Inspirational Woman: Kanchana Gamage | Founder, The Aviatrix Project & STEM ambassador, STEMPOINT East

Kanchana GamageKanchana is founder of the Aviatrix Project. Set up in 2015, her very own community interest company aims to encourage young people from a range of backgrounds to consider careers in aviation.

Completely self-funded, with support from Easyjet and a number of aviation organisations, the project has 165 regular active volunteer pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and airline crew who carry out visits and workshops with young people to inspire the next generation.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I joined STEMPOINT East as its STEM engagement coordinator in early 2020, having been a STEM ambassador through my work with the Aviatrix Project for many years. I work with STEMPOINT East’s pool of 3,000 ambassadors, as well as employers and universities, connecting them to schools and young people to bring STEM careers alive for the next generation. My role involves helping schools and young people understand the breadth of opportunity around STEM careers and provides employers with the resources and training they need to support their employees in becoming active ambassadors.

Alongside this, my community interest company, the Aviatrix Project, was set up in 2015 to encourage young people from a range of backgrounds to consider careers in aviation. Completely self-funded, with support from Easyjet and a number of aviation organisations, the project has 165 regular active volunteer pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers and airline crew who carry out visits and workshops with young people to inspire the next generation.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

From a young age, I was interested in a STEM career, originally hoping to become a pilot or an engineer. Having been born in Sri Lanka, I moved to England at the age of 14 and lack of funding and opportunities meant that I didn’t pursue a career in aviation.  Instead I entered a career in teaching, completing a teacher training degree and a Masters at The University of Cambridge. I became a primary teacher and headteacher, and later a University Lecturer leading a PGCE Primary course at Anglian Ruskin University as well as leading an MEd in Leading Teaching and Learning for an education partner at the University of Hertfordshire.

However, my interest in aviation remained and in my early 30s I gained my private pilot’s licence. I was determined to make a difference over the continued lack of focus on STEM education, and the clear lack of women within the industry, so I my knowledge in the education and aviation sectors to create The Aviatrix Project.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The biggest challenge was the lack of role models at a young age. This set the course for my career and not having the opportunities and financial backing meant that I was not able to pursue a STEM career at a young age as I had hoped. This is what made me absolutely determined to become a pilot as I got older and set up an organisation which supported young people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

For me it has to be the success of The Aviatrix Project. We have had a positive impact on thousands of young people and we can pinpoint young women who have gone onto achieve so much in the technology and engineering industries. We’ve been having conversations about the STEM skills gap for years, particularly in relation to the under representation of women in the industry, and I realised I had something quite unique to offer by combining my areas of experience.  By learning to fly, I’d built up quite a lot of contacts within the industry and I wanted to bridge that gap, getting pilots and aviation engineers into schools to talk to people about these fascinating careers. Our partnership with Easyjet early on gave us exposure and access to pilots who have become our own STEM ambassadors, regularly going into schools to hold workshops or present in assemblies, inspiring young people to do something they never thought could be possible.  We now have such a wide range of volunteers from various organisations and flying disciplines. All our ambassadors have a story to tell. It can be expensive to train to become a commercial pilot, but there are solutions and pathways in, with the right support. We support young people and families with mentoring and signposting them to where they can get up to date information and support. It is also one of our main aims to target young people and schools from disadvantaged areas across the UK. This isn’t just about flying, we open up the whole industry for them and help them understand the exciting world of STEM.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Role models have been instrumental in my career. It’s about young people seeing someone that they can actually see themselves becoming. It’s very hard for them to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if they don’t see it in action. This is also why it’s so important to have real diversity within our ambassadors, as even now, there are perceptions around what scientists, doctors and pilots look like.  Ultimately there are no limits, no barriers, only the ones put there by society in the past. I feel a great sense of responsibility as a STEM ambassador from a BAME community to ensure I’m a strong role model.

We need to change perceptions held by parents, families and teachers too so that the system doesn’t repeat itself. STEM learning needs to be cultivated from a very early age because by year 5 and 6 children are already forming their perceptions about future careers. We’re at a crossroads and I can see things changing from what they’ve been, but it takes passionate people with the right mindset to do this. STEM Ambassadors are a huge part of this. This is why I am incredibly passionate about both my role as the Founder of The Aviatrix Project and as a STEM Engagement Coordinator.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

It’s important to keep the passion which attracted to the industry. Don’t let the idea that the tech industry is male dominated prevent you from trying to reach the top. It’s important to be the absolute best you can be in your role and be authentic – and to use your voice to champion what you believe in. As a Google #IamRemarakble facilitator I work with many groups of women in our workshops who lack the confidence to promote themselves and the work that they do. Research shows that those who self-promote, get promoted. Those individuals who articulate, celebrate and amplify their accomplishments are seen, heard and recognised in their work places.  The spotlight is put on them, by them. Whereas, those who shy away from verbalising their accomplishments out loud, stay in the shadows. Self-promotion is not a quality, it is a skill. A skill we need to develop, practice and perfect.

Attend diversity and inclusion events, join organisations who champion the cause and connect with companies and individuals who nurture this. And it’s important that you as you excel in your career that you support young women who are entering the industry and becoming a role model for the younger generation.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are certainly barrier for success for women. The Tech City report found that only 13% of women surveyed aspired to a career in technology compared to 36% of men. It is possible that this is due to a lack of confidence and also the stereotyping and discriminatory policies which have existed in the industry.  Companies not only need to attract women to tech roles but also retain them. Women need to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts to enter senior positions and have support for maternity leave without the fear of redundancies. And of course reaching equality in pay is such an important aspect.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Reaching gender parity in the sector is not only a diversity and inclusion issue – it’s a business issue. It’s been proven time and again that companies who have a diverse workforce are more productive and profitable. It’s important that companies work with university engagement teams to inspire, mentor and champion women in tech. Students need to meet role models, take part in activities which showcase careers and foster technical literacy. This works also needs to extend to schools where girls from a young age see tech careers as something to aspire to. Apprenticeships and graduate schemes are also a way in which the talent pool can be widened.

Alongside this competitive and fair salaries and access to development opportunities are promotions will attract more women – and keep them there. Diversity initiatives that include policies for women are proven to be hugely beneficial such as fair maternity policies and flexible working for parents and carers. Tech companies can also devise flexible recruiting strategies which take into account women’s specific needs and spirations. This can include aspects such as using gender neutral language in job descriptions.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Ensure that all organisations and businesses adopt diversity and inclusion policies as a priority. It’s vital that this is given the importance it deserves within workplaces – and not just a working party as a tick box exercise or a tokenistic gesture. Both employers and employees need to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. And it’s not just an issue about women – it’s about all supporting and championing all underrepresented groups in society.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

It’s so important to meet and work with like minded people as much as you can – especially who are keen to champion diversity and inclusion. A number of organisations come to mind such WISE, IET, WES and Women in Tech as well as the European Women in Tech Conference. Within aviation there are more and more initiatives to support women such as The Aviatrix Project, British Women Pilots Association and Women in Aviation International. I would recommend you follow as many of these organisations as you can on social media and male connections. This will open up other connections and open doors and offer opportunities to meet like minded people.


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Lena Reinhard featured

Inspirational Woman: Lena Reinhard | VP, Product Engineering, CircleCI

Lena ReinhardLena Reinhard is VP Product Engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams.

In her 15+ year career, she’s been building and scaling high-performing engineering organisations and helping distributed teams succeed, starting with her own startup to corporates and NGOs.

Lena is an acclaimed international keynote speaker on topics like leadership, DevOps transformation, and organisational scale, at conferences such as O’Reilly Velocity, The Lead Developer, CTO Summit, and QCon. She is passionate about helping teams increase their effectiveness and business impact, and scaling culture for organisational performance and health. Lena enjoys spending time in books and in nature, and always strives to learn something new, currently focused on how to play the piano and keep houseplants alive.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I have a background in Finance, Arts, and Media, but have always gravitated towards leadership. My first tech job was for a small SaaS startup. It was intended as a short-term copywriting gig and turned into a role as Marketing and Key Account Manager. Around a similar time, I started contributing to open source projects, and shortly after co-founded my first software company and became CEO. I started managing distributed, fast-scaling engineering teams, quickly realising that I really enjoyed this work, and that it was a good match with my prior experiences and cross-functional background.

I’ve built and scaled high-performing engineering organisations and helped distributed teams succeed ever since, now as Vice President of Product Engineering at CircleCI. In my current role, I lead our globally distributed and rapidly growing Product Engineering organisation. I am ultimately responsible for accomplishing our business goals and delivering software to our users effectively, timely, and with high quality standards – and for building an thriving organisation to help us achieve these goals.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t, and if you had asked me 15 years ago, I would never have expected I’d be where I am today. How many careers really go ‘according to plan’? My first formal leadership role was as CEO of the company I co-founded. I’d been consulting for the founding team with research and assessments towards the founding process and business setup, and one day, on the way back from lunch, they asked me whether I wanted to become a CEO. I thought about it and said yes.

