Why should we support more women's leadership programmes in tech?


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  • As BCS NI’s Women Transforming Digital Leadership programme draws to a close, Sync NI talked to course sponsor Bazaarvoice’s Emer Kielt and supporter Microsoft’s Darren Dillon on their personal and professional perspectives of the initiative so far.

    BCS developed the course in partnership with change leaders, Empowering You, to help motivate females within the tech sector to engage more with leadership roles and grow confidence in their abilities.

    Historically low figures for women in tech leadership have little improved.

    Reports vary on the exact figure of women in tech within the UK – it usually stays at around 17 to 19%. For example, the most recent BCS 2020 Diversity Report showed that Northern Ireland has one of the worst gender imbalance rates in IT.

    At a potential workforce of 48% women only account for 15% of IT specialists here. Some sectors are worse affected than others because of a lack of digital skills.

    In 2019, a third sector index report which was ran by CO3 and Ulster Bank found that 94% of the third sector in NI believe that they face barriers to fully accessing technology, with 46% reporting a lack of digital skills or expertise.

    BCS believes that as a society we are at risk of letting some sectors thrive while others fall behind in the economy.

    Therefore, the end goal of the current leadership programme is for the ladies on the course to come together on a project that aims to tackle these digital transformation issues that the third sector faces.

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    Emer Kielt, who moved into a leadership role as a Product Development Team Lead within Bazaarvoice back in May, is also a participant on the programme. She first saw it advertised on Twitter and said it appealed to her from the offset.

    “I love that we’ve been able to build a community with different women across different sectors. Unfortunately, we haven’t met face to face but in the new year it would be great to meet up with everyone and continue this.

    “From the company perspective, we would say in Belfast our vision is to empower everyone to reach their full potential and that includes people in Bazaarvoice. But also, as a sponsor we were able to offer a place on the course to someone from a third sector organisation, our charity of the year.”

    Bazaarvoice's Emer Kielt

    Darren Dillon, CTO in Azure at Microsoft Consulting Services, said that Microsoft got involved largely due to the programme’s local element and agenda.

    “We already have various programmes for women and leadership within Microsoft, but they’re generally ran out of the US. We’ve got about 50 people based in Belfast that aren’t all able to travel to participate.

    “We got involved because firstly, the programme agenda looked really interesting and we didn’t want to get involved just to jump on a bandwagon. I also personally like the fact that it gives back to the third sector because you don’t really see that happen very much.

    “The real value prop is that it's local, so people build connections with a community close to them. Hopefully that connection will sustain them throughout their careers.”

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    Darren continued: “The tech industry overall doesn’t have enough women in leadership roles and you see tech companies focusing on this issue but it’s going to take quite some time to really change that; probably a generation.

    “Even though in companies like ourselves (Microsoft), women are working in tech in a leadership role but its not necessarily tech leadership.

    “They could be leaders in sales, finance, marketing or HR, which are heavily focused on the female side of things from a staffing point of view, but if you look at software engineering, consulting, developing etc; it’s still very much a male dominated environment and that’s something we want to change.

    Microsoft's Darren Dillon speaking on the LeaderTalksNI podcast in 2019

    “Even within our own organisation in the likes of cybersecurity, the gender diversity is in the single digits and that’s something we’re trying to work on through programmes and graduate internships.

    “We need female role models for the younger generation to see those female leaders and chart that course.”

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    Emer added that she feels “everyone should take the time out to invest in leadership programmes, because leadership isn’t easy and there’s lots of skills you can always work on to help that.”

    She commented: “Especially with women, I feel there’s a lack of confidence and this programme for me, has really helped with that due to the individual coaching aspect of it.

    “We need to have diversity at all levels and we need more women to be involved in decision making as it just makes good business sense. I think this leadership course is a great way in achieving that."

    Sync NI asked both techies, what is the important of leadership collaboration across sectors?

    Emer noted: “I think it’s a value for everybody on the course and for all leaders as it provides a wide range of experience.

    “We encounter a lot of the same issues and problems no matter what area we’re working in, but it also helps to drive understanding of the different sectors and is also an opportunity to provide help or assistance, especially if the third sector is behind digitally. It gives us an opportunity to lend our expertise to those sectors.”

    The most recent BCS 2020 Diversity Report showed that Northern Ireland has one of the worst gender imbalance rates in IT

    Darren agreed: “To me leadership problems are sector agnostic; if you’re trying to build change or create high performance teams or strategies, those problems and the skills needed to solve them are common regardless of the sector, but then every sector has different approaches to problem solving.

    “Even at a very high level, the private and public sectors are different in terms of governance and how they make decisions. Having exposure to different ways to solve the problems brings good thought diversity.

    “To me then, people on programmes like this can learn leadership approaches that they wouldn’t have thought of before. That collaboration is priceless.”

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    Both supporters firmly believe the course is something their organisations would be interested in promoting and being a part of again in the future, with Emer stating: “If you have women in your organisation but you’re not seeing them in certain roles you need to ask yourself why? Are there certain barriers? Do they need more support? Certainly, this course would help them with that.”

    “Get engaged and be part of it,” said Darren. “It’s not just for women to be involved with. It doesn’t mean men can’t get involved with the support or planning of it.

    “If you are a leader then make it a priority for your leadership teams to get involved with this as well. There’s a lot of box-ticking exercises around diversity. Get your teams to think outside the box (to use double puns there).

    “Try to think of innovative things to move the needle and don’t just pay lip service to it, because the only way we’re going to solve the problem is by thinking of new ideas, rolling up the sleeves and getting into it."

    And Darren continued to express his passion for the practicality of the course.

    “There’s a model we use called the 70:20:10 model. You learn 10% of information through classes or programmes, 20% learning from other people and 70% on the job.

    “If you put people through this and then they don’t actually get put into a stretch assignment where they’re learning these skills, then in six months they’ll forget everything.

    “The other call to action is if you’re going to put people through this programmes, make sure you have work for them to do when they come straight out of it where they can use these skills, otherwise you’re wasting their time.”

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    Emer agreed and concluded: “It’s really made me think about things and I’ve been putting different things into action day-to-day. It’s not just about theory, I’m putting things I’ve learned on the course into action.

    “I only got into tech four years ago from doing a conversion course at Queen’s, so I haven’t taken a traditional path into tech at all.

    “That’s the benefit of diversity.”

    If you would like to register interest in being part of the next Leadership programme cohort in 2021, click here

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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