The impossible art of being a female leader


New research launched by Mortimer Spinks revealed that the number of women tech bosses is doubling year-on-year.

And while this certainly doesn’t spell the end of the glass ceiling, it certainly shows that great cracks are appearing.

Female Leader
Via Shutterstock

This is brilliant news for the technology industry. Having a greater number of women in the workforce, and in positions of seniority, has clear benefits for business. Beyond more diverse and fresh ideas, it has also been shown to lead to better profitability. Indeed, research from the University of Leeds Business School found that having at least one female director on the board helped cut a company’s chances of going bust by 20 per cent, with that risk decreasing further with a higher female representation on the board.

But despite the benefits, “being the boss” remains a challenge for many women. Indeed, many of us must still tackle the impossible art of either being ‘too soft or too bossy’ and ‘having it all’ (otherwise – and more appropriately – known as a work life balance).

Dawn of the alphazilla

A great contributor to the boss vs. bossy issue is the continuation of the traditional, male-orientated work culture. Women sometimes feel inclined to emulate male culture to reflect expectations of how a woman ‘should’ act in the workplace. This is not surprising because ‘fitting in’ is one of the most important aspects of cultural acceptance, especially as woman climb the ladder. There is a lesson for us all in learning from the successful conduct of our own leaders – whilst also maintaining our authenticity and focusing on being ourselves rather than playing the part of the ‘alphazilla’.

Frequently we can find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where we want to emulate the management style of those bosses we respected, but then face accusations of being “bossy”. Go too far the other way, women are sometimes labelled ‘soft’ and then struggle to command the respect of their colleagues. It is a fine balance, but I find that being authentic often helps to strike that it.

Not having it all

Women who have chosen to have both a successful career and a family - or other massive commitment to something outside of work - are challenged with the question of ‘can I have it all?’

Personally, I am not sure there really is such thing as “having it all”. There was, for me, just a perfectly imperfect world of a crew of people who helped me at work, at home and at play. I chose not to hide the fact that we had kids or commitments to other things and I suppose there is a confidence in that, which might have been more easily tolerated in the tech industry. I found that a combination of being transparent about what I needed and leveraging technology which enabled me to work remotely on some occasions helped me did get things done. But, I also have to admit that I did tend to work all the hours that God sent to get those things done. In a way, it was my ‘fear of failure’ gene kicking in. Even now I do still, by the way, kill myself to make deadlines.

I do understand though why women often feel like they can’t open up about the struggles of juggling work and home life, for fear of being judged. It is a legitimate fear but there are women’s networks and mentoring that can help here.

It is also, perhaps, also unsurprising given many people’s experiences: for example, 14 per cent of British women report been asked about their plans for marriage and/or children at a job interview. This sets a clear tone for that company’s attitude towards the juggling act they may face in the future. My advice? Choose the culture of your prospective employer wisely - culture trumps strategy every time and the best laid plans can be scuppered by an overwhelming culture.

Holding a more senior role, with the new risk and responsibility that it holds, certainly doesn’t make getting a healthy work life balance any easier. Indeed, for many who feel like more eyes are on them, the challenge is even greater. As a leader though, I also believe that getting involved in women’s networks or creating one inside your own business can help to shift the dynamics. WATC is a great example of that!

A greater climate for success

Despite all of these issues, women are succeeding and creating change in the technology industry. But women, or supporters of diversity in general, should not sit on their laurels and come to expect such a battle against these age old issues. There have been many pieces of legislation to support women in work, which have played an important role in improving conditions. In my mind, though, with these challenges, change will not come from laws and regulations. It has to come from people, cultural shifts, new generational thinking and new ways of working

Now that we do have more women in senior roles, I find that it’s vital to play the ‘generosity game’ and send the elevator back down. I try and play this game once a day – one thing that can make a difference! When were you last late for work because you let one extra car out at that busy junction? When did it kill you to make that introduction to someone, which could have changed the course of that person’s entire career? When did you spontaneously take ten minutes and write someone a fabulous reference?

We already have a great culture of this: many and most women that I know in tech have worked with other women in the industry to support them. It’s really important to “do our bit” to help the next generation of digital entrepreneurs to not only achieve, but to surpass our expectations.

Another important task is to support a move away from traditional working patterns. Flexible working provides a great opportunity for both men and women to better manage a balance between their work and home life. For me, the notion that I can #workhardanywhere has helped me achieve a balance and build trust with colleagues and superiors based on the performance outcomes, rather than how many hours I’ve 'clocked up’.

But for all women to feel the benefits, organisations must do more than just offer a programme, andsupport a cultural shift, with the wider company embracing the end of the nine-to-five mentality. Men and women at the top, to help achieve this, must stand up against practices like “showing face” to ensure that those who work flexibly are as championed as their office-based counterparts. It is ok for any parent to walk out of the office at 2pm to pick up the kids…it really is! I strongly believe that productivity is a better measure than activity in the workplace.