My first formal engineering leadership role was more of a transition than a conscious decision. I’d been brought into the organisation as a consultant to get the team’s delivery into a better state and ended up taking on team leadership and scaling shortly after. Situations like this where the scope of my role and responsibilities rapidly expand almost over night have occurred many times in my career, and have always been exciting.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

When starting out, I learned a lot of hard lessons. I had to lead largely intuitively and in reactive ways, due to the intense nature of the work and environment I was in. It effectively meant I did not have a good sense of what it takes for others to be effective in this role and work, and what sustainable frameworks and structures I can build to help my teams be successful in the longer run. This put a huge strain on myself, as well as my ability to delegate effectively and build out better structures for the team.

A former colleague once told me - after we moved into different roles - that I didn't understand what made me good at this work, which meant I was not able to bring it out in others either. It hit me hard. I had to learn how to delegate effectively, as well as invest in developing leaders around me to be able to run teams and organisations more effectively. Part of the biggest job of being a leader is to pull people up from all around. Remaining a critical part of a technical system leads to a feeling of importance, but actually is a terrible sign. The thing that tickles our ego the most is the sign that we’re not doing as well as we could; and to me, that’s the essence of what leadership means in a nutshell.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

There are a lot of achievements that I’m very proud of: My first conference talk, my first keynote, being invited to speak at a conference; co-founding a company and becoming CEO; all the teams I got to build and scale rapidly; getting a job I really wanted and getting promoted. Any of those accomplishments were big leaps for me at the time and thinking about them still fills me with great joy.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

The foundation of being a good leader relies on building trust-based relationships. Here are a few ways that have always helped me get there:

Ask questions. This is one of the most powerful tools of an effective manager. The basis for managing well is listening, observing, taking note of what motivates your teammates, and digging into the responses to your questions.

I usually gather questions before I meet with my team members one-on-one so I am prepared and can guide the conversation toward understanding them better. Asking questions helps you adjust your leadership style to the individuals on your team. It also ensures that they feel understood and heard, which are important pillars of inclusion and belonging.

Connect to the bigger picture. Creating an impact is an excellent motivator, so make sure the members on your team understand how their work helps users or supports other teams. While goal-setting frameworks like OKRs can help with this, it is also crucial to align initiatives with higher-level goals and connect them clearly with user value.

Give feedback. One of the best things you can do as a manager is to support your team members’ growth. Give feedback regularly to help them understand where they are and how they can grow – by course-correcting where needed and setting new goals in areas in which they excel.

Also, managers need feedback too: Don’t forget to ask your team for feedback regularly, on big and small things, so you can also adjust as needed.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Look for role models. Finding people whose career paths you want to take inspiration from can be a really good thing, especially now that there's a more diverse group of people than there used to be in the past. Mentors can also be a crucial source of inspiration, experience, support and knowledge. With remote working, it makes it even harder to find one, so take a look into webinars, virtual events and LinkedIn to scope out mentors. Look for someone who you believe you could learn from, reach out with a specific request and reason why you’d like for them to be your mentor.

Staying curious and constantly learning is also important. The industry is evolving really fast and that can be quite a lot to process sometimes. There've been a lot of critical movements over the last couple of years, especially in the DevOps space, as well as other cultural shifts, and many people are still working to make this industry better, more inclusive, and more diverse every day. Stay curious and stay connected to the broader industry and to developments in the space.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

The tech industry has come a long way, but it doesn’t exist in isolation: in the same way as our societies aren’t equal to people of all genders, we can always do better. As a white woman, I have a lot of privileges, and I’m especially happy to see more women of colour and non-binary people enter our industry, many of whom have faced many more structural issues than I have. Companies need to treat diversity and inclusion as an ongoing learning process, which means listening and learning; this is true for everyone, and especially all of us who have more privileges. Leaders need to consciously think about how they evaluate applicants during hiring process, as well as their existing staff: think about the tasks they are giving employees i.e. where there are any discrepancies in how they are managed, the diversity and inclusivity of their teams, and whether all individuals have an opportunity to be heard and equal opportunities to succeed and thrive.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Hire women; train, mentor and coach women; sponsor women; promote women. After all, it’s about ensuring that all your employees get the same opportunities to succeed. In the UK alone, 90% of women experience imposter syndrome at work. Different people have vastly different experiences in the workplace, and it’s important to understand those and build systems and structures that support everyone in their different experiences. Mentorship programmes that provide support and professional guidance, can help in maturing skills and developing confidence.

There is currently only 17 percent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Increase the number of women in leadership roles.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Brené Brown: Dare to Lead: “Leadership is not about titles, status and power over people. Leaders are people who hold themselves accountable for recognising the potential in people and ideas, and developing that potential. This is a book for everyone who is ready to choose courage over comfort, make a difference and lead.”

Reply-all podcast: A podcast about tech, the internet, but also on modern life.

HBR’s Women at Work podcast: Expert interviews, and hosts sharing their own experiences, as well as practical advice.

I attended and spoke at LeadDev several times and have gotten a lot of learning out of those events, highly recommended.

HBR guide to managing up and across: It’s a skill that can transform your career, and this guide has a ton of information on managing into all directions, and how to develop the skills to do it well, highly recommend.

Kerry Patterson: Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. Good on communication when things get tough.

Lara Hogan has a great newsletter, and her blog is a great resource for leadership-related content

Julie Zhuo: The Making of a Manager. Very good primer on management if that’s a path you’re curious about or interested in.


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Jennifer Cox featured

Inspirational Woman: Jennifer Cox | Security Engineer, Tenable

Jennifer Cox, TenableJennifer Cox is a Security Engineer at Tenable, a global leader in Vulnerability Management.

After studying Theatre Studies and Media Production, she began working in an admin role at a tech company based in south-east Ireland. Here, she started to learn the various tools of the trade and skillsets that enabled her to progress to a tech support role handling retail, payroll, and accounting software. After working there for 11 years, Jennifer sought a new challenge and joined Tenable in 2016 where she has achieved several promotions and awards, including PCR Top 25 Women in Tech in 2019 and 2020. She now works to empower organisations in the private and public sectors in EMEA towards best practices in Cyber Security, Risk Prevention, and Exposure Awareness. She is also an active member of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, is an advisory board member of the Leaders in Tech Ireland, Women in Technology and Science Ireland, and works hard to ensure diversity and inclusion within her industry. Jennifer is an accomplished and results-oriented individual with a strong track record of over-achieving on her goals. She loves the fact that the technology industry changes so quickly, so it’s impossible to get bored.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m from Wexford, in the Republic of Ireland, and I’m a mum to four wonderful boys.

I’ve worked in the tech space for 15 years now and currently I’m a Security Engineer with Tenable. Day to day I’m responsible for working with our existing customer base in Europe, supporting best practices in network security and helping to reduce their cyber risk.

A lot of the working day itself is taken up with scheduled calls with our existing customer base as well as with newer clients. We discuss their overall needs and aspirations regarding cybersecurity and, ultimately, my role is to utilise our products, our resources, and our team’s knowledge to enable the client to achieve all goals and confidently move forward regardless of what individual circumstance or bespoke requirements they might have.

Beyond that, I’m involved in a number of external opportunities. For example, I’m lucky enough to be an advisory board member of the Leaders in Tech Ireland, WITS Ireland (Women in Technology and Science Ireland). I’m also  involved in a number of projects that work to ensure diversity and inclusion within the cybersecurity industry, such as judging the Coolest Projects event for kids in the Royal Dublin Society. In 2019, I was invited to speak at the Women in Tech conference in the Convention Centre in Dublin in front of an audience of 1200. I’ve also launched a mentoring project in Tenable and my door is always open to anyone looking for some advice, guidance or just an ear to bend.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I wouldn’t say that I sat down and planned to have a career in tech - in fact, it was quite the opposite. My parents always thought I should teach and, at school, my guidance counsellor said that I should be an IT teacher. At the time, I was hopeful that I’d be pushed towards something more ‘exciting’ so I chose to ignore the advice given to me, as any teenager would, and went to college to pursue Theatre Studies and Media Production. Then Psychology. Eventually, I found myself back in the IT sector.

Tech has always been something that interested me and something that I’ve been good at. I’m actually really lucky that I have a career doing something that genuinely interests me and that I love.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is gender prejudice - there is no point in sugar-coating it. I have had comments made in meetings, with customers and privately, that extend to my intelligence, my capabilities, my priorities and experience. In previous roles, before Tenable I hasten to add, I experienced people assuming I was attending a meeting to take notes. I’ve even had it suggested that I wouldn’t be capable of handling bigger challenges as I might become emotional. Sadly, I also had it implied that my commitment was questionable when I was pregnant with the boys.

It’s probably unconventional but it just made me strive to be my best me, so I could prove the doubters wrong. Thankfully, with Tenable, I have learned that my ability to do the job is all that counts. If I earn a promotion, then it’s mine for the taking. That was quite the mentality adjustment. I’ve been promoted four times since I started at Tenable and I plan to continue that trajectory for now.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Last year I was invited to talk at the Women In Tech conference in Dublin. I thought I’d be in a room with 50 or so people if I was lucky. However, my talktrack was so popular that I was moved to the larger auditorium with 1200 people all listening to my presentation. That was pretty awesome. I’ve been featured on a few Tech Podcasts including a Women in Tech special with the Irish Independent Newspaper and the Women in Security Podcast with Lifen Tan. Every time I reach a new goal, I plan for the next one.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Telling me that I couldn’t do something was a sure-fire way of making sure that I achieved it - so thank you to all the nay-sayers over the years. I’d say I’m quite a determined person and when I set my sights on something then that’s what I’m going to do. With each promotion I’ve had at Tenable, I immediately start looking at the next step and working towards that - striving to be better, and do better, every day.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

To anyone considering a career in the tech industry, particularly cybersecurity, I’d say take the leap and push hard. Set clear goals for the short and long term and push beyond them. If you want to be a developer, analyst, systems engineer, whatever it is, plan your path and do everything you need to and then some. The main thing is, consider NO limits.

