The path to gender diversity in technology
I was so pleased when Kat asked me to pen a blog post for Cambridge Women in Tech. It’s a group that I joined almost exactly one year ago, delighted to see more opportunities to connect with women in tech in Cambridge. I’d like to share with you all my own path to the realisation that women in tech is a Big Deal, and a topic I have grown to care about, research and give advocacy.
I’ve worked in technology my entire career. More specifically than that, I’ve focused much of my career to Engineering Information Management software. So, not only working in tech, the markets my work serves are also firmly within STEM fields. I started out as a Software Engineer and analyst, before becoming a Product Manager and now a Head of Department for AVEVA.
In all honesty, before I had kids about 7 years ago I didn’t give too much thought to women in technology. Sure, I was one. I quite liked being unique so it didn’t bother me that there weren’t many others. Then I had my first baby. Like many other new mums, I joined local groups to meet other people and start figuring out this parenting thing.
I’ll cut a long story short here. Having your first baby is all consuming, and so I went to the baby groups and did baby-related things and put my professional self on hold during my maternity leave. But then with my second I’d learned to integrate my mum-self and work-self, and started to discover that the new friends I was making were amazing women. Many of them scientists, engineers or technologists. I was struck by the absurdity of the situation, singing songs in baby groups with women whom I shared a professional interest, yet had barely encountered for the duration of my career thus far.
I started reading more widely and learnt about the shortage of women entering tech careers – a mere 17% of technical roles are filled by women in the UK – and about the leaky pipeline, that we start with few, and an even smaller proportion progress to the more senior roles.
I learnt about unconscious bias, and the implicit assumptions that pull us towards the stereotype, adding extra impedance to progression. I returned to work, and I don’t want to dwell on details but it was tough. I started seeing events that I struggled with in a broader light. These weren’t just my difficulties, they were common situations across many industries that negatively impacted those who had returned from a career break or had caring responsibilities. I wanted to do something to change it.
My opportunity came soon after. In my organisation we have annual events where staff can put questions to the exec team. With growing media attention to the topic of women in tech, I was eager to ask about our strategy in this area. But come the meeting, I found myself in a room of colleagues asking important-sounding questions, and I realised that while there were some women in the room, they were the exec assistants or marketing, and all the technical team there were men. I was the only one to whom this mattered. And I chickened out.
But I immediately regretted it, and returned to my desk and very carefully, and probably painstakingly slowly, wrote an email to our then CTO, Dave Wheeldon, to ask my question. To my amazement, I received a very quick reply – in the form of a one-hour meeting invite to discuss it with him personally. AVEVA is big enough that, although friendly and open, discussion with CTO was far beyond my experience.
In that meeting he shared with me that this topic was important to him and to our business. He was already aware of the growing numbers of studies that show that diverse teams have greater productivity and success, and shared personal experience that reinforced this. He asked if I wanted to be involved in the initiative to make change. You can imagine my response: YES!
He put me in touch with our Training and Development Manager, Paula, who became instrumental to much of the remainder of this story. She entrusted me with data from the HR system with names, roles and job levels, and I carried out a detailed analysis of our numbers. The results were actually amazingly similar to national averages, confirming my suspicions about gender imbalance and the leaky pipeline. Seeing it in figures and graphs, and being able to place myself on them, hit home.
I had also been put in touch with Gillian Arnold, who is chair of BCS Women, who gave guidance about what we were seeing and how to take it forwards. Having gathered the data, I presented it back to the CTO and EVP of HR, Clare Bye. They took the results very seriously.
That was about 3.5 years ago. Since then we have been on a massive ramp-up to make change. Paula promptly signed us up to the WISE Campaign (Women in Science and Engineering), to which our CEO became a personal signatory, and we started carrying out activities on their 10 steps program to ensure that women have the same opportunities for progression as their male counterparts.
We have started to encourage people to sign up as STEM ambassadors to support events in schools and provide inspiration to girls and boys, even just being present to challenge stereotypes that begin to form so terrifyingly young.
We have sent aspiring leaders (including me) on Women’s Leadership training, joined conferences and networking groups, participated in university research projects, and approached recruitment with awareness of diversity – and in our graduate intake in following years have seen the gender proportions swing to 50-50!
Our efforts were more than recognized last year, when AVEVA won the WISE Campaign Employer of the Year Award 2017. A fantastic achievement that I am proud to have contributed towards.
For me, a measure that change is taking hold will be when men are talking about and promoting gender diversity equally to women. This year, for the first time, we held celebrations in offices around the globe for International Women’s Day, well populated by both women and men.
Joining the Cambridge WIT group has given me cause for reflection. Along the way, none of the steps have felt all that big, but looking back just a few years this is an amazing path that I and AVEVA have been on. I happy to be part of Cambridge WIT, to share what I know, what we’ve done, and also to learn from others’ experiences, find support and be inspired! There’s still a long path ahead, any many changes yet to tackle. Although I’ve focused here on the positives of my story, believe me it’s also been challenging and frustrating, and understanding can be disappointingly lacking. But I take courage in knowing that positive change can happen, and from many conversations with colleagues of both genders I’ve been touched by people’s openness to the possibilities of their own unconscious bias and great will to make change. Let’s approach it by taking many small steps together.