Evening out the bumps in the road

Women are making waves throughout the technology industry – from the top to the bottom of nearly every business. The growing number of women taking on more senior roles testifies to this. But while the road is certainly more travelled, the route to success is frequently met with the same bumps and challenges.

To help support this generation of female leaders and the next, we must ensure that we support each other to build a culture where we are able to be ourselves and unashamedly strive to achieve our priorities – in and out of work. The continued struggles associated with being a female leader are just a waste of everyone’s time but also, perhaps, an opportunity to create a digital nation of significance if we choose to harness all of this fabulous talent…

J De Rojas imageThis article was written by Jacqueline De Rojas who has more than 25 years operational experience in the software industry and is the President of techUK. She recently landed a role at Sage to lead the UK and Ireland business. She will leave her current role at Citrix in September to take charge of a 2000 strong team at Sage UK&I, which is headquartered in Newcastle. At Citrix she led the Northern European business as general manager and area VP. She has held several executive roles at global enterprise software companies. In 2015 she was named Most Influential Woman in UK IT by Computer Weekly and this year made Debrett’s list of 500 people of influence on social media and digital. She also holds several board and advisory positions and is a non-executive director on the board of Home Retail Group PLC.

Female Entrepreneur in meeting

Young people still see IT sector as industry for men


The IT sector is still very much seen as an industry better suited for men according to new research from O2 revealing the attitudes among young people. Female Entrepreneur in meeting - IT sector

A study of 2,000 young people aged four to 18, by the communications provider, revealed that industry stereotypes are still very much alive.

47% of respondents aged between 11 and 18 said the tech sector is more suited for men. Only 4% thought that women were better suited to tech jobs. Half of children aged four to 10 believe men are better suited to engineer roles.

Just under as third of those surveyed said men make better scientists. 10% said women were better suited than men for the role of scientist. In addition more than a quarter of said the role of UK prime minister was better taken by a man.

The research found that parents plays a significant role in how children perceive careers, with 84% admitting to asking their parents for career advice. 73% of those surveyed said they would like to hear from businesses about jobs in local industry sector. More than half said they have not heard from local businesses in the past year.

“It is worrying to see just how deeply ingrained gender stereotypes still are, with many young people still impacted by the archaic ideals that may have held back their parents or grandparents from rewarding roles.”

Ann Pickering, O2’s HR director and a female board member of the company, said: “It is worrying to see just how deeply ingrained gender stereotypes still are, with many young people still impacted by the archaic ideals that may have held back their parents or grandparents from rewarding roles.”

Pickering drew attention to the fact that more than half of the four to 10 year old boys surveyed thought girls were more suited to jobs such as hairdressing, nursing and being a nanny.

O2 recently partnered with charity Speakers for Schools, which works to give UK children access to talks given by industry leaders. Robert Peston, founder of Speakers for Schools, said: “These are shocking findings. It is vital that gender should have no bearing on what our young people choose to do in life.”


Fiona Shepherd

Why we should recognise gender bias progress before setting new UK boardroom targets


Fiona Shepherd, CEO of April-Six, shares why we need to recognise the tech sector’s progress on gender bias within UK boardrooms before we set new targets for success.

Outside the entrance to Swansea station there is a quote from Dylan Thomas that simply reads – ‘Ambition Is Critical’. I couldn’t agree more. A constant sense of ambition is what drives so many of us to succeed. For me, it’s been central to everything I have done during my time in the technology sector.

Fiona Shepherd, CEO of April-Six, CompTIABut what about recognition for what we have already achieved? Is it OK to keep pushing for more without a nod to the progress we have made? This week’s figures from the Davies Report into ‘Women on Boards’ have shown that almost 25 percent of all executives in the boardrooms of the FTSE 100 are now female. It’s immediately led to claims that this doesn’t achieve the targets set out by Lord Davies when he began his review; and a series of calls to make this more than 30 percent or consider it a failure of British business.

I agree that balance is required and a more even ratio should always be the target. But I can’t help sense that we’re looking at these numbers in a vacuum, and when you consider them in a broader context, we seem to have missed a real opportunity to recognise how far we have come and celebrate change.

Take the technology sector for example – the sector where I have always focussed my time. A report earlier this year from Ernst and Young showed that when you break down the number of female board members in the FTSE 100 by sector, technology shows that female board level representation is at 24%. A similar report covering the top US 100 technology companies from the Korn/Ferry Institute, an American recruitment research specialist, showed female representation at 14%. This is a huge gap – far bigger than you would expect given the comparative sizes of our economies and technology sectors.