When considering a tech qualification, know that by choosing a path that seems specific, it doesn’t necessarily rule out other directions. Ever since I joined Tenable, my own career has taken so many turns — all of them good — that it’s hard for me to keep track.

For older people who may be thinking it’s too late to do it: No, it’s not. Take a part-time course, go back to college, study with your kids. Believe in your own capability and take that first step. You’ll never regret the journey.

Personally, I also make a point of periodically reviewing my achievements - to measure myself on what I've done this year and how I can do better next year. I plan, I create goals, I agree to do things that push me outside of my comfort zone and I one-up on the last year.

I would also encourage anyone even thinking about getting into the sector to get in touch with someone in the field to act as a mentor - and that could even be me. It’s really important to have that support at the early stage of your career to help you understand, develop and grow.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are still a ton of micro-inequalities that everyone partakes in every single day, often without realising it - and this isn’t isolated to working in technology. So, when we get to the point at which this doesn’t happen anymore then we will have truly cracked it.

As women working in tech — and this is also true for any industry — it’s important to know your worth. I can't stress this enough, and I’m not talking about financial recompensation. It’s about knowing your tolerance level - what are you willing to accept? In your work, in your colleagues’ behaviour, in your company's behaviour and don't accept an inch less than that. Where you see inequality, don’t be afraid to call it out and work with management and co-workers to be the force for change.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

I think they can acknowledge the valuable contribution women have to offer.

If we truly want to have a more diverse workforce, then we need to widen our thinking. We need to be imaginative in facilitating the workforce (and potential workforce) we have at this very minute. So much can be done right away regarding re-skilling, up-skilling, encouraging back to work and mentoring that, if we’re serious about getting more women into tech, we all need to start considering and implementing.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I actually think that there is a lot being done already. Could there be more, yes, but everything has to start somewhere. The biggest thing for me is showing what a career in tech has to offer - and the exciting world of cybersecurity in particular.

As I don’t have a magic wand, and things aren’t going to change overnight, medium and long-term routes to getting more women into tech, and positively adjusting the balance within the industry, involves encouragement and engagement from primary school right through to university.

Another thing is Coder Dojos — programming workshops aimed at young people — these were gaining in popularity, and post-pandemic that will continue. In the meantime, these events are being run online so take advantage of them while geography is not a barrier. As a parent myself, I can heartily recommend getting kids involved if the opportunity presents itself. Let them see what can be done. I truly believe that even just minimal exposure to these capabilities at a young age can be enough to gain that interest.

But that doesn’t mean that adults are exempt. If you’ve an interest in technology, there are numerous courses and books that can get you started. Don’t be afraid to take the part-time course, go back to college, study with your kids. Believe in your own capability and take that first step. You’ll never regret the journey.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’d start with anything that works on stress relief and self-confidence. I like to listen to mindfulness apps when I find my motivation slipping but on the opposite side of that I schedule, schedule, schedule. My day and evenings are all blocked off so that I’m constantly busy but if I need time-out I schedule that too. Funny, I know but it works for me.

I also love the podcast ‘Darknet Diaries’ because it makes the security aspect of technology sound so much more exciting — so even if you’re at the beginning of your journey you’ll find this interesting. I attend networking events wherever possible. Especially when there are workshops rather than speakers because they are more involved and if you are nervous or shy, it’s a lot easier to break the ice when everyone is uncomfortable. Obviously there are fewer events now and video call exhaustion means that I, like just about everyone now, attend fewer events than I would have online prior to the pandemic.  Leaders in Tech offer great sessions regularly and my favourite event is of course the Women in Tech Event in the CCD annually. There is nothing quite like the solidarity of it.


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Milly Henneyake featured

Inspirational Woman: Milly Henneyake | Civil Engineer, Arup

Milly Henneyake
Photo: Harry Parvin

Milly wanted to do a job that would help people and have an impact on the world, so decided to be an engineer.

Now she works as a civil engineer, making people safe from flooding. She has worked with charities in projects around the world. In South America, Milly improved the design for temporary housing so that houses could be built safely and quickly by small groups of people. In Kenya, she worked with Engineers Without Borders to install plumbing and drainage into communities that had none.

She is now a civil engineer for Arup, where she builds structures to make people safe from flooding. Milly draws designs and works with other experts to manage flood risks. She works with nature, from rivers and lakes, to trees protecting riverbanks. Milly works to make sure what she builds is sustainable, thinking about the environment and reducing the impact on ecology. Her work keeps people safe after large storms.

Milly is a part of This is Engineering Day, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to celebrate the world-shaping engineering that exists all around us but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers who make this possible. As part of This is Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering has announced plans to create a new virtual museum named The Museum of Engineering Innovation, which can be accessed through QR Codes dotted around the country as well as by visiting Google Arts and Culture. To view the first collection of exhibits, which include Jonnie Peacock’s running blade, visit https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/museum-of-engineering-innovation. #BeTheDifference

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I did a general engineering degree at the University of Cambridge and graduated with a master’s in civil and environmental engineering. Throughout university I was involved with Engineers Without UK and the university chapter, which piqued my interest in international development and humanitarian aid and helped shape my attitude to engineering. I was fortunate to be able to do a wide range of internships and voluntary projects throughout my years at university.

I now work at Arup as a civil engineer with a focus on water and cities. At the start of my career spent three years on site in a supervision role for the construction of Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme, which helps to protect the city centre of Leeds from flooding.  Since then I’ve been doing a lot of design work with multidisciplinary teams.  A couple of years ago I did a voluntary Engineers Without Borders UK placement with Kounkuey Design Initiative in Nairobi, Kenya.  I learned a lot and really enjoyed working with the team out there. I am still trying to figure out how I want to develop my career.

I am is part of This is Engineering Day on 4 November 2020, a day dedicated to celebrating engineers and engineering. Created by the Royal Academy of Engineering, This is Engineering Day 2020 showcases the feats of engineering that exist all around us and that make a difference to our everyday lives and futures, but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers behind them.  For further information visit  www.thisisengineering.org.uk or follow #BeTheDifference.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not as much as I would like to!

I have taken the time to sit down and consider my options at key turning points.  For example, I didn’t apply for graduate jobs in my final year of university and instead I looked for interesting international opportunities and ended up working in Freetown, Sierra Leone with AIP for a couple of months, which was great!  I also took the time to talk to people, where I either admired them or was interested in aspects of their career to help me decide what I should do.

I’m trying to do that to a lesser extent now every year although the time flies by so quickly that I don’t always manage to.  But I also believe that it’s good to have flexibility in your plans instead of setting everything in stone.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Yes definitely, both small and large.  Some of it has been about me learning how to assert myself and not always being a people-pleaser in the workplace.  It’s taken me a long time to accept it, but it’s good to be a bit selfish when making career related decisions.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I think what I’m happiest about is the variety of projects, industries and work that I’ve been involved in over my career.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I think one of the main reasons is being prepared to say yes to new things and projects- this has enabled me to get involved in some very cool projects!  I love the diversity and having new challenges.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Stand up for yourself, ask for training opportunities, apply for any openings that interest you.

Don’t be scared to say I don’t know and to ask questions when you need to.

Taking the time to build relationships with colleagues and outside of the firm is important.  Knowing the limits of your knowledge and abilities and being able to ask people who have more expertise speeds up the process and is a great way to build up your knowledge base.  In addition, being able to connect people who have similar interests or who can help each other can help you.  People skills are important in any job.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Speaking of the industry that I’m familiar with, the engineering and construction industry, I think there are still a lot of barriers from the obvious disparity of wages and the fact that most senior leadership positions are held by white men.

I also believe that the culture can sometimes be very macho, and women can feel pressured to adapt to the culture instead of trying to change it.  Find role models whom you admire.  Also speak honestly with peers- find the people who will have your back and who will support you in standing up for yourself and building up your confidence.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

The macho culture can hold back both men and women.  Everyone deserves to have carrier breaks or more balanced working hours if they so desire.  A more inclusive and accepting environment will help everyone progress, particularly women.

Having leaders, especially more women, with a good work life balance will inspire more women.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I think we need to start at the very beginning.  Over the years I have spent a lot of time running workshops and talking to students of all age groups.  I’ve noticed young girls being put off by the idea of technology and STEM due to lack of confidence when first introduced to a task.  But once they actually start doing it, they realise that they can excel and a lot of times I’ve noticed that they outperform the boys.  We need to give young girls the confidence to help them believe that STEM subjects and careers are valid choices for any gender.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Networking events are great to meet others in similar fields.

