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ACS backed out of sponsoring a 'Women in IT' calendar

THE Australian Computer Society has been accused of "weasling out" of sponsoring a controversial calendar promoting women in IT after adverse publicity over a near-nude cover shot.

The peak lobby group says it withdrew because it was concerned the calendar, aimed at raising money to encourage girls to study technology, was exploiting women.

The withdrawal came as experts warned that Australia had failed miserably to attract more women as IT professionals.

In a confidential email to ACS branch executives, president Philip Argy said he was worried that the cover image, which features a Brisbane web designer in the rose petal scene from the movie, American Beauty, was not appropriate.

The calendar includes shots of 20 female IT workers in spoof poses from famous movies including Dr No, Basic Instinct and Return of the Jedi.

"The sparse coverage of the rose petals is insufficient and the pose is not even a flattering one," Mr Argy wrote. "The only way to protect the ACS's reputation is to withdraw support if the cover is not changed to something more suitable.

"With great respect to all of you who think I'm making the ACS look like wowsers, it is untenable for us to be portrayed as supporting a publication with a naked woman on the cover, in the name of improving the image of women in IT."

Mr Argy, a senior partner with Sydney law firm Mallesons Stephen Jacques, said the organisation had been assured that the calendar would be "appealing to all men and women".

He said the cover image meant that it could not be displayed in the workplace.

"If 1 per cent of the population find it offensive, the assurance we were given is false," he said.

"I'm sorry if some of the members don't understand the basis for our decision, but I'm comfortable it was the right thing to do."

Mr Argy said he was concerned because the calendar's creator, Women in IT founder Sonja Bernhardt, told the ACS that she wanted to use the cover image to increase sales to young men.

"That is crass exploitation and it is totally inconsistent with the objectives of the calendar," he said.

Ms Bernhardt, the chief executive of consultancy ThoughtWare, said she kept all sponsors informed on the progress of the calendar, including the decision to use the American Beauty-style image.

She denied claims of exploitation, saying the models were all capable of deciding whether or not to appear.

"They are intelligent women who have made their own decisions," she said. "Those claims are insulting."

She also denied that the calendar was targeted at young men, although the image was chosen to "maximise sales" so more funds could be raised.

Ms Bernhardt said the ACS should accept responsibility for its decision to become a sponsor rather than "weasling out", adding the calendar was intended to attract attention.

"I have spent 10 years on traditional intervention programs including role models, mentoring and career days," she said. "That has a very small impact.

"To affect the future we have to get to a general audience.

"It's about getting publicity in a medium that will get people's attention."

She said one of the major aims of the calendar was to demonstrate the diversity of women in the industry, and roles they performed.

"We have everyone, Africans, Europeans, Asians, Sri Lankans, girls who are 20 and women who are 60," she said. "There's also a fantastic diversity of people, from networking people all the way up to scale to general managers."

The models are not fussed by the controversy, warning that the industry needs to focus on glamour rather than geekiness.

Personal Broadband Australia products and services general manager Sharon Don, who posed as Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder from the James Bond movie Dr No, said the calendar would help to glamorise the industry.

"The shot of me is what I am, I'm a beach girl," she said. "For all the detractors, it's only a bikini, it's fun and sexy." That's not to deny that she had a few sleepless nights after the shoot wondering what she had got herself into.

"I worked hard to build a reputation on deliverables, and then I put myself in a swimsuit, but if I want to be glamorous and have fun, why can't I?" she said.

"IT is sexy, but how can you say that if you don't have sexy people? We want IT to be a sexy career choice."

While we might be leading the world in calendars, we are trailing in getting girls into IT.

The Department of Engineering Science and Technology and the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that just 19 per cent of IT students at university are women, and the percentage of women in the technology workforce is similar.

Global statistics show that the figures for other countries, which are already ahead of Australia, are attracting more women into hi-tech jobs, but Australia is not.

"Girls are often excluded from the possibility of the profession by its cultural maleness," said Sydney University senior IT lecturer Andrea Stern, who has conducted extensive research on women in the industry.

"They are also excluded by the practice of determining entry to university IT courses on the basis of achievement in maths, rather than problem-solving."

Ms Stern said women's caring responsibilities also made it harder to achieve success in an industry that often required long hours of work.

Swinburne University of Technology IT lecturer Catherine Lang said difficulties in attracting women were part of a larger problem: the industry was struggling to attract young people of either gender.

Women and men with strong social skills tend to gravitate towards careers in which they feel they will be able to work with people, rather than machines, overlooking that much of IT is about human interaction.

Ms Lang said even attracting men with leadership and social skills was difficult.

"The industry is not attracting women, but it's not attracting a diverse range of men either," she said. "We're attracting geeks, but not the men we need."

Ms Lang was not enthusiastic about the calendar, she accepted that the industry needed an image change.

"It's okay to love bags and shoes and fluffy things and still love IT," she said. "The women in IT, and even the women in the calendar, are working hard to change perceptions."

The calendar has won support from some unexpected areas.

"I'm not sure how this will go down'," said Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications steering committee member Carolyn Shaw.

"People will have very mixed views, but I'm all for pushing the edge as long as it doesn't go over the top in terms of taste."

Ms Shaw said discrimination was no longer a major issue, but getting girls to study IT and enter the industry was. There, glamour could play a part.

"We need an IT equivalent of CSI," she said. "Women have skills the IT industry desperately needs, like the ability to speak to people who are not technical, and the ability to multi-task."

The industry's flexible working arrangements should make it more attractive to women.

"The problem is at the school end, and seeing this as a career," she said. "Globally, the number of women studying IT is actually going down."

Younger women in the industry agree the problem is perception. Many girls simply do not see IT as an attractive career.

"Any publicity, good or bad, is useful because it makes people aware," said Anastasia Govan, the Australian Computer Society's Young Professional of the year, who posed as Cameron Diaz in Charlie's Angels.

"It's not the done thing for females to do what we've done."

Ms Govan said role models were sorely lacking.

"We need to get female role models out there," she said. "We want to show that people who work in IT are not just geeks eating pizza," she said.

The Australian

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