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Improving gender diversity is key to addressing tech talent shortages

  • Sinead McCloskey, the Co-Chair of Danske Bank’s Gender Diversity Network, talks to Sync NI about how the bank is demonstrating its commitment to bringing more women into tech roles and introduces some of those already leading the charge at Northern Ireland’s biggest bank.

    Danske Bank has proven over a number of years that it is an employer that is committed to diversity and inclusion.

    But when it comes to recruiting for the growing number of technology roles it needs to meet the bank’s digital transformation agenda, Danske faces the same challenges as every other tech company in Northern Ireland – a low number of female applicants. Their Technology and Digital Development team wants to encourage a balance throughout in order to foster creativity, innovation and different perspectives.

    Sinead McCloskey, a Digital Platform Product Owner, has worked in digital for 17 years and joined Danske Bank five years ago from AV Browne. As a product owner in the personal digital solutions team,  Sinead is responsible for shaping the implementation of new and existing digital platforms to maximise customer experience and adoption. That includes looking at personal customer journeys including onboarding, savings and personal loans and trying to digitise and simplify those journeys for customers.

    “My role is really focused on customer experience, making life easier for customers and giving them the ability to do things from the comfort of their own home,” she explains.

    “There are always new and better ways of doing things digitally for customers and colleagues, so it’s an exciting place to work. You know you can make an impact on the bank and its customers. Technology is always changing and evolving, so you never feel like you’ve done everything or know everything.”

    As Co-Chair of the bank’s Gender Diversity Network, Sinead is passionate about getting the word out about the opportunities that a career in tech can offer women and says the bank is actively working to increase the number of female applicants for the tech roles Danske advertises.

    “We want to encourage more women into tech to show them there is a career pathway that offers the chance to develop and progress,” says Sinead.

    “There is still work to be done to de-mystify what tech careers have to offer. If you look at who is applying to technology-based courses at universities, it is still really male-dominated.”

    One of the objectives of the Gender Diversity Network is to be transparent and accountable by setting visible KPIs that are reported at the top of the bank. In 2020 Danske achieved its target to have 50% women in senior roles (G7+) and since then has set further stretch targets.

    Sinead notes that the gender diversity network analyses data every month on progress against its hiring KPIs and while it is well on the way to reaching its targets for women in senior tech roles, it is an ongoing process.

    “It’s not something we will say “that’s done” - we need to keep reviewing it. Having visible targets we can reflect on and report on keeps the issue top of mind,” she adds.

    “We know from research into recruitment that more often than not if a woman looks at a job and doesn’t meet all of the criteria, she’s less likely to apply than a man in the same position. So we are looking at how we can make our recruitment process less prescriptive to get people to put themselves forward.”

    While opportunities for training, certification and professional development opportunities are attractive and are helping more women to progress in the bank’s tech team, Sinead says the flexibility of roles in tech is also a major benefit that is perhaps not well understood.

    “From my perspective, coming into the bank with a young family and still having the opportunity to progress has been brilliant. I’ve got three young boys so there are big demands in my family life but I’m still able to fulfil my career aspirations. The bank’s culture really supports that,” she says.

    Sinead also believes it is essential for those already established in the industry to give more women the confidence that it could be for them.

    “For me personally, different mentors and coaches have played a big part in my own development of my career. I think it’s really important to get that perspective and encouragement from others so I’m always keen to get out and see who I can offer advice to,” she adds.

    “Sometimes, people just need a gentle nudge of encouragement to go on and pursue their own aspirations for their career and fulfil their potential. Positive conversations and words of wisdom can go a long way.”

    Below, we meet some of the women who work in a wide range of technology roles with Danske Bank in Belfast.

    Laurie Montgomery – Senior Transformation Manager

    Laurie Montgomery plays an integral role in the bank’s ongoing digital transformation programme.

    Having first joined the bank 17 years ago in a temporary cover role in the branch, she had no intention of being a career banker but stayed after finding the bank was a great place to work as it offered a range of career opportunities and flexibility.

    “Variety appeals to me and I’ve been lucky enough to move around a bit. I’ve been in operations roles, as a business process consultant and then moving into the analytics side, first managing a team of analysts who support automation in the bank, and then to my current role overseeing the developers and analysts,” she said.