I think it’s important to be reflective and try to understand what areas you want to develop.  Whether it’s your self-confidence, technical knowledge or people skills and then follow up on that whether it’s books, podcasts, events etc.


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Roma Agrawal featured

Inspirational Woman: Roma Agrawal | Structural Engineer, QEPrize

Roma Agrawal
Ben Pipe Photography

Roma Agrawal has been a celebrated structural engineer for the past 15 years. Throughout her career, she has designed bridges, skyscrapers and sculptures with signature architects.

She is also one of the masterminds behind The Shard, having spent six years working on the project, designing the foundations and the ‘Spire’.

In addition to winning industry awards, Roma’s career has been extensively featured in the media, including on BBC World NewsBBC Daily PoliticsTEDxThe Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, Guardian, The Telegraph, Independent, Cosmopolitan and Stylist Magazines, and documentaries. She was the only woman featured on Channel 4's documentary on the Shard, 'The Tallest Tower' and was part of M&S's 'Leading Ladies' campaign 2014, as well as being described as a top woman tweeter by the Guardian.

Outside of the construction field , Roma promotes STEM careers to young people and particularly to under-represented groups such as women. She is part of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering’s Create the Trophy competition judging panel and as part of that carries out a great deal of work in schools, inspiring young people to choose engineering as a career path.  The recently launched competition is open to young people aged between 14 and 24 all around the world. They are inviting budding designers to construct innovative trophies that capture the essence, creativity, and wonder of engineering. Enter before the 21st December to be in with a chance of winning! 

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role

I’m a structural engineer by profession and I spent 15 years working in the construction industry. I’ve worked on a number of big projects, such as the Shard and I also promote STEM engineering and scientific careers to young people, particularly under-represented groups such as women.

You could say I’ve had two parallel careers – the engineering side and then the side where I focus on writing and media. So far, I’ve published 1 book with two more in the works, and am currently a Creative Advisor for Festival 22.

But at the moment, for the first time in 15 years really, I am self-employed which is great as now get to be my own boss.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Well, there are lots of different answers to this question, but I have to say, initially no.

I didn’t know until I was partway through my undergraduate degree in physics that I wanted to be an engineer. I did my undergraduate degree, then a masters in structural engineering and then went straight into work. A year or two in, I actually sat down and thought about my career. I planned how I wanted to get my chartership, and the teams I wanted to work with.

Then things progressed and didn’t really follow a strict plan. Thanks to my work on the Shard, I ended up with two sides to my career running in parallel – the engineer and communicating engineering through writing and media.

Then I had a baby and, of course, we were hit by the pandemic we’re all living through. Currently I’ve stepped back and taken some time off to pursue the writing side of my career and more media opportunities.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The short answer is – yes, many and all very different.

Firstly, there’s the fact I come from a minority background.  I was lucky that engineering is considered a prestigious career in India so I was aware I could do it, but when I moved to the UK, I found it strange that no one ever suggested it to me as a career, so I studied physics instead.

I was first exposed to it though a summer job when I was a teenager and that made me take stock and think: “this is something I can actually do”. But I almost didn’t end up in this career.

Being a woman in a largely male dominated industry was also something I found challenging. My career began back in 2005. This was the era when construction workers still had pin-up pictures of women plastered all over the cabins on site and, in meetings, I was more often than not the only women in the room. It took time, but I slowly developed the confidence to speak up.

I’ve also found that as I’ve received attention for my media and writing work, some former colleagues have found this difficult to deal with and I’ve experienced some poor behaviours as a result.

My biggest challenge at the moment is figuring out what my next move is going to be! Of course there is my engineering career, but there are also many other avenues I am keen to pursue and explore.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Throughout my career, one of the things that has really stuck with me is the moment when I attended the opening of a new building at a primary school in Birmingham, the Ark Chamberlain Primary Academy, where they had actually named a building after me – the Agrawal Building. The students voted and selected to name the building after me for my public speaking work and my engagement with young people. I was incredibly touched and flattered and it re-instilled in me my drive to inspire both young people and people of minority backgrounds.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

For me, I think the most important thing is communication – it’s an incredibly important skill.

When you work in a field like engineering where your work is quite complex, almost a different language, it’s so important to be able to communicate the complex ideas. How do you communicate with architects and project managers, for example?

You need to be able to explain technical theories when lecturing, making it simple enough for people to understand. For me, it’s also really critical that you really understand your audience. I always think – why are these people here? Why have they come to hear me speak? And then I adapt my lecture accordingly.

I have been lucky enough to live in many different regions – India, the Middle East, the US and now the UK. I think the art of communication is something I’ve managed to refine whilst navigating through my different life experiences. It is this concept of communication that eventually led to me writing my first book.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

So as I’ve already explored at great length – communication is really key, but another essential skill is the ability to build strong relationships. When you think about it, engineering and tech are all very collaborative industries so, essentially, the better relationships you have – the better your career. It always feels a little uncomfortable at first going to these networking events but the advice you can gain from others is invaluable. The more you can put yourself out there and make your name well known, the more successful you’ll be. Start doing things like having virtual coffee meet ups and getting advice from people outside of you sector. It really is so important.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, definitely.

What I am now focusing on is exploring how the barriers themselves can be removed – rather than women always having to navigate around those barriers.

We need to create the most welcoming, inclusive working culture possible and stop focusing on what women can do to break barriers, but what they can do to dismantle them. These changes need to come from the top, the executive boards, CEOs and so on. These senior people need to model the behaviours they think are acceptable and show their employees what the values of the organisation are.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

People talk about flexible working – yes that’s important, not only for women but for everyone. We need to cultivate workplace cultures where employees can be themselves without conforming to a specific model. More often than not, we feel we have to behave a certain way as leadership behave in this way. What we need is a for companies to demonstrate that they can create an environment where everyone can succeed just by being themselves and without having to change who they are. Be yourself and be authentic – spend your energy trying to succeed, over trying to change yourself.

You know, I was talking about challenges earlier and one of my more personal challenges has been my experience with IVF. The only way I was really able to get through that was due to the support of my employer at the time. They gave me flexibility for fertility treatment which was invaluable to me and allowed me to go through the life changing process to have my child. These things are so important, and I really believe everyone should be given time off for difficult life events, like fertility treatment, should they need it. It’s things like this that make the world of difference to our careers and that are absolutely necessary.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

My greatest wish would be to make all people in the tech industry realise and accept, with complete humility, that everyone’s stories are different. We don’t all come from the same starting point and it’s more important now than ever that we embrace all backgrounds. Once you understand that, you can ensure everyone can be included and succeed.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Wow this is a tough one - there are so many! I think my top one would have to be 99% Invisible. This goes back to the sheer importance of communication - the storytelling is just great. They manage to explain complex engineering and design topics and do an amazing job of making it engaging for everyone. Why Aren’t You a Doctor Yet is another of my favourites. It’s hosted by people of colour and does a fantastic job of combining tech with comedy. Of course there is always my own, Building Stories, but I am biased on that! The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering also has an excellent one called Create the Future.

In terms of books – my own of course!

In terms of conferences I tend to focus on construction-based ones like UK Construction Week and UK Build. When it comes to networking, a great one is the Stemettes, an award-winning social enterprise working across the UK & Ireland to inspire and support young women into STEM. The founder Anne Marie also hosts the Evening Standard’s fantastic Women Tech Charge podcast.

Tell us about your work with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, what it is firstly, and why you find it so inspiring

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (QEPrize) is the world’s number one engineering accolade. It’s a £1m prize and it celebrates engineers from a wider variety of sectors and aims to inspire young people to consider engineering as a career choice – that’s where I come in!

I love my work with the QEPrize. I do a lot of work in schools, encouraging young children to pursue careers in engineering and science and I find it completely rewarding. One of the things I love most about it is, when you work with young people who haven’t started working, the kind of creativity they display is really unparalleled. Children don’t see the obstacles we as adults see. They don’t feel restrictions or worry about the practicality of something. This sense of freedom allows for weird and wonderful ideas to come into the mix which I really revel in – this is why things like the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering are just so important. Children need to see that they can harness their creativity at a young age and make this into a career.

Incidentally, the QEPrize has also launched their Create the Trophy Competition. It’s now open to young people aged between 14 and 24 all around the world and invites budding designers to construct innovative trophies that capture the essence, creativity, and wonder of engineering. The competition close on 21st December so I encourage everyone to take part and submit their entries!


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Aurelia Specker featured

Inspirational Woman: Aurelia Specker | Partner Engineer & Coder, Twitter

Aurelia Specker

Aurelia studied Modern Languages at the University of Oxford but did a one-year switch course in Engineering to follow her dreams of becoming a Partner Engineer.

Now working at Twitter, no day is the same, a recent project involved using Twitter to create an app that measures how dry the soil is, so your plant will Tweet at you when it needs watering.

Aurelia says the best part of the job is how fun, rewarding and diverse it can be, but most importantly she loves coding because it enables her to continue learning. Aurelia first learnt to code through a not-for-profit organisation Code First, that teaches coding and tech skills to women and girls.

