Carolyn Leigh

on Tuesday, 22 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Interviews about the Glass Ceiling

Carolyn Leigh

I was born in Washington DC in 1947, where my father was posted to the Australian Embassy. I grew up in Sydney and throughout my childhood and teens was fortunate to have many overseas trips to visit my father in various countries.  My travels to the Philippines, Pakistan, Argentina, Tanzania, during this developmental stage of my life, had a strong and lasting influence on my understanding of and interest in social justice, human rights, world peace and access and equity.  

When I finished school I believed my future was in the theatre and majored in Drama at NSW Uni. I also worked as a theatre trainee but realised I didn’t have the talent to succeed in that field.  Not knowing what else to do, I completed a Primary Teacher’s Diploma and had a very brief career as a teacher. It was this experience which made me aware of the need for easy access to a wide range of information to assist people to live and manage their lives. 

After travelling in South East Asia, India and Afghanistan for a year in 1970, I returned to Australia and enrolled in a part-time Library Diploma. I obtained a position in the State Library of NSW and within a relatively short time moved to a more senior position in the Mitchell Library. 

I moved into public libraries in 1975, holding positions of Deputy Chief Librarian until 1988.  At Blue Mountains City Council I was one of two women in senior management positions, and at Marrickville Council, the only woman in a senior management position.  In both instances the Chief Librarian was male. 

In 1983 I gave birth to my son and became a sole parent. 

My first encounter with computers (1975) was a very early networked, in-house, library system, which linked 5 branch libraries throughout the Blue Mountains.  Much of my time was spent negotiating with the IT section and Council to further develop the system.  This was the awakening in my interest in technology, its potential to make a wide range of information more accessible and as a powerful tool for information management.  I was able to pursue this interest as Deputy Chief Librarian at Marrickville City Council Library (1983-1988) where we installed a sophisticated (for its time) networked, library system. Developing an online catalogue system for the collection of books in 13 community languages and an online community information system were interesting challenges.  Training and change management were amongst my many roles. 

At the end of 1988 I decided it was time to change directions, resigned, and moved back to the Blue Mountains. For the next few years I worked privately as a social research consultant and also filled a maternity leave vacancy as Director of Varuna Writers’ Centre.  During this time I was given and taught myself to use a Mac - the first time I had used a PC.  It was also the first time I had worked for the non-government Community Sector. 

In 1992 I was appointed as Research and Policy Co-ordinator at TRI Community Exchange, a Family Resource Centre, established to provide infrastructure support to the non-government Community Sector in Nepean.  One of the appeals of the position was that it was to investigate the feasibility of establishing an electronic network for the sector.  This gave birth to Westnet in 1993, initially a stand alone bulletin board system which later became web based. I developed and managed this project (with a lot of learning about new and emerging technologies along the way!). Westnet provided the opportunity for the sector to explore the potential of this new technology and its application to their work.  We also provided support and training and played a strong advocacy role to government on the need for IT infrastructure, internet connections and IT training  for community organisations. 

At the end of 1997, with the change of Federal Government, funding for the Family Resource Centre Program was cut. All projects of TRI came to an end, except Westnet, which we managed to obtain Networking the Nation funding to continue for two years. I remained as Westnet Manager, building up a new team and organisation.  There was the additional challenge of generating funds for the future survival of the organisation (not an easy task when your client group are under-funded community organisations).  As the Internet became more user friendly, we moved the network from the Bulletin Board to the Internet.  We continued to provide online services, training, advocacy and were contracted to develop a number of innovative web sites and other IT related projects.  By the beginning of 2000 I felt I had contributed as much vision and energy as I could to Westnet. 

In March 2000, I took up my present position as Project Manager of communitybuilders.nsw website, a project of the Strategic Projects Division of the NSW Premier’s Department.  I am a staff representative on the department’s executive-group and also the department’s representative on a number of cross Agency committees – Human Services Information Management Group; Human Services Network; Better Services Delivery Reference Group; Government Computer Re-use Reference Group. I also convene the IT Capacity Building Project for NGOs Working Group.

Interview with Carolyn Leigh

When I was first asked to contribute to this forum, my first thought was ‘glass ceiling? That’s never been in my sight line, but I have come up against a lot of brick walls!’ 

1. What is my profession? 

I have found it difficult to define my profession since leaving librarianship. There has been no clear career path, it has been more a journey according to pursuit of specific interests, opportunities, demands of the position and skills accumulated along the way. A commitment to social justice has influenced my direction.  It has not been so much about climbing a ladder, rather being in a position to make a difference. 

Most of the positions I have held, have involved either organisational or project management. Organisational and staff management alone require different and diverse skills, quite separate to managing the content of the organisation or project. There have been continuing specialist threads of research, information management and the application of technologies to provide broad access to information for the general community. As technology has become an increasingly necessary tool to access information, I have also become an advocate for access to this technology and the skills required to use it.  

Am I an IT specialist?  

