Claire Thomas is responsible for developing and implementing a strategy for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) across Hitachi Vantara through programmes that reflect the diverse backgrounds, passions and interests of our current and future workforce. 

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

I’m a 39-year-old mother, and live on the outskirts of London with my husband and two sons. I love to learn about new cultures through travel, and get my energy from spending time with inspiring people. I have a deep sense of wanting to contribute to society, to create more level playing fields and to do this through the power of connection between people.

I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career whilst I was studying Management Studies and Spanish at university, and after many failed applications to join fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies in marketing, I applied for graduate schemes at large technology companies as I’d heard they had good training, involved travel, and the starting salary was good. I accepted a place on Microsoft’s sales graduate programme and fell into the technology industry, which I’m so glad I did.

I worked in software sales at Microsoft for five years before joining the services sales team at Hitachi and spending 10 years in various sales and sales leadership roles. During this time, I was able to learn about companies in different industries, help people deliver on their personal objectives, solve problems, travel to new countries and drive organisation change through technology adoption.

While I was on my second maternity leave, our company posted a new role to hire its first Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer (CDIO). Having had a passion for building inclusive, high performing teams for a long time, and encouraging more people to consider a career in technology, I applied. I’ve been the global CDIO for a year now, supporting our 11,000 employees in 35 countries.

Working with a wide range of people across Hitachi Vantara, we’ve delivered great progress in 12 months – increasing gender diversity, raising our DEI index score, piloting a new leadership development programme, increasing participation in DEI training, launching new Employee Resource Groups, changing policies to support our LGBTQ+ community and parents, and improving healthcare access for many. We still have plenty of work to do, and I’m proud of the progress we’ve made and the teams who have contributed to our efforts to make Hitachi Vantara a welcoming place for all.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve never sat down for hours and written a strategic career plan. I’ve always had a good idea of what my next options might be, the experience I’d need to be considered, a plan for how to get that experience and an idea of who I’d need to be sponsoring me in rooms that I wasn’t in. For example, when I knew I wanted to move from individual sales to sales leadership, I didn’t have people management experience. So when there was an opportunity to lead our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team as a volunteer, I took that on as I had a passion for CSR, and it was a way to informally manage a team.

I’ve always invested a lot of time building relationships with people across all levels of an organisation and outside, and as a naturally curious person, I find building new relationships quite easy. These networks have been incredibly useful to me in uncovering opportunities, gaining access to information, and supporting me when I’ve wanted to move roles.

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

Six months into my sales graduate programme, my manager told me that he didn’t think I was cut out for sales and perhaps I should consider other career paths. I honestly didn’t know what to do with that feedback and it sent me into a bit of a tailspin. Fortunately, a few weeks later, I went on some externally facilitated sales training and asked my coach to give me candid feedback at the end about my fit for a sales career. He was overwhelmingly positive about my ability to be successful in sales, and I went on to be one of the top performers in every sales team I’ve been part of. While the feedback spurred me on to prove I could be a good salesperson, I still carry it around 15 years later!

I also faced the challenge many women do – balancing career and starting a family. I suffered two years of infertility before our first son arrived, which was an extremely stressful time. As I wasn’t sure if I could get pregnant, I didn’t want to hold back on career opportunities, so I was working hard to progress while also feeling incredibly isolated going through infertility. I now make sure to talk about how hard it can be to become a parent and maintain a career, so people know they can talk to me if they need.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Being promoted into this new CDIO role. It was a major shift from my sales career – a move from an EMEA role to a global role, as well as a promotion during maternity leave. I’m proud of how I approached the recruitment process with a tiny newborn baby and how I advocated for what I wanted the role to look like. I’m also pleased that our Hitachi Vantara leadership team trusted me with such an important body of work and all the achievements we’ve had to date.

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

I think it’s a combination of things, rather than one alone. Being relentlessly focused on delivering on objectives, doing what I said I was going to do and making sure people know about my achievements have played a big role. Building strong, trusted relationships with people who I can go to for advice and support has been critical in helping navigate role and organisational changes. And having an incredibly supportive husband who believes in equal contributions at home has allowed me time and space to progress my career alongside being present with our boys.

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

Spend time thinking about what you value, what really motivates you, what gives you energy and where you perform best. Once those things are considered, use the answers to find a role or company that best matches your values. When your work aligns with these, it’s much easier to excel and there are so many technology jobs available to choose from.

Self-advocacy is also crucial. Hard work doesn’t speak for itself, so you need people to know about your contributions. The Google ‘I Am Remarkable’ course is an excellent way to get more comfortable with self-promotion. This is not without its challenges, especially when research shows that men and women are regarded differently when they self-promote, so becoming skilled in doing this in a way that gets results is really important.

And finally, make sure you take time to rest and recharge. The technology industry can be fast and furious and when there are deadlines or deliverables due, hours can be long. We can’t perform at our best without sleep and time for ourselves, so it’s vital to find what works for you to recoup.

What barriers for women working in tech, are still to be overcome?

As an industry, we still have work to do to challenge stereotypes about what a woman in tech looks like and the roles she may do. We also need to work harder to create environments where women want to lead and can do this successfully in their own way. I often find that the demanding work schedule doesn’t fit well with family or caring responsibilities, which women traditionally do more of than men, and we need to look at how we bring in as much flexibility as possible so people can manage work around their lives and not the other way round. I’m grateful that Hitachi Vantara offers me and so many others the flexibility to manage my work around my personal commitments and focuses on outcomes.

Additionally, we need more equal parenting responsibilities between parents, supported by better leave policies and government schemes, so it’s not automatically the birth mother who is taking the lion’s share of caring responsibilities. Non-birthing partners can play more active roles, and the time out of the workplace be more evenly distributed.

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

There are so many things that can be done. Companies can provide clear career paths and development opportunities, match women up with mentors and sponsors, invest in high potential female talent, share stories of other women who’ve progressed in their career, provide safe spaces for discussion about challenges faced, actively target recruitment of women from other industries and make sure men are advocates for gender equity and creating more diverse teams.

At Hitachi Vantara we’re piloting a leadership programme with Ginger Leadership Communications to support high potential women find their ‘Idea Worth Spreading’ and share it in an authentic way. We’ve also just launched our Allies Network working with Token Man Consulting to bring more men into the gender equity conversation and create meaningful action plans for change.

In an ideal world, how would you improve gender diversity in tech?

I think it starts in school. We need to be sharing the incredible opportunities a career in tech can provide to shape the future of our world. Technology influences so much of what we do every day and I’m sure if kids understood more about the possible roles, they would want to play in building technology that could help protect the planet, keep people healthier, deliver new forms of entertainment, or widen access to education. Doing so would lead more people to be interested in this path. I’d encourage as many people working in our industry as possible to be sharing their stories of creativity and innovation in classrooms far and wide.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Apart from the WeAreTechWomen website 😊 there’s a wide range of conferences and events aimed specifically as women in tech globally, from Women of Silicon Roundabout to the Women Tech Global Conference, a virtual and in-person event. These offer women the opportunity to listen to industry leaders and meet like-minded people working in the sector.

In terms of books, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed by Men by Caroline Criado Perez is a fascinating read. Though not tech specific, I also love The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi, Dare to Lead by Brene Brown and The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek.

The Women in Data podcast has been very useful and informative, as well as Big Careers Small Children. For those interested in negotiating on their own behalf, I’d also recommend following Wies Bratby on LinkedIn or other social channels.