Aurelia is a part of This is Engineering Day, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to celebrate the world-shaping engineering that exists all around us but often go unnoticed, as well as the engineers who make this possible. As part of This is Engineering Day, the Royal Academy of Engineering has announced plans to create a new virtual museum named The Museum of Engineering Innovation, which can be accessed through QR Codes dotted around the country as well as by visiting Google Arts and Culture. To view the first collection of exhibits, which include Jonnie Peacock’s running blade, visit https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/museum-of-engineering-innovation. #BeTheDifference

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I currently work as a Partner Engineer on the Developer Relations team at Twitter, but my background is not in engineering or sciences. In fact, I have a degree in modern languages and literature, and my first job was in Market Research. A few years ago, I took a coding course with Code First Girls and I absolutely loved it! This course, and the people I met along the way, inspired me to change careers and move into Tech.

I’ve been a Partner Engineer for over two years now. This role blends the perfect amount of technical work (writing code, troubleshooting technical errors) and working closely with other people, whether that’s internally with a range of different teams, or externally with various partners and developers.

As a Partner Engineer, my role is to enable developers and customers to be successful with the Twitter developer platform. Developers use the Twitter API for a variety of different reasons, from powering academic research and commercial businesses, to learning to code and building apps that enhance Twitter as a platform.

Right now, my team and I are in the process of rebuilding the developer platform from the ground up. The next generation of the Twitter API is going to be built on a more modern foundation, including new features and endpoints, and will allow a wider range of different developers to find value in the platform. We have big plans for the future, which is both challenging and exciting. I feel lucky to be part of an initiative that will make it easier for developers to build solutions with the Twitter API and, in doing so, contribute to making Twitter, and the world, a better place.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Recently, I started thinking more purposefully about my career and what strategic steps I should be taking to get to where I want to be.

For me, this really boils down to exploring a few different options for the next 3-5 years. There’s obviously a level of unpredictability: I don’t need to know exactly where I’ll be in 10, 15, or 20 years, because I can’t foresee everything that will happen, on both a personal and a professional level. And, if anything, maintaining a degree of surprise is exciting!

However, I do think it is important to think about your current position and what it might enable you to do in the coming years. Write down different options and the steps required for each of these; then, have a conversation with your manager. Talking openly to your manager about your career plan ensures that s/he can help you gain relevant experience and support you in achieving your goals.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

As I mentioned, I don’t have a formal technical background. This sometimes leads me to doubt myself and to question my abilities. Not having a strong technical foundation can be really frustrating at times, and I’m sometimes scared that colleagues might not take me as seriously as they otherwise would.

But when I feel like that, it’s important to not listen to the little voice inside of me that tells me I’m not good enough. Instead, I attempt to identify the gaps in my knowledge and fill these. For example, shortly after I joined Twitter, I took part in the #100DaysOfCode challenge, which helped increase my technical skills. I was also lucky to have the opportunity to code pair with some of my colleagues; this gave me a chance to ask questions and learn directly from more experienced engineers.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Landing a job at Twitter, as a Partner Engineer.

I vividly remember finishing the Python coding course I took with Code First Girls (I was still working in Market Research at that time) and wondering how on Earth I would get a job in Tech. I live in London and I didn’t have enough savings to stop working for a few months and take part in a coding bootcamp.

When I found out about the Partner Engineering job, I put all of my energy into applying. At the same time, I genuinely didn’t think I stood a chance of getting the job. The fact that I eventually did really demonstrates the need to believe in yourself, to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and to put energy into trying, even when you don’t think that you stand a chance of success.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

“Networking” has become a bit of a buzzword, but I think it’s really important to purposefully meet people who are where you want to be. Whether that’s in a specific role within your company or in a different industry altogether; connecting with others will open doors and lead to new opportunities. In my own case, I found my current job thanks to people that I met through Code First Girls. Go to meetups, get involved in various initiatives, and meet people. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn from simply spending some time with people who are in an area that interests you.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Three things: be open to feedback, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and seek opportunities that push you outside of your comfort zone.

Receiving and asking for feedback can be uncomfortable; but I’m a strong believer that you can’t make meaningful progress without knowing what areas you need to improve in. Make sure to seek feedback regularly and, when you do, ask a specific question that will lead the person to highlight areas for growth. Don’t be offended by “negative” feedback; instead, view it as a powerful tool that will help you progress in your career.

In terms of seeking help, you’ll be surprised at how often people are willing to support you. And that’s especially true if you respect people’s time and are willing to help others in return. Asking questions when you’re stuck or don’t know something will help you move faster. And you’ll gain meaningful advice along the way.

Finally, pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone is scary (and in some cases it might lead to “failure”) but it will also allow you to reach the next level much faster. If you adopt a mindset of “I have nothing to lose”, you’ll end up doing things you never thought were possible!

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, I believe that such barriers still exist in tech, as well as in other industries today.

One barrier that is often mentioned is that workplaces are not set up for working mothers. In most families today, mothers continue to be the ones responsible for childcare duties; workplaces need to understand and address the challenges that come with these duties. To name a few options that could help tackle this issue: companies might want to allow flexible work schedules, they could work to ensure that team socialising activities take place during working hours, and they need to give both men and women equal parental leave, as well as equal opportunities for promotions and growth. For example, Twitter has a business resource group in place to support working parents; in my opinion, this type of initiative is key to making workplaces more attractive for women.

What do you think companies can do to progress the careers of women working in technology?

I think it’s important to acknowledge and openly talk about gender bias in the workplace. Companies can provide safe spaces and channels for women and minority groups to report unfair behaviour, and then actively investigate and act upon complaints, as well as provide tailored resources to help women progress their careers.

In addition, companies can also conduct active outreach and show young women the possibilities of a career in Tech. This includes, for example, going to schools and universities to talk to young people about job options, or hosting events and conferences with a goal of supporting minority groups in Tech.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I see hiring quotas as a possible solution to better represent minority groups at all levels and within all departments. Interview panels, as well as the pool of candidates itself, need to be more diverse. And, as a society, we need to rethink how workplaces are set up and how we can make these more welcoming for women and other minority groups.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

The following books helped shape my understanding of gender bias in the workplace and helped me become more confident:

  • “Rise”, by Patty Azzarello
  • “Invisible Women”, by Caroline Criado Perez
  • “Lean In”, by Sheryl Sandberg
  • “The Confidence Code”, by Katty Kay & Claire Shipman

In terms of websites, Elpha is a private community and provides a platform for women in tech to come together and talk candidly about their personal and professional development.


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Inspirational Woman: Ana Gillan | Senior Solutions Engineer, Cloudera

Ana GillanAna Gillan is a Senior Solutions Engineer at Cloudera who works with organisations across industry verticals to guide them through the complexities of big data and streaming technologies, both on premises and on their inevitable journeys into the cloud.

Ana has spent the last five years stressing the importance of comprehensive security and governance when implementing technology in the enterprise, so she knows how much value data platforms can offer when organisations know their data is good quality and safely managed.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I don’t have a particularly traditional tech background, but have spent the last 7 years very much immersed in the tech world nonetheless. I’ve always loved languages which led me to my undergraduate degree in German and French, but technology was always something I was curious about. My dad was a ‘computer guy’ and so tech was a part of our lives: as a 12 year old, whilst other kids were playing outside, my friends and I were in the IT room at school, building websites from scratch! So it was an area that was always buzzing around in the back of my mind. Then when I came to graduate, I discovered it was also a sector which had some of the best jobs. I am a big fan of self-improvement through education and having completed some online courses and dabbling in a bit of self teaching, I decided to pursue a Masters Degree in Data Science in 2013.

After that I joined Hortonworks (now Cloudera). That’s six years ago and I’m now part of the Solutions Engineering team. I work closely with customers across different industries to help them solve the complex data challenges facing their organisation. The area I specialise in is around data security and governance and in the last twelve months I’ve taken over the leadership of our security Subject Matter Expert group. This is an important role within Cloudera, as we’re passionate about helping our enterprise clients handle their customers’ data safely. It’s a role that’s given me wider exposure within the organisation talking to people I wouldn’t otherwise have connected with, which in turn has broadened my own knowledge.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I can’t say I ever did a big “career planning” session or anything, but I have had several instances where I’ve taken a pause in order to think about what I want to achieve next. It’s easy when things are busy to get swept away, but taking the time to refocus on what you want from your career is invaluable. In my first years within the company I took the time to speak with people working across multiple different roles in order to reach the conclusion that Solutions Engineering was a role for me. Definitely no regrets there, as I’ve had such a great time. It’s a job I didn’t even know existed until I saw people doing it around me, so it shows how you don’t always know what might be around the corner for you! I also have an extremely supportive line manager who has taken the time to understand what it is I’m looking to achieve and has connected me with senior members of the exec team, such as our CTO and CISO. These conversations really helped me learn more about the skills I need to have in order to achieve my goals.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

A lot of people who work in IT have degrees and masters in the field and are techies through and through. In that sense I can sometimes feel like a bit of an outlier. Whereas they can have the answer on the tip of their tongue, due to their long experience, I don’t always know the answer. That used to knock my confidence in the early days and imposter syndrome has often set in! I’ve had to reconcile myself with my non-traditional background throughout the years and I’ve realised that that having a different background has a good upside - by asking more questions or seeking to clarify, we often get to understand more about our customers, the challenges they are facing and so get to the root cause of the problem much faster than by just assuming we know the answer. I’ve since had plenty of my own experience, so my confidence continues to grow by the year!

