Silverchain’s Chief Security Officer Jo Stewart-Rattray will soon be on her way to the United Nations in New York to take part in this year’s session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, 6-17 March.

Jo will facilitate a session on the affordability and accessibility of technology for rural, regional and remote women, a topic she has demonstrated leadership on for more than a decade.

Growing up in a small rural town in Victoria called Hexham, which had little more than a general store doubling up as a post office, a church and a tired-looking tennis court, Jo had little else to do than “dream big”.

And dreaming big was something the young Jo did in spades. Inspired one day while watching an old movie in which Audrey Hepburn’s character worked for the United Nations, six-year-old Jo with red ponytails declared “that’s what I want to do”. Even back then Jo knew she wanted to make a difference to people’s lives.

While Audrey Hepburn became a UNICEF Ambassador in real life, Jo’s own trajectory to the UN took the unlikely course of working for many years in IT and information security roles as she moved up the ladder to hold senior positions and join various industry boards.

One of Jo’s first steps towards her UN dream was in 2017 when she co-founded a project called SheLeadsTech, a female-led initiative of a global IT association to improve women’s career opportunities in the cyber and tech industries throughout the world.

While promoting SheLeadsTech at a high-powered event in Canberra, Jo was encouraged to nominate for one of only two civil society delegates to join the official Australian Government Delegation to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in March 2018.  

After an exhaustive selection process, Jo became the technical advisor to the Australian delegation and packed her bags for her first UN experience in New York. Jo returned to the UN headquarters in 2019 as part of the broader Australian contingent, and again in the 2021 and 2022 virtual events.

As she prepares to return to New York for this year’s event, which coincides with International Women’s Day on 8 March 2023, Jo reflects on her own journey from rural Australia to international IT leadership, and the challenges facing girls and women in the tech world, no matter which continent they’re from.

Through her role with SheLeadsTech, Jo has been involved in setting up the initiative in 17 of the 180 countries where it now operates. From that experience, Jo said there were any number of barriers for girls and women when it came to establishing a career in tech, regardless of whether you were in Africa, North America, Asia, Europe or Australia.

“While there are differences across different continents and countries, a strong common thread across the world is that there is a distinct lack of role models for girls and women in IT and information security,” Jo said.

“It’s important that girls and women see role models and hear showcased stories of women at any time in their career trajectory so they can say ‘look, they’ve done it, so can I’. That would make a huge difference.”

“At Silverchain, with our largely female workforce, it’s fantastic to lead our digital security as Chief Security Officer because our leadership profile mirrors our workforce profile, which is rare in large organisations,” Jo said.  

Jo said mentors in the broader IT and tech sector were in short supply.

“I encourage my female colleagues across the sector to mentor other women to help them along the journey. Mentorship is important for all young leaders as they progress in their careers,” Jo said.

Jo said that in many parts of the world, there were often harrowing examples of gender inequalities such as lack of education, low social standing, forced and child marriage, gender-based violence, and limited ability to participate in the workforce.

Whether in her role with SheLeadsTech, or her UN roles, Jo has found that when women come together, they are able to create safe spaces to share their experiences and provide support to one another.

Jo believes all women and girls have the right to “dream big and believe”, and her advocacy work is making that a reality for many.

“I believe that equality is something that all genders must achieve together because we can’t begin to move the needle unless we are standing shoulder to shoulder, particularly in the tech workforce.

“Research shows diverse workforces deliver better business outcomes, so we all have the opportunity to do more.”

All these topics will be front of mind for Jo at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women’s session for which the theme this year is Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Jo’s attendance this year is sponsored by the Australian Computer Society for whom she is the Vice President, Communities. Jo is playing a key role in drafting Australia’s working document to inform the agreed conclusions of the summit which sets the stage for each country’s commitments to gender equality.