Caroline SerfassCaroline Serfass joined Canon EMEA as Chief Information Officer in January 2013 to lead the company’s IT strategy and help transform business systems across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, to provide a strong foundation for future growth.

Caroline’s experience spans across a variety of functions, including internal audit, manufacturing operations, supply chain and IT. Prior to joining Canon, she spent most of her career in the healthcare industry. Notably, Caroline was CIO Europe at global pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company. Caroline then held the position of Vice President IT International at Medtronic, the world leader in medical devices. At both companies, she made technology one of the key pillars of their transformation and growth. She began her career as the first IT manager of a small mining company in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Caroline studied engineering at École Centrale in France and holds an MSc in Robotics from École Polytechnique, Montreal.

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

I’m the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Canon EMEA. I joined Canon in January 2013 to lead the company’s IT strategy and help transform its business systems across Europe, Middle East and Africa region, to provide a strong foundation for future growth. We execute all the usual IT functions of a big enterprise, whilst also looking for ways to invest in new capabilities for future projects in both ERP and Digital.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?  

My interest in technology started as a child. I loved maths and was good in the subject at school. I was fortunate that my parents and teachers encouraged me to pursue the topic further in higher education. At university, I studied engineering before going on to study for a masters in robotics.

When I started my career, the technology sector was booming, so given my education and interest, it was natural for me to work in the industry. I never planned though exactly what I would do. I began my career as the first IT manager of a small mining company in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and since then have worked in a variety of functions, in big international corporations including internal audit, manufacturing operations, supply chain and IT.

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

Throughout my career, people have sometimes been surprised to discover that I work in IT, which is generally perceived to be a male-dominated industry. For women in general though, there have always been misconceptions that we’re not ambitious enough and lack commitment to a certain field if we want to have children. As more women enter the industry and start working in senior roles, these misconceptions are slowly disappearing, which is really positive to see.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

When I joined Canon in 2013, I was the first woman to sit on its senior management team. It was a huge achievement for me, but it has also been wonderful to see that the number of women working in senior positions at Canon has since increased. There are now three of us on the executive team, and I hope that this visibility encourages more women to think about working in technology in the future.

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

When I joined Canon in 2013, I’d been fortunate that I’d had the opportunity and experience to work in a number of different roles and sectors, including positions in finance, supply logistics, manufacturing operations, and across industries including the healthcare sector. As a result of my cross functional experience, I have been able to highlight the importance technology has in driving business results. It is this varied experience that has allowed me to gain new perspectives through different ways of working and help the businesses I’ve worked for to thrive in an increasingly digital world.

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

At times, I’ve felt a level of pressure being a woman in a senior STEM role and have felt like I’ve had to conform to the working habits of my male colleagues. As I’ve developed in my career and built up my confidence, I’ve learnt that to succeed you really have to free yourself of that and be more authentic in the way you show up, make decisions and lead a team.

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

It’s important that we encourage girls from a young age to take an interest in STEM subjects and to do so will involve wider societal change. In a recent survey in the UK, Accenture revealed that half of parents and two-thirds of teachers admit to gender stereotyping STEM job roles. If we want to see more women enter the industry, it’s crucial that both parents and teachers encourage girls’ aspirations and help to build enthusiasm. What an individual believes about themselves is really important, and we need to help girls believe that they can do the same, or better than their male counterparts.

When women leave education and embark on their careers, it’s also important that they are able to see other women working in the technology industry. All companies need to play their part to ensure they have women visible in senior roles, so that other women can see that they have the potential to work and succeed in the industry. As more women enter STEM, people’s perceptions are slowly changing, and women are gaining the confidence they need to succeed.

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

The topic of diversity is now a much bigger priority for businesses than it was 20 years ago when I started out, which is great to see. Whilst this is benefitting both present and future employees, research has also highlighted that having a strong female representation is also good for business. In McKinsey’s annual ‘Women in The Workplace’ report, an increasing number of companies reported that their financial outperformance had improved as a result of having a diverse executive team.

As a result, it’s now more important than ever for companies to embrace diversity and make it a business priority. To do so, companies should make sure that they have diverse candidate pools and an equal representation of people from diverse backgrounds within their business.

How is Canon working to build its level of diversity?

One way we’re trying to attract more women to work at Canon, is by updating our current recruitment process. We have mandatory unconscious bias training for our managers, to make sure that we hire the best person for the role, regardless of their background. We’re also a supporter of flexible working to support the needs of our employees.

To make sure we continue with this progress, we launched our ‘SHE-RISE’ programme in March, to support the success of our female employees. 15 women from across Canon EMEA were selected to take part, and now have access to ongoing coaching, mentoring, and training from female executives across the business. We hope that this initiative, amongst others, will help more women at Canon achieve their ambitions and take up senior positions.

As a result of these efforts, Canon was included in the Financial Time’s Diversity Leaders 2020 Report. The report included the top 700 European companies that offer inclusive and diverse workplaces and so it was great to see Canon featured on this list.

How has the IT sector changed since you first joined the industry? Are these changes making it easier or harder for women to take up a career in technology? 

Today, IT and technology are at the forefront of every company’s priorities and plans for the future. When I first entered the industry, IT used to be almost all technical work, and a bit of a back-office job. Today, while the technical dimension is still fundamental, there is a huge dimension of transformation in the role, which makes it more attractive for people who don’t just have a technical background but are also interested in wider business strategy. As the sector becomes broader and more strategic, I think this will help to attract a more diverse pool of leaders.

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?

The one thing that I would do if I could wave a magic wand would be to make all women believe in their own ability. At an educational level, many girls and young women drop out of studying STEM subjects because they don’t have the confidence they need to succeed – either as a result of pressure from their peers that STEM topics are not ‘cool’ enough or via an ingrained belief that they’re simply not as good at them as their male counterparts.

Even when I started my career, I felt pressure being a woman predominantly working amongst men, and often felt like I needed to adapt my working style to those around me. As I progressed in my career however, I learned the importance of being authentic and having courage in my own convictions.

Having confidence in myself is what ultimately helped me get to where I am today, and I hope that by having more women visible in the industry, it will encourage others to believe that they can do it too.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

One of my favourite documentaries this year was ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama and I am also really enjoying her current podcast series. I truly believe that she has become one of the leading female figures of our time and is a wonderful role model for women everywhere.

I also enjoyed reading ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, which focuses on female empowerment in the workplace, as well as ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey.

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