in the workplace without having to choose between priorities in their personal lives and pursuing their career ambitions,” she said.

Haanstra sees recent shifts towards more positive attitudes around change, driven by pandemic-induced rapid innovation, as a potential driver for change for women in the workplace.

“In the last three years, technology has played a fundamental role in our ability to adapt and respond to the extraordinarily disruptive circumstances of the global pandemic,” she said.

“I’d like to think that between the pandemic, supply chain issues, inflation and geopolitical conflict, there’s now more of an understanding of just how important it is for organisations to be agile and resilient within rapidly-changing environments, and to be open to innovation.”

Driving tangible change

While raising awareness of discrimination faced by women in the workplace is ever important, the most crucial aspect is to create and support programmes that facilitate tangible change for women.

Naidu is dedicated to creating and supporting such initiatives, positioning herself as a leader in this space. She regularly speaks at high schools and career evenings to encourage women to pursue a technology or STEM related career.

She has introduced initiatives in roles throughout her career with the aim of empowering fellow female colleagues, and always stresses the importance of making yourself visible and overcoming imposter syndrome.

“I myself have a great community of women who I utilise for mentorship and advice, and I encourage others to build on their networks,” she said. “I encourage our younger generation of females to put their foot forward for new challenges, and I believe whole-heartedly that women should support other women, because our strength is together.”

Haanstra is the co-founder of Project Wednesday, designed to help address the shortage of security professionals in New Zealand and to encourage people from all walks of life to consider a career in cyber security.

“I wanted to provide a welcoming environment for anyone exploring cyber security as a career,” she said.

She is also involved with further industry initiatives through PwC. In 2022 she was a mentor for three young women through PwC’s GirlBoss programme, and was also a mentor for PwC’s internal Global Women in Cyber Security programme, mentoring young women in Japan, the USA and Australia.

“I’m fortunate at PwC there are so many avenues to help – both in the area I work in and the wider organisation, both here and abroad,” she said. “It’s something I love and I really appreciate the opportunities to share my insights and help guide them as they navigate their own path.”

Macgregor echoes this emphasis on the importance of open and equal mentorship. “I’ve experienced first-hand the power of women helping women and the value of mentorship. Having someone that had lived experience to learn from was instrumental in my own development,” she said.

“Through providing regular counsel on mentorship programs at Lenovo and the wider industry, and directly mentoring women in the industry, I’ve mentored over 20 individuals, and counting, to successful management roles.”

At Lenovo specifically, Macgregor is an active sponsor of the leadership pillar for A/NZ Women in Lenovo Leadership (WILL+), which brings together Lenovo’s female leaders from across the region to discuss how the company can take steps towards ensuring that women’s voices are heard and drive the pipeline of female talent.

“We need to build a steady pipeline of women that are well-equipped with the skills and knowledge to enter and take their place in the industry. We also need to empower them with the soft skills they will need to navigate the workplace and succeed in a male-dominated industry,” she said.

Where to next?

Despite positive changes in attitudes and wider societal shifts in improving opportunities for women, improvement is still much needed to achieve true equity.

“We as an industry still have a long way to go a to not only recognize women who have earned their place at the boardroom table, but to listen and acknowledge the fresh ideas they bring with them”, Naidu said.

“The industry needs to embrace and encourage more of our Māori and Pasifika into technology related fields and focus on reducing the digital divide. This is an area that is extremely important to me and one that I’m always focused on,” she added.

Raphael notes that entrepreneurship is an area that is still largely male-dominated, and work is desperately needed to encourage and support more women to act on their innovative ideas.

“There needs to be more encouragement from the tech sector to give opportunities for women who are absolutely capable and able to be amazing leaders deliver successful outcomes. 

“Going forward it would be great to see more women encouraged into becoming entrepreneurs and starting their own companies,” she said.

While recent structural change is encouraging, there is still a long way to go, Macgregor says.

“We need to drive organisations to ensure policies and initiatives are inclusive, not just for women but across all genders.

“For instance, we must ensure that policies (and infrastructure) enable women, who are usually primary caregivers or mothers returning from maternity leave, flexibility at the workplace to be able to work from anywhere,” she said.

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