In reality, technology leadership in the UK is booming for women. If we start to pull apart the sector we can see the considerable impact women are now having on the progress of technology in this country. At the Government level key strategic roles are now held by female leaders including Sarah Wilkinson at the Home Office, Baronesses Martha Lane Fox, Pauline Neville Jones and Joanna Shields. These people are defining the pathway for how UK society will experience technology in the coming decades. Within industry, key positions of authority are held by Trudy Norris-Grey, GM at Microsoft; Jane Moran, CIO at Unilever; Susan Cooklin CIO at Network Rail; and Catherine Doran, CIO at Royal Mail to name but a few. And of course we can identify a considerable female entrepreneurial base in the innovation space, including Maggie Philbin, Sherry Coutu, and Dame Wendy Hall.

We have achieved some extraordinary changes in the UK when it comes to the balance of power in the technology sector. The gender bias so often associated with technology is starting to fall back. I agree entirely that we have to strive to do more and ensure that we are making the most of the fantastic cadre of female leaders in the space today but pushing forwards. But whilst we must be ambitious; let’s also recognise how far we have come. Ambition is critical; recognition is vital.

Fiona Shepherd is the CEO of April Six, a global technology marketing agency and sits on the board of the AIM-listed Mission Marketing Group. She has worked in the technology sector for more than 25 years and now leads a global team supporting the B2B marketing needs of some of the world’s largest technology brands.

Cat O'Brien

Women in tech: Work pressures, working flexibly and awareness of social media


Cat O’Brien, Editorial & Social Media Manager at TickX shares her experiences of working in the tech sector.

I guess I’ve always been pretty tech savvy, even as a kid I was into gadgets. I think most millennials are into learning about new technology. From the days where Tamigotchis and Nintendos were the games of choice and Nokia the phones, technology has been laced in our blood since birth. There’s always something newer, faster, smarter. Now kids are playing with Apple technology and the Internet and it’s simply too big and prevalent in society to try and hide it. Kids are too smart.

Cat O'BrianTechnology and social media, like most things, can be used for good and bad. Being totally saturated by the media on our personal devices means we become addicted to finding out new things. The start-up I work for now is very fast-paced which mirrors the culture of today’s hi-tech environment. Because we’re small, we have to learn things quickly and really work around the clock to get results. I think if I was working for a different type of start-up I might resent this, but because we’re all passionate about the app and enjoy the work we do, it doesn’t feel too tasking. You pick stuff up or you let people down and that is an incentive to stay on your toes and continuously learn. You’re speaking with different people everyday, senior management in the entertainment industry, partners, students, press, tech guys, sales guys – it’s a constant flow of information. In this immersive environment it is difficult to pass judgement on people, treat people unequally and create stigmas. Everyone is constantly busy and focused, you don’t have time for inequality: you just have to get stuff done.

At university I studied English with Creative Writing and throughout my course constantly worried about what career I might pursue. I wanted to incorporate the two things I love: writing and art. I had to tailor these skills towards technology and business. I guess you could say that is one benefit of doing a course that is not too specified – it’s easier to apply it. My course at university was predominantly female, as most arts courses are. Similarly, in the world of tech the female to male ratio is very unbalanced. This does cause a stir in offices and for young women who are unaware of the issue of glass ceilings when joining a big corporation it can inhibit innovation and openness. It’s a myth in many people’s eyes, but in certain establishments it is very current. This is where the unfortunately negative association with the word ‘feminist’ comes into play. It means nothing more than the pursuit of equality in all walks of life for women and men. However, if a woman speaks of these things online or in the office it’s often thwarted as feminine propaganda and is not taken seriously.

There are more and more companies signing up for schemes and corporate memberships to tackle this, because their culture does not know how too. Women on Boards was used at my last company, with the aim to put a spotlight on women to join exec or non-exec boards, thus increasing their employability and leadership skills. Their sessions were really thought provoking and encouraging, but one thing that wasn’t encouraging was the lack of men in attendance. What was even less encouraging was the lack of women. Its title being selectively for women had put off their key audience, who saw it as negatively, feminist and elitist.

The nature of the company I work for now is collaborative, trusting and open. We help each other and ask for feedback when possible. In a way, we mentor one another, without patronising our fields of interest or expertise. We are all ready to try new things and work together to find a solution. We are based all over the UK but stay in contact over email, Facebook, Whatsapp, calls and text.

I think there are some really important things to understand when pursuing a career in technology. The standout for me is social media. If you harness it correctly, you can really boost your online profile and help potential employers find you for the perfect role. You have to have a good LinkedIn profile, updated picture and engaging summary about yourself. Get the app on your phone too. So you can reply instantly to messages. And if you’re looking to become a thought leader in your career, creating conversations is key to showcasing your knowledge. For our social strategy we use three main platforms: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. For a start-up with a good community and network of followers, knowing these platforms and understanding each individually well is essential. It’s the same for self-promotion. Even if you’re not looking to move on to a new role, having a good ‘online persona’ will work wonders with your employer and potential future recruiters.