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’m very proud and grateful to have been the first female Solutions Engineer outside the United States in the early days of Hortonworks and when I joined, I was actually the first woman in any technical role in the UK! It can sometimes feel a bit daunting and challenging to be a trailblazer, but I’m trying to turn what i’ve learnt in these past six years into inspiration and advice for other women who want to pursue a career in tech. I take every chance I can get to speak at events and share my experience. Last December, for example, I attended theEuropean Women in Technology conference in Amsterdam and wrote a piece about what I learned there, spoke on a Women in Big Data panel at Dataworks Summit Barcelona, and I am currently mentoring another Solutions Engineer in Europe. I want to show to people that IT is also a place for women, and that it can be an exciting place to be, whichever route into tech we choose.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Without a doubt my education. I had great teachers throughout my life that taught me to express my opinion, ask questions and didn’t make doubting myself an option! This gifted me with a great sense of curiosity and also resilience. When I got to Uni, I couldn’t understand why people weren’t asking more questions or taking part in discussions. It was then that I realised how lucky I had been. This, and the fact that I’ve always had technology around me growing up, helped build the foundation for me to grow my way into tech. I’ve also been lucky to work in a team with both female and male allies, who never treated me differently because I was a woman.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

It’s very important to take time to do some regular introspection and think about what you’re good at and where you want to be. This way you’ll identify the gaps that you need to work on to get there. Just as important, is not being afraid to ask questions, to reach out to people and learn with and from them. I follow a lot of business leaders on Twitter and Linkedin, and have been speaking to Cloudera leaders to learn more about the different areas I’m interested in. Creating this network of people that aligns with those gaps that you’ve identified goes a long way to gain confidence and grow your career.  It’s hard to have the courage to ask people to speak to you, but I’ve learnt that leaders are happy to share their learnings and take pleasure in doing so. If you have someone you’d like to speak with, my advice would be to message them being clear about why you’d like to speak with them and see what happens. The worst thing that can happen is getting a “no” but in my experience it’s very rare someone would come back and say this. It’s also important to recognise that your peers are often trying to find out and understand the same things you are, so you should feel comfortable working with your technical community to solve problems you can’t grasp on your own. My experience has been that people are always happy to help, especially if they know you’d help them too!

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Unfortunately there are still barriers for success for women in tech. I still hear assumptions all the time that women aren’t as good at working in tech, or that they don’t have the same level of interest in it. This also impacts how women are treated in education systems and in job applications, and there’s even a real risk of these human biases impacting automated hiring.

One fundamental thing we can do to address this, is by making sure women’s work in tech is more visible. I often find it frustrating that when talking about women in tech, we default to the well known examples like Ada Lovelace. Don’t get me wrong, what a brilliant woman, but we have a responsibility to tell more varied stories if we’re going to showcase the profound impact women have had on this industry. What about Mary Lee Berners-Lee? She was Tim Berners Lee's mother, but was an amazing IT pioneer in her own right! She set up one of the world’s first software consultancies, worked from home and campaigned for equal pay for male and female programmers. When I read her obituary after her death I couldn’t believe this was the first time I was reading about her as a professional, as opposed to being Tim Berners Lee’s mum. Dame Steve Shirley is another great example of a software entrepreneur and pioneer who doesn’t get mentioned as much as she should. We have to do better at getting these stories out into the wider world and show what a varied industry tech is.

What do you think companies can do to support / progress the careers of women working in technology?

Visibility is absolutely key in encouraging more women to succeed in technology. Companies can nurture this with online courses and panels that make female workers visible in the organisation.

They should also take action to bring more women into tech. Cloudera for example just appointed a Chief Diversity Officer, and created an equality committee with some really incredible people. Making women in tech more visible, both internally and externally, is key to supporting people to progress their careers and to bringing new young women into the field as well.

There are currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

The key aspect to bring more women into tech is education. For younger generations, technology has been a part of their lives since birth. It’s a second nature to them, yet girls in particular still don’t see it as a career option. Subjects such as coding and logic need to become part of school curriculums, and be incorporated in a fun and interesting way. The options are out there, there’s a Code.org website, for example, that teaches kids to code with Anna and Elsa, but we need to make them accessible for parents/schools  and interesting to younger generations. So if I had a magic wand to accelerate the pace of change for women in tech, I would make sure that every girl has access to these kinds of tools, and is taught that they’re welcome in whatever field they decide to pursue. If I hadn’t learned this growing up, I would probably not be where I am today.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

In my early tech days, I used to feel a bit weird going to tech meetups or conferences, as I was super conscious of being one of maybe a handful of women in the room and I know not everyone is confident to go out of their comfort zone and attend in person events. Oddly enough, I think the COVID era brings an unforeseen benefit where all events going virtual means women will have more access to the big tech events, and won’t feel out of place since it’s all online. So I’d say first to check out the major conferences and MeetUp groups for the particular tech field you’re interested in and just attend!

For those women wishing to read a little more into issues of diversity and find like-minded women to help guide their path, there are plenty of resources too. SheCanCode, for example, have an excellent blog and host great events on subjects from leadership through to industry-specific challenges. I’d also recommend attending events by the Women in Tech World Series (online and in person when we can again!), as last year’s European conference was a wonderful experience. Different fields within tech also have specific groups, like Women in Big Data, for example.

I suppose the biggest recommendation I can give is to start following content from one or two industry influencers you admire and then see who they repost or recommend. For example, I have recently taken a huge interest in the ethics of artificial intelligence, so I followed some key thinkers on Twitter (e.g. Shannon Vallor and Dr. Rumman Chowdhury) and have taken it from there!


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Inspirational Woman: Debra Danielson | CTO & SVP Engineering, Digital Guardian

Debra DanielsonAn experienced senior technology engineering executive and advisor, Debra provides the technical vision and strategic direction for product innovation while overseeing engineering strategy for the Digital Guardian Data Protection Platform.

Debra’s roles also oversees the engineering function including product development, quality assurance, and sustaining engineering operations. Debra has held technical, strategic, operational, and managerial leadership roles over her 25+ year career. An expert in acquisition-focused technology evaluation and technical due diligence, prior to joining Digital Guardian, Debra was a Distinguished Engineer and SVP, Merger and Acquisition Strategy at CA Technologies, where she was responsible for identifying opportunities within emerging technologies, markets, and products. Debra led and managed 20 acquisitions totalling in an aggregate $3B+, managed a globally distributed team of more than 500, and provided consultation to executive leaders on advances in technology, engineering strategy, and domain expertise. In 2006, Debra was named a Distinguished Engineer, a role that recognises the highest level of technical expertise with the greater CA Technologies community.

Debra holds 18 patents in IT management and security disciplines and serves on several technical advisory boards. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in economics and applied mathematics from Boston University.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My background and career path are fairly atypical even though my career started in a fairly traditional way: five years as a developer, ten years of development leadership, and five years of strategic technical leadership. Then, I went lateral for a while. I had an elected position as the head of an internal technical think tank for a global 500 ISV. I did a stint as a strategic relationship manager. I ran engineering operations. I spent ten years doing M&A. Today, I am working as the CTO and SVP for Engineering at Digital Guardian. The really cool part of this progression is that for the ten years prior to DG, I was able to create a blueprint for world-class engineering execution by looking at hundreds of tech companies and digging into their engineering processes and organisational tools. I was also able to identify common characteristics in the most successful tech companies, and the commonalities in those that struggled. Ever since, I’ve been applying that blueprint to engineering here at Digital Guardian – moving from theory to practice! As the weight of the old process is lifted and replaced with best practice, it’s been really satisfying to watch the team transform.

Hire adult professionals and then let them do their jobs, that’s my leadership philosophy. I have many different metrics that I use to monitor and manage the health of the organisation. Change in engineering engagement and satisfaction continues to be my favorite metric. The team understands the value of what we do (protecting the intellectual property of companies whose IP is their lifeblood) and how their daily work contributes to our customers’ businesses. They feel respected and heard by management, and they like where they work.

One of the things I learned from my “Ph.D.” in tech diligence was that while nothing beats great talent to get things done; even great talent can get bogged down in bad processes and high levels of un-remediated (and ignored) tech debt. Seeing teams shed resignation and cynicism so that they can return to their greatness is the greatest feeling and keeps me coming into the (now virtual) office every day ready to win the day.

But my passion lies in increasing the participation and impact of women (and other underrepresented communities) in the tech ecosystem. I’ve volunteered at many levels, from Tech Girls Rock (secondary school girls learning to code) to coaching and mentoring tech founders on how to get access to the capital that they need to grow.

I’m currently working with the CEO of an Australian company that builds software to manage electric vehicle charging. I have gravitated towards the top end of the spectrum because, while many people can coach a middle schooler and be a mentor, the number of people that can work with the c-suite is much more limited. I can, so I do.

