International Women’s Day

 

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As part of their International Women’s Day theme, The Digital Catapult (http://www.digitalcatapultcentre.org.uk) asked for my thoughts on the following questions:

Has the landscape changed since you first started in your career?

In my career, I have seen a significant change for the better in the opportunities afforded to women. The big difference since I started work is that now there are many organisations and groups working to get more women into technology, science, engineering and mathematics jobs, and helping to keep them there.

In the 1990s, I was following my dream to have an interesting and intellectually stimulating career. The fact that the job I wanted was in a male dominated sector hardly occurred to me. This was because I was lucky, I had a role model in my mum who worked in science, I’d gone to a school that was overtly feminist and I had a peer group of like-minded friends. Many women did not have this type of support and I’m pleased we’ve seen a real change in mindset that means most women today are supported in their career choices.

The other really good thing that’s happened over the last twenty years is we’ve lost many of the negative female stereotypes that were associated with working in tech. Sadly, it was a commonly held view that women needed to be of a certain type to get into and thrive in the male-dominated tech world and, indeed, in some cases the very perception that they were not the right type stopped some women.   Thankfully the world has moved on because of the effort that has been made into making tech more accessible and interesting to young women.

More women have learned about tech and how the sector embraces all types of people and skills because of the work by organisations that have pushed for gender unbiased education, promoted female role models, provided mentors to women and recognised female successes and leadership. We are indebted to this effort – it is making a big difference.

What would you like to see happen to help bridge the inequality gap?

I believe continued grass-roots work is still needed to encourage enthusiasm in tech in young women. Sadly, legacy gender stereotypes are still around that perpetuate the myth that girls are better at literacy, languages and art and boys better at maths, science and tech.   Huge progress has been made and, indeed, the prevalence of tech in everyone’s daily lives is breaking barriers so luckily I’d be surprised if any very young girl today assumes tech is a boy thing.

Making sure tech is thought of as a potential career for everyone will increase the historically too low ratio of female to male job applications. The next challenge is improving the ratio of job offers.   A report in 2014 by the research firm Gartner on chief information officers showed the percentage of women taking the role had remained largely static at 14% since 2004. Discussing their findings, the Tina Nunno, a vice-president at Gartner, said, “I don’t believe this bias towards men is conscious. Most people simply don’t say they don’t want to work with a woman, it’s just that on some unconscious level there’s a detrimental lean in the direction of men.”

I‘ve seen this unconscious bias in action, especially in interviews where it is commonplace for the interviewer to see what they are looking for. I have heard people say they judge an interviewee on whether “I’d like to have a drink with them at a bar” or “I’d invite them to my family barbeque”. Such informality at the interview stage invites unconscious bias. The answer lies in making sure managers have interview technique training and in small or entrepreneurial businesses where there is no HR department (which is regularly the case in tech) it is even more important that managers are mindful they could be unconsciously biased.

What is the product/initiative most exciting you at the moment in tech?

As I’m an Economist by training I’m very much at home with data and statistics, so for me, the most exciting trend in tech currently is the race to capture value from data analytics. The term and use of ‘Big Data’ is nothing new. But we’re now witnessing a growing emphasis toward data analysis as a way to inform and support business decisions. Big Data and analytics go together, as without being able to analyse the data it is meaningless.

To use data analytics successfully requires applying business judgment to cutting-edge tech that has been designed with creative flare to identify new ways of using data or opportunities to unlock data. This makes the science of data analytics also an art – it is a powerful combustion of maths, statistics, creative, tech and business skills. So the growth in data analytics is bringing new talents into the tech sector and thoroughly shaking up traditional ways of working. The change will be really seen in marketing where analytical marketers will work hand-in-glove with creatives. That’s really exciting and it will create a plethora of new jobs that give ‘techies’ the opportunity to work in the heart of the business.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given during your career?

One thing I love about working in tech is that businesses, on the whole, tend to be less hierarchical than in other industries. I really dislike hierarchies when they impede the flow of ideas and observations from junior team members. The best advice I’ve ever been given was to express my views and speak up in meetings.   Oddly enough, this wasn’t couched as advice, rather it was a personal criticism or, as we would say today, constructive feedback! I’d known the answer to a client’s question when my senior manager hadn’t, but I didn’t speak up and he was pretty furious with me. In my defence, it was my first job and I’d been in awe of the company around the table.

Since then I’ve always spoken up and trusted my judgment. I’d advise thinking through what you are going to say, being concise, and, especially if you are junior, being astute about when it is appropriate to contribute. But good managers will want to get your input, so speak up! I certainly encourage ideas from junior team members and I make sure I recognise their contributions.

Who is/was your role model?

There’s no one role model I can point to who, as an individual, has had a disproportionate influence on me.   I think in your early career it’s important to identify managers and business leaders around you that you think do a good job and to analyse why that is. If you can recognise the attributes, qualities and skills these people have as leaders, motivators, strategists and negotiators you can begin to replicate them in yourself. Choose role models who are people you actually know, because very often the media portrayal of successful business people is highly unrealistic so you’ll just be found wanting if you try to aspire to be like them. All successful business people experience failure and make mistakes and you’ll rarely hear about them, but if your role model is someone you know, you might just get a chance to witness them dealing with something going wrong and there is nothing like the positive learning that can come from that experience!

 

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Author: Jill Ridley-Smith

Jill works with start-up and scale-up companies as a Non-Executive Director, business mentor, coach, advisor and investor. She is a Non-Executive Director on the Boards of The Digital Catapult, Nottingham Trent University, Smartzer and Pearson Ham. In addition, she volunteers as a business mentor for the government's Start-Up Loans scheme. Previously Jill worked in private equity investment and portfolio management at HgCapital and held management roles at GlaxoSmithKline and LEK Consulting. She is an experienced Non-Executive Director with over 15 years of experience working at Board level. Jill graduated in Economics from the University of Bristol in 1994. She completed her Master’s in Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois in 1999. She is an accredited commercial mediator qualifying in 2012 from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR). Jill is married with two children and lives in London.