Maybe, in a very broad sense.  I think my strength lies more in project management with a focus on IT related projects.  My interest is in the application of the technology rather than the technology itself. 

I have been fortunate to be an early participant in evolving IT fields where there has been no clearly defined career path. It provides the ongoing opportunity to learn, explore, and develop new skills and influence change. I find it difficult to identify what the highest level of my profession is. 

2.  Invisible Barriers 


As a library manager in local government, I definitely experienced gender barriers, which contributed to me leaving that profession.  Although it was a predominantly female profession, the other senior management positions within Council and the Councilors were male.  These were the people who ultimately made the decisions.  The barriers were institutional, attitudinal, political and cultural.  

I have been asked questions in interviews by men, which they would definitely not have asked male applicants e.g.

It was an environment where women, had to leave personal lives and motherhood at home to maintain professional credibility. My application to return to work-part time after 6 months unpaid maternity leave was refused. 

Information Technology (IT) 

My IT path was greatly facilitated by my employment by TRI Community Exchange, a non government, all female organisation.   In 1992 our manager insisted that we become computer literate and engaged a female computer tutor for 6 months. This enabled us to become role models for the predominantly female sector we supported and resourced, women who had studied social work, not computing, at university.  The tutor, highly skilled in all aspects of computing, also became my mentor during the development of Westnet. 

TRI provided a total contrast to any work environment I had experienced. We had the luxury to explore innovative ways of working and women’s ways of working.

It operated on principles of trust, collaboration, support, teamwork, consultation, inclusiveness, non-competitiveness and social justice.  

The purpose of the Westnet project was to encourage and facilitate the non-government sector to incorporate information technology in their organisations. The initial enthusiasts and movers were male who made a great contribution, however their ‘tech speak’ and ‘stand aside, I’ll do it for you’ approach were barriers to females. Language was a means of holding onto power.  It was necessary to de-mystify the technology to make it accessible. It was common for the men to be interested in the technology and the women in its application. 

It is still very difficult for women with technical qualifications to establish credibility within the profession.  They can experience covert barriers and a fair degree of condescension.  As a client, I have experienced extreme difficulties in getting technical developers to meet my specifications for work.   

3.  Why are there barriers in the IT profession? 

Technical professions traditionally are male based and initially IT was a very technical field. The profession has developed from a male power base strengthened by the use of an exclusive technical language. The technology was developed by men and used by men. 

There have been many changes in the past ten years with the growth of the Internet and Windows based applications.  A wide range of IT courses are now available through Universities, TAFE and Community Colleges. 

While men are still predominantly the developers of the technology, men, women and children of all ages are now the end users. I increasingly encounter women who are managing IT projects.  New fields of specialisation are developing which provide opportunities for women, particularly in relation to the web, e.g. web design, information management, content development, usability testing, e-learning, web site management, writing for the web, project management. Many women are now coming into the field with formal technical, communications, multi-media qualifications and others are applying existing skills to the new technology and learning as they go. 

However, in her report, Women and IT, Sue Gorst, Department for Women, writes: 

‘Few women are producers of information technology, whether as internet content providers, programmers, designers, inventors or fixers of computers.  In addition, women are conspicuously absent from decision-making structures in ICT.’ 

She reports that: 

·         The number of women in ICT is declining

·         Women primarily concentrated in non-technical jobs ( marketing, sales, web design and project management, call centres)

·         It’s still unusual to see women working as network engineers, system architects and even less common to find female CEOs. Women who work in the industry rate technology and telecommunications highly for flexibility and career support, but very low when it came to have a family friendly workplace

·         Depending on how ‘ information technology’ is defined, the proportion of women working in the field in Australia is somewhere between 20 per cent and 40 percent. 

4.  Is this barrier penetrable?  How can the barrier be dismantled in your profession? 

There is a fair way to go to penetrate the barriers, particularly in the technical areas and Senior Executive positions. 

The increasing ‘non-technical’ specialisations in the IT profession now provide women with a greater choice to participate in this industry. The shift from Information Technology to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has many interesting interpretations and applications. 

The technology itself is still a barrier to many women, which can be overcome in a number of ways:

·         find female and male mentors

·         evaluate your ‘technical skills’ more broadly and acknowledge those skills

·         feel ok about being selective about your knowledge

·         persist with breaking down the language barrier

·         feel confident and justified about asking questions and insisting on the outcomes you want

·         work with women wherever possible and share knowledge and skills

·         encourage and facilitate other women to work in the field

·         develop female networks which you can draw on for support

·         we need women as role models, who have succeeded within the profession working within a feminist framework. 

5.  Have I broken through the glass ceiling? 

I have always been able to make very fulfilling professional choices and feel satisfied with my achievements.

My current position provides many opportunities to extend my skills and knowledge and participate in government policy development and change.

The range of skills this position requires is not widely understood, which affects grading, status, decision making powers and future job prospects.  It is also difficult to anticipate future markets for my skills.   

From my office I enjoy spectacular views through glass walls!!