    Laurie’s role includes chairing the digital transformation board, which is focused on growing the capabilities of what the bank can do locally alongside the Group IT infrastructure.

    “To build up our automation team we’ve been able to recruit internally for a lot of our developers. They come to us knowing the bank’s core systems and a lot of the stakeholders, which is a huge bonus,” she says.

    “But we’re also now recruiting local developers with more technical skills to build what we need. Data engineers, software engineers and API developers who can provide integrations for any platform we use. Together, we’re driving the performance and adoption of our existing digital solutions – getting great solutions out there so customers want to use them.”

    Laurie says Danske Bank’s culture is a key reason she has stayed with the bank so long.

    “I’m a working mother so the flexibility I’m offered is really important. In the automation space, we have a lot of flexibility in when we build what we are building, it doesn’t have to be a 9-5. That means I’m able to do the school runs in the morning and feel like I’m not cut off from the school just because I work full time,” she explains.

    Laurie is also active in the bank’s race equality network, Origins, recently helping Ukrainians displaced by the war to help them compile CVs and practice for job interviews.  She also offers her time as a mentor to undergraduates at Queen’s University and speaks to third-year students to help them plan their careers and learn how to network.

    “When I was growing up, I was the first in our family to go to university. It wasn’t an issue, but looking back there was no one to steer me and give me advice about future career choices,” she says.

    Laurie believes there are great opportunities for women in technology, but often the format of the recruitment process, particularly for development roles, can put women off.

    “For a lot of women, it’s about having confidence. When I’m sitting in a room full of people, I wouldn’t notice if it’s more women than men. But that’s not the same for everyone,” she notes.

    “I also believe age is no limit. A lot of women think that when they have children or take a career break that they can’t take a new career on. As long as you are prepared to put the time in to keep learning you’ll be successful in a technology role.”

    Michelle McNicholl - Apprentice Analytics Engineer

    Michelle McNicholl is an apprentice analytics engineer in Danske Bank’s data team.

    She first joined the bank in 2018 in its contact centre before getting the opportunity to move into a more technical role through Danske’s Tech Futures programme. It is a Higher Level Apprenticeship which gives participants the chance to learn on the job and at the same time gain a degree in gain a foundation degree in Cloud and Application Development.

    “Studying and working at the same time may sound challenging but the majority of the modules I’ve studied tie in really well with the work I do within the data team”, Michelle explained. “I’m able to use elements from the course in my day-to-day work and use the knowledge I’ve gained through work to help with my exams.”

    Michelle had always had an interest in IT but hadn’t pursued it.

    “A career in tech was something I had always thought of doing but I only initially took a job in the bank because I wanted to go travelling,” she continued. “It was a quick entrance into a job but I ended up really enjoying the culture of the bank and the challenges that came with it. Whenever this role came up and it was to do with technology but didn’t require a traditional degree, I knew I had to go for it,” she says.

    Working in the bank’s data team, Michelle is responsible for analysing data trends for customer campaigns to improve how it communicates with customers and provides services to them.

    “Every day is different because our data requests come from the whole bank, which gives you a real insight into what’s happening across the bank as well as what other teams do. I speak to people from nearly every part of the bank, nearly every day. It means lots of exposure to different parts of the bank, which is really interesting,” she explains.

    “I like that ultimately, we’re getting to know more about customers and helping improve their experience. I’m also able to use my experience from my time in the contact centre to help inform the work we are doing in the background.”

    Culture is also very important to Michelle. “I’ve had great opportunities to give back,” she said. “For example, recently I helped deliver a guest lecture to Masters students in machine learning at Ulster University, talking about the real-world context of machine learning and some of our brilliant analytics use cases. I also took on a mentorship role for three placement students through the NOW Group Digital Academy. It was very rewarding to see the guys not only improve their tech skills but also build their confidence.”

    As she comes into the third year of her apprenticeship, Michelle says her team has been very helpful and supportive.

    “If you need help they are very accommodating. I’ve also really appreciate the flexibility Danske offers. I live in Cookstown and have mostly been working remotely in the past couple of years. That has been really helpful,” she notes.