I also love the energy and the passion of startup CEOs, particularly women start-up CEOs. Working with them is like a double espresso for the day. They energise me and help me see the opportunity in my own sphere.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not initially. However, I have learned over the years that having a ten-year goal is important. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there. People sometimes err in their career planning by focusing too much on the next step on the ladder. That’s why I like the ten-year goal. If you’re only looking at the next step, you’re limited in the direction you can go. For example, you can’t have your next job as a physician (assuming you haven’t been to medical school). You’re not qualified, and there’s nothing you can do in the short term to get there. But, if that same goal is your ten-year goal, then you know your next step is to apply to med school.

So, pick your ten-year goal, then figure out what’s preventing you from getting it. Your next step(s) should help you fill those gaps. Throughout my career, I’ve taken the less usual roles for just this purpose.

But although planning is good, you shouldn’t allow your plans to prevent you from capitalising on an unanticipated opportunity. I’ve also learned that sometimes it’s just being awake to an opportunity. You can be agile in your goals and change when the goal no longer fits. It’s ok sometimes to just take a weird leap.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Oh. Yeah. Sigh.

Early in my career, I turned down an internal “offer” to relocate and take a new job within the company; the alternative I was given was essentially career purgatory. After a few months, I realised that I had made a terrible mistake, but by then the position was gone and I was stuck. I was returned to a growth path through the assistance of a mentor turned sponsor, who looked out for the next opportunity for me (and I said YES to that one).

A sponsor is a really valuable asset for anyone looking to grow their career. The key characteristics of a good sponsor are:

  • Not in your direct management chain (or at least not your manager)
  • Capable of identifying opportunities and influencing the selection for those positions
  • Has direct and personal experience with you and knows your skills and capabilities well enough to stick their neck out or spend political capital for you. (This doesn’t happen overnight, so you can’t expect to try and find a sponsor when the job opens up!)

Don’t forget also that today’s colleagues and peers can become sponsors – as can previous managers and even previous employees.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The transformation of Digital Guardian engineering. When I arrived at DG, the engineering team was running waterfall methodology and was just about to push out their next major delivery date from beta in a month, to beta in six months. The team was pretty demoralised. The customers were losing faith in our ability to deliver, and other teams no longer trusted what we said. It’s been now sixteen months, and we’ve entirely transitioned to Agile, and are well into modernising our toolchain and infrastructure. We’ve constructed an effective quality strategy that’s really showing results. More importantly, the team believes again. They believe in themselves; they believe in the company; they believe in our mission – to protect the world’s most valuable intellectual property. Woo ha!

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Dogged persistence in solving the problem. I am not faint-hearted. When I hit a roadblock personally, professionally, or organisationally, I’m going to find a path through, over or around, or I’m going to figure out a better destination and go there.

I had a lot of people wonder why I stayed at one company for such a long time, particularly when we struggled in so many prolonged ways. My philosophy of dogged persistence is why I stayed. The struggles allowed me to continue learning and growing and to try new and cool things. Whenever I was stalled in growth and ready to go look elsewhere, a new opportunity emerged that was pretty much exactly what I was looking to do next. So, I just kept doing new and fun things and growing.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Ignore the voice that says that you can’t do “it,” that you’re an impostor. That being said, learn your stuff.

Be prepared.

Be fearless.

If you’re a woman, learn how to interrupt. I heard Madeleine Albright speak once about interrupting, and the essence was captured well in this famous quote of hers: “There will be those who perceive you’re [a b*tch]. But you have to interrupt. At a certain stage, you realise it doesn’t matter what they call you. You have to overcome your personal qualms.”

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome? 

Of course, there are barriers. Just look at the numbers. Why aren’t men and women equally represented in tech at all levels of the organisation? Either you buy that women just aren’t as smart or aren’t capable of doing tech work, or you believe that women just don’t want good jobs with great pay that are meaningful and powerful; or you are resigned to the fact that there are headwinds that women face (and by the way, women aren’t the only underrepresented community facing headwinds in tech).

The challenge here is that there isn’t a single thing to “fix”, and all will be well. My experience has been a patchwork of things, each of which is “no big deal”. Altogether, it’s a big deal.   Here’s a sampling of some of them:

I’d love to see some research on what happens to the women who do apply with only 60% of the qualifications met. My intuition says that they wouldn’t fare well. Women are smart. We don’t do irrational things. We’re not driven by timidity or lack of confidence. We optimise our outcomes. It’s time to stop putting the onus on women to change a system by being more “confident”, while the system itself biases against assertive women.

Women are penalised for leadership success unless they exhibit mitigating “communal” behaviours e.g. nurture the organisation. This is the problem of "likability", where women who are not assertive and fit the gender stereotype of a woman as being gentle and caring are liked more, but not considered as leadership material. On the other hand, women who display traditional "masculine" qualities such as assertiveness, forcefulness, and ambition are labeled as "bitchy", unfeminine, and aggressive, and are hence generally disliked. In both cases, women are then less likely to be promoted than a man. Men do not face the same problem, because the traits that are considered "bossy" in a woman are considered leadership qualities in a man.

I remember a call with CA Board Members, Laura Unger, and Kay Koplovitz, where they discussed their personal (and recent) experiences at the board level with this phenomenon. At the time, I was shocked that they didn’t call their male peers out when it happened, and when asked, they answered that the most important thing was that the idea was heard.

They’re only penalised for negotiating for themselves, not for others, or “the team.”

  • Women are still paid less. Promoted less. Hired less.

I could keep going on this. The research out there is massive, and frankly, sometimes overwhelming. It’s hard to carry both the weight of the job and the weight of damaging the chances of other women if you fail. We aren’t there until we stop using “woman” as an adjective in business. I’m not a “woman” CTO.  I’m a CTO. Not a “woman” distinguished engineer. I’m a distinguished engineer. I’m not a “woman” in tech. I’m in tech.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

First, if you use the term meritocracy, stop and take a hard look at your numbers. We all have biases, and these societal gender roles are deeply, deeply ingrained into all of us. It’s not just men that discriminate (consciously or unconsciously) against women. Women do it too.

Create a framework identifying established biases backed by empirical science. Shine a light on them so that when subtle (or not so subtle) bias behaviour is exhibited it can be called out.   Enroll men in the calling out process too. Some of the greatest proponents for increasing the participation and success of women in tech have been men. Fathers can be deeply committed allies, as they work to ensure that their daughters get a fair shot at the success they’ve had.

Think about how you change the system to balance the bias. Be really clear that this isn’t giving a “leg up” to a less deserving woman (to the disadvantage of a man), but it is a way to level the field and flatten the “leg down”.

And… stop thinking that there’s something wrong with women that have to be fixed. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that we need to “teach” women how to negotiate, how to speak up/interrupt, how to get a seat at the table, how to ask for the promotion, how to be more assertive, …we behave the way we do because it’s optimal to act this way within the system.  If you have a system that penalises women for negotiating, then don’t try and tell them that they’re underpaid because they didn’t negotiate.

There is currently only 15% of women working in tech if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I’d magically change the distribution of Fortune 500 CEOs and top 100 Venture Capital Firms’ partners to reflect the community. If we can change the image of leadership in tech, then we have a good chance to change the culture – or at least make it explicit.  Digital Guardian has 75% women in the c-suite. We’ve got Strategy/Marketing, Technology, and Finance.   

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’ve been coaching, mentoring, and guiding women in the industry by supporting and participating in some really great organisations dedicated to leveling the playing field for women in tech, including Springboard Enterprises, Tech Girls Rock, WITI (Women in Technology International), and the Anita Borg Institute. Digital Guardian is also a big supporter of Boston’s STEM program.

I also love Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk “Your body language may shape who you are”.

If you haven’t had a chance to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, this is your year. It’s gone virtual. But do try and make it in person sometime. The impact of 26,000 (mostly) women in tech in one place is an experience. I really recommend that men attend too. The technical sessions are outstanding, but it’s even more valuable to experience being the only one in the room.


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Pooja Malpani

Inspirational Woman: Pooja Malpani | Head of Engineering, Bloomberg Media

Pooja MalpaniPooja Malpani is the Head of Engineering for Bloomberg Media. She leads the engineering team responsible for consumer media, marketing and data visualization.

This includes supporting Bloomberg.com, consumer mobile applications, smart television apps, other connected devices, as well as the systems that deliver market-moving news, data, audio and video to consumers and syndication partners. Her group also manages Bloomberg's marketing web sites, as well as various Bloomberg Philanthropies sites.

Prior to Bloomberg, Pooja was at HBO Digital Products, where she led the Purchase and Identity engineering teams for HBO Go and HBO Now. Her group was responsible for Subscription Management, including Auth, Direct Commerce and Partner Commerce across web, mobile and connected devices. Her group managed HBO’s streaming user services, including scaling for high traffic shows like 'Game of Thrones'.

Prior to joining HBO, Pooja spent 9 years at Microsoft, leading the engineering efforts on a variety of features for Skype for Business and Skype for consumers.

Pooja is an ambassador for women in technology and is actively involved in engineering initiatives related to diversity.

Pooja graduated from Indiana University with a Masters in Computer Science.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I have worked in technology for around 17 years, starting my career at a consulting firm, before moving on to product companies including Microsoft, where I primarily dealt with communications and streaming across products like Microsoft Office & Skype. I then moved on to the television network HBO, working on its subscription management platform - preparing it for high-traffic shows like “Game of Thrones” where the digital services got millions of concurrent hits.

