28-Sep-2016

Our series of interviews with Women in IT is uncovering some persistent themes, but also a variety of experience - and differing opinions on how to encourage women into the industry.

I have been struck by how all the women we have interviewed have referred to the breadth of opportunities available to them in IT companies. Also the women have acknowledged that there are very few roles in any sector which are not now touched by technology, so using the phrase 'women in IT' may not resonate with many women in broader tech careers. Only two of the 11 women we have interviewed studied an IT-related subject at university - just as many studied an Arts subject. I wonder how this impacts on how we define ourselves, how we are experienced as women in this technology industry, and if changing our language when we describe our careers may impact positively on our efforts to promote gender diversity.

To explore some of these themes I caught up with Brandwatch's chief people officer, Naomi Trickey. Naomi studied English Literature at university, followed by an MA in Modern Literature and another MA in Arts and Cultural Management.

Naomi's experience

How did you get into a career in IT?

I graduated in 1997 at the time the internet had started to boom. I did trade show work via friends while I was a student. I did a show for AOL for one friend, and in doing so met her boyfriend. He worked for a US-based start up and asked me to come and do a show for them at Olympia. There, I met the US team, and at the end of the week they offered me a job in New York. Crazy times!

Your role at Brandwatch has changed a lot during your five years there. Has your function influenced your experience of being a woman in a tech company? Chief People Officer is perhaps traditionally a role people see as more 'female' - is life different?

Life is different because of the nature of the role, and the scope of my work. The gender-related challenges are the same and are felt regardless of seniority or role. I suppose I'm a little more exposed, and I'm also expected to provide solutions now whereas previously I was merely representative of the issue. For example, diversity is now part of my problem to solve.

I deal a lot with US technology vendors who work very hard to promote gender diversity. My female colleagues in those organisations have become my industry allies, and they are very much supported organisationally. Have your experiences varied in the different organisations you've worked for? Have they all been UK-founded, and do you think that makes a difference?

I have worked for a very wide range of organisations, some founded in Europe, some in the US, and some quintessentially British (for example, the BBC). I have worked in Europe, the UK and the US. UK companies tend to worry less about formal corporate behaviour than their US and European counterparts.

Irreverence is much more common in Britain! I like that, but I share your experience of US companies being more actively engaged in the need for a formal commitment to diversity.

Would you recommend IT as a career to girls who are thinking about their future, and if so what's the best thing to do to get into the sector?

Yes. I love the dynamism of the industry and the variety of humans that work in it. I'd say it's best to recognise that not all IT jobs require a computer science degree. Talk to everyone you know: our most successful hiring mechanism is referrals.

How can we encourage more girls and women to consider a 'technical' career, or a career in IT?

Model the change we wish to see. Be visible in the industry. Mentor women who are on their way up. Follow the Rooney rule where possible (interview at least one woman for each role you're hiring for). Stay on top of the data: benchmark your company's hiring and career development against the rest of the industry. Develop a culture in which women can thrive and are welcome. Also consider bias interrupters - could you have a team meeting where only women speak?

Join networks of other women. Look out for events that help you develop the skills you need to progress. If you run a company or a team, ensure that women do not feel the onus is on them to change. It infuriates me that women think they're the ones that need to change: to be 'more like a man' or to 'level up' in order to sit at the top table.

That's a really interesting point about boardroom bias. As you have become more senior have you experienced less sexism? Or is it just easier to make your voice heard and be more of an influencer?

The sexism has taken on a different flavour as I've progressed in my career. I experience it differently now, and I have a much more widely heard voice to counter the issues I, and my female colleagues, face. I have increasing opportunities to enter into and shape the debate but am simultaneously more keenly aware of the challenges.

I have been shocked by the direct sexism I have experienced in our industry - from female dancers entertaining me at IT conferences, to arguments about prostitution. I am aware from my peers and from the other women who have contributed to this series that this is not a universal experience. Maybe I've just been unlucky?

I don't think so, unfortunately. There's many challenges in overcoming this problem, and the problem itself is complex and nuanced. The first step is to carefully define the problem we are trying to solve. And do not be distracted by those that tell you it's not a genuine issue. The research is overwhelming: diverse companies are better companies.

What is the gender mix where you work now, and how influential do you think you can be in your new role in forcing diversity using techniques such as the Rooney rule?

I have three men, and six women. But I have always had very diverse teams. My job is about creating a working environment in which all people can do their best work, with the emphasis on 'all' and 'best'. That presupposes diversity in my opinion.

In terms of how influential I can be, I would say that it's my job to establish these sorts of techniques as precedence, where appropriate. But I don't force - I influence, consult, guide and encourage.

Finally, I'm guessing that with your Arts degrees your university friends have followed many different career paths. Do you think your experiences, having built a career in tech companies, have been different to your female peers?

Nope.

Defining the problem

So, the first step is to carefully define the problem we are trying to solve. Certainly IT as a sector is not unique: women are woefully underrepresented in senior roles in all industries. And yet the research is overwhelming: there is a strong link between diversity in decision making and business growth prospects, gender-diverse companies deliver better profitability and return on investment, while diverse teams perform better, and show better judgement than homogeneous teams.

The underrepresentation of women in the workplace is therefore a major problem not just for women, but for businesses - which could be losing out to the tune of £billions.

Many of my male peers consider the lack of female representation within technology to be a generational issue which will resolve itself as our sector evolves - but do we have time to wait? Can we take affirmative action to address the imbalance? And what can we learn from other industries that have had more success in attracting and retaining women?

If, as Amy Evans suggests, we think less 'techy' when advertising roles can we attract more women into the industry to fast-track different attitudes and experiences? All of the women we have interviewed for the blog have stressed the importance of representing women in technology to girls and boys early in their school career. Unconscious bias stems from childhood experiences, and it is clear from the interviews that when women have had positive role models they have been more encouraged to pursue a career in our exciting industry.

Greater awareness

Emma Walmsley's appointment last week as CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is perhaps a sign of a greater, wider awareness of women's ability. It's surely no coincidence: in February this year the government appointed GSK chairman Sir Philip Hampton to chair an independent review on increasing the number of female executives at Britain's 350 biggest public companies.

Sir Philip said at the time that his focus would be to "look at the talent pipeline for female executives to ensure we create opportunities and the right conditions for women to succeed." Seven months later, Emma Walmsley has joined the other women who lead FTSE 350 companies including EasyJet, Imperial Brands, Whitbread, Royal Mail and Kingfisher.

For those women already enjoying careers in IT, it's clear we must keep shouting: our success shows that this exciting sector is one in which we can prosper.

However, as Naomi has said, the onus shouldn't be on women to change. It's incumbent on all of us - men and women - to force change, by looking within ourselves and our organisations for gender bias. We must ask for support from - or create support in - the companies we work: they must understand and communicate the benefits they gain from our equal representation.

 

Read more in our Women in IT series, and share your views with @idealhopkins and @weareideal using #WomenInIT.

We'd love to hear from more female job applicants. If you want to join us, take a look at our current jobs, and get in touch with HR@ideal.co.uk to tell us why you're the Ideal candidate.

Header image: Mauricio Lima/Flickr, Creative Commons

Claire Hopkins

Written by Claire Hopkins

Founding Director

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