    Jackie Swann – Automation Technical Architect

    “It’s the sort of industry where if you’re not learning something new every day you’re doing something wrong,” said Jackie Swann. As someone who has been in the tech sector for more than 30 years, much of it with Danske, Jackie is well-placed to make such a comment.

    Having been recruited straight to the Northern Bank after university in 1986, she was one of only four women in the bank’s mainframe section in the IT department, which built the core systems that processed people’s money through the bank.

    “It was quite a young department with a few women but mostly it was men”, she said. “There was no such thing as a PC, we had terminals that were shared and you had to wait your turn to get on the terminal to code up your programmes. We also printed all the reports for branches on paper, which is totally unimaginable now,” she remembers.

    Jackie was then part of the team involved in the 2006 migration of Northern Bank’s systems to Danske Bank in Denmark following its acquisition. After an intense year-long migration process, Jackie took time out to raise her children before returning to the bank six years later as an engineer in the bank’s robotic process automation team.

    “After we migrated the bank systems for a while there were no IT developer jobs left within the bank,” says Jackie. “When I saw the job spec for a robotics engineer I thought it could have been written for me. It’s a different, more immediate sort of low-code development where you get to see straight away if what you’re developing is going to work or not.”

    Jackie says the team is “taking a lot of the mundane out of the manual processes” to allow staff to “use their brains to do something more interesting”.

    She is currently part of the team working on migrating the robotic solutions from Blue Prism software to UI Path. This enables more intelligent automation by combining robotics with AI.

    I’ve seen a lot of code and new ways of doing things,” says Jackie. “I’ve learned a lot since I came back to work. I’ve become competent in programming languages with which I wasn’t previously familiar, and learned new ways of doing things,” says Jackie.

    “It moves really fast, so you have to put a bit of time in to keep up to date, but I don’t really understand why women wouldn’t be interested in a tech career because you can do it part time, your working hours can be flexible, and you can work from home. If you don’t know something the answers are easy to find - whatever technical problem you have, someone in the world has usually had it before.”

    Kellie Redford – IT Lead

    Kellie Redford has held a wide variety of roles since joining Danske Bank 29 years ago but it’s fair to see she didn’t expect to find herself in a cyber security job when she first started at the bank.

    Having started out clearing cheques, she moved into administration, health and safety and eventually moved towards IT when she began looking after hardware such as laptops and phones.

    “I gradually became more involved in the IT side of the bank,” she says. “People don’t realise the breadth of roles out there. Everyone thinks when you talk about cyber and IT you’re talking about the person writing the code but there are so many people needed to glue it all together and make things happen.”

    Kellie is currently a delivery manager, which is not a technical role but rather one that she says is “about getting things done” – from IT security assessments for third-party vendors to gaining ISO accreditation for the bank’s own systems, which requires a wide range of knowledge of what the bank’s technology teams do.

    Kellie recently completed the Empowering Women to Lead Cyber Security NI programme, whichincluded a focus on how to encourage more women into roles in the tech and cyber sector.

    “In the short term, there is a lot that can be done to attract more women into cyber security and change perceptions. For example, making small changes to the wording used on job adverts can make them much more appealing to women coming back from maternity or career breaks,” she says.

    “It has been proven that words like ‘driven’ and ‘ambitious’ are associated with men and stop certain women from applying. By removing these words and emphasising the soft skills that most roles also require, we have shown that more women do apply.”

    While she thinks those types of changes can be harnessed now to bring talent into the sector, she feels the priority should be making tech appealing for future generations of women.

    “There are a few girls’ schools that are really focused on IT skills, they do it from first year. However, in other schools, girls aren’t getting the opportunity until they are picking their GCSEs. We need better awareness of the opportunities out there”, says Kellie.  “For me, part of that has to be about showing girls that there are great tech careers out there for them. It’s not all hackers in hoodies, it is a sector that needs people with all sorts of different skills.”

    Kellie helped organise the donation of 100 laptops to local schools through “Business in the Community” during the pandemic.

    “Our team also recently raised over £4,000 by recycling old laptops and donated the proceeds to our charity partner AWARE and eight other local charities before Christmas. It’s one of the things I like about working in the bank. There’s a great commitment to give back to society,” says Kellie.

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