About two years ago, I moved to Bloomberg to lead Engineering for its Media division. In my current role, I lead an amazing set of teams that are responsible for web and native mobile applications and supporting systems that deliver market-moving news, data, audio and video to our consumer audience, as well as syndication partners. My group also manages Bloomberg's marketing web sites as well as various Bloomberg Philanthropies sites.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes and no. I didn’t sit down at the start and plan out my career; there was no single trigger for me deciding on a particular course. In reality, it’s been a series of decisions and learnings about myself that have helped guide me from role to role.

Very early on, I’d deliberately pick roles and areas that I didn’t know much about, but knew they would expose me to a variety of new skills. It really taught me to feel like I could be left in any muddy pool and clear the water -- quickly building a reputation for leaving things significantly better than I found them.

Some larger decisions were more deliberate, I knew I wanted to feel a sense of ownership for my work, so I left consultancy to work in a product company. I also knew I really responded well to working in the same location as my manager, so I started to prioritise roles and teams where that was the case, as well as organisations that shared my own values. Naturally, this is changing nowadays since more people are working remotely and there’s more assurance of equal experience regardless of location. This is particularly true in the software engineering world, where the remote work scene is pretty fantastic.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

We all face challenges in our careers. I have worked and built a great support system full of different perspectives throughout the formative years of my career.

Usually I’ve found solutions in tackling technical problems head on or by having hard 1:1s with leadership. Typically, I made sure I was talking to the right people at the right time. One time, I even made the decision to leave a team because our values and goals weren’t aligned and knew I would never feel empowered or satisfied in the role.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Helping other technologists succeed. I take huge pride in being a mentor and playing a part in other people’s successes. I’ll always continue to do this, as I find it incredibly humbling and rewarding.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I don’t think I can pick one thing, but here are three things I do: display enthusiasm, excellence, and empathy. Enthusiasm is hugely important to me. It helps drive passion into the day-to-day. Excellence is about making sure I’m giving my all to whatever I’m doing, no matter how small. Whether that means adding technical leadership or management excellence - it all plays a part. The third is empathy. It’s so important to be open-minded and empathetic towards customers, stakeholders, teammates, and even someone who is breathing fire down my neck to get something done.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Technology is so pervasive today. There are so many opportunities within the field that you can afford to be picky. Find an area of the technology world you feel strongly about, and your passion will guide you. Whether it’s electric vehicles, health tech, hospitality, media, space exploration, or insurance systems, there will always be something in an area that you’re interested in.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

It’s a sad reality that barriers do exist for women in technology. I hope in my lifetime that these will fade away. When scanning a random meeting of engineers, the odds are that there are fewer women than men. This only gets more extreme as you go up the leadership chain. I find hope in the growing awareness around this issue and the fact that many companies are finally putting diversity, inclusion and an intersectional view on gender equality/equity front and centre in their business plans.

My advice to everyone is to acknowledge and challenge barriers to create an open, more inclusive workplace culture. Investing in programmes like connecting underrepresented groups with mentors and finding new ways to share opportunities fairly across the business can really help to diminish barriers.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Companies can rethink the way talent acquisition and talent programmes look. Businesses need to stop hiding behind the excuse of not getting enough women in the pipeline. As Melinda Gates said during a keynote at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, “Let’s change the pipeline”. There shouldn’t be one single channel for women, or even people in general, into the workplace.

Bloomberg has returner programmes, where women who haven’t been working for a while are supported back into working life. We have programmes where people from non-software backgrounds are reskilled, even upskilled, to get a foot in the door. Businesses need to look at those who are already working, what opportunities are available to them to move up or across to where they truly want to be. And if you don’t have enough role models, finding business initiatives into how to get more is essential.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

In discussions on this over the years, one idea always stuck with me. What if all the managers, VPs and other leaders across the business had performance-related goals tied back to which diverse talent they are training to take their place before they get promoted? This would breed a culture where role models and mentorship is baked into the KPIs of seniority.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Today there are so many voices out there. Podcasts, blogs and books are helpful, but it’s important not to get overwhelmed. It is all about picking and choosing what works for you and what is applicable to your own passion and unique circumstances.

Anything else?

For women and people from any underrepresented group thinking about getting into STEM, who are debating whether to pursue a career or not, do not be deterred by some of the barriers to entry. Take any issue in society and technology is usually there in some way trying to bridge the gap. It is bringing people together and making the world smaller. When taking a step into technology it can also open up possibilities to friends and younger siblings to see an open pathway. Rest assured that there will always be female technologists who will be very happy to advocate for women, wherever they find themselves in the industry.


WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here


Inspirational Woman: Sarah Beardsley | Head of Space Engineering and Technology, Science and Technology Facilities Council, UKRI

Sarah Beardsley

Dr Sarah Beardsley is the Head of Space Engineering and Technology in the RAL Space Department of STFC, part of the UK Research and Innovation organisation.

She heads up a team of 60 engineers and technical project managers who design, build and test scientific instrumentation to go into space, furthering the understanding of our Earth and our place in the universe.

Sarah began her career as a planetary scientist, holding fellowships through Research Councils and the Royal Society. She has represented her scientific community on several national and international committees and working groups, elected by her peers to work with the Royal Astronomical Society and European Space Agency in particular.

More recently she has developed her career as a senior project manager and leader of groups of engineers, culminating in her current role as Division Head. She has overseen the recruitment of almost 70 people in the last five years and developed a collaborative style of leadership, demonstrating empathy and a culture of inclusion within her Division that is well respected. She leads by example – for example Sarah was one of the first in her organisation to share her maternity leave with her husband – long before it became a statutory right; she continues to work flexibly to accommodate caring duties, and is highly supportive of requests to work part-time and flexibly by members of her team. She is a member of the Graduate Training Panel within her organisation and is passionate about development of talent that secures the future of science and engineering in the UK. She regularly gives inspiring talks to encourage the younger generation, both female and male, into STEM fields.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m a scientist by training – astronomy and astrophysics degree and PhD, moved into studying the Moon (which is my favourite thing!) and then transitioned into project management when I realised I liked working in teams more. I now run a team of around 60 engineers and managers who design, build and test instruments that go into space. It is simply the coolest thing to be able to say that I have sent something into space!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes – I always wanted to be an astronaut when I was little, and all my career choices were based around that. I write to NASA to ask how to be an astronaut – it appeared you needed to have a career first and then become an astronaut. There were two choices for me – pilot or mission specialist. I realised I was going to be too short to be a pilot, so mission specialist it was – I researched the most likely career routes for that, and astronomer and astrophysicist were high up there. Looking up at the Moon and stars was my favourite thing, so I went for that. Although I never became an astronaut, I still work on things that end up in space and I would never have made it here if it were not for my aiming for that goal of being in space myself.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Challenges were two-fold. The first are those from outside. I remember well a quote from a teacher who said “you’ll never be an astrophysicist – you have to be clever to do that”. That never stopped me, but I could imagine such comments really putting off other people.  I was also the first in my family to go to University, and looking back I recognise that was quite a challenge who would have been made oh so much easier if there were family members to talk to about it. The internal challenges are those from within - the self-doubt, the lack of confidence and holding yourself back. Although I did not realise it at the time there were many self-sabotaging moments I can look back on which explain very clearly why I never pursued the dream of being an astronaut as far as I could.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

On a personal level, it has to be achieving a work-life balance that is simply amazing. I have a great career, two wonderful children, an amazing husband and spend lots of time volunteering with Scouts – it is possible to do it all, but you have to have help and support in doing so.

At a work level, it is the fact that I have 40 per cent females in my team of 60 people in an area that typically has 13 per cent. It gives me great pride that such things can happen, we just have to make it so.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Making it happen – asking questions and not making assumptions. Then asking another way if you don’t get the answer you want first off. Keep on trying and don’t give up. Also, I have had many supporters over the years – some obvious, some in the background. When I look back at my career I can spot a number of key moments and can identify those people who made those possible. It is really important to have those supporters, and it is important to become one of those people yourself as you rise through the ranks.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think it is incredibly important to have someone to turn to – especially those who have been there before. They can listen, offer advice and can ask those challenging questions of you. It is important to understand what you want to get out of a formal mentoring relationship in order to get the most out of it and to make sure you are paired with the right person. I am a mentor to four people in my workplace and wish there were more mentors out there – it is a great way of helping others to get to where you are, so please do consider giving your time.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Wow, there’s a question! The problem we have is that it isn’t just one thing. It’s many things, and many of those things taken in isolation are seemingly so small and insignificant that that they couldn’t possibly make a difference, right? Wrong. I think every change starts with us as individuals. We have to call things out when it’s wrong, correct people making stereotypical remarks, changing the language we use, and also helping each other. Let’s create the culture we want to live in, let’s change our behaviour to reflect that and not be afraid to do things differently if we think it’s right – and others will follow when they see it working!

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t worry about what others think of you. You will never be the perfect little girl you were always told you should be. You will never please everyone, but you can be a person that you want to be. Be accountable to yourself and hold yourself true to what you believe in, you won’t go far wrong.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My next challenge is working out what I want to do next. If any of you have any ideas, please let me know…!