Dr Shirley Knowles

Dr. Shirley Knowles joined Progress as its first Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer in 2021.

She is responsible for leading the company’s inclusion and diversity initiatives designed to foster a culture of belonging where all employees feel valued, safe and seen. She previously served as the first diversity and inclusion officer at a large property and casualty insurance company in Boston, where she led initiatives to promote inclusivity and appreciation of cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and educational diversity.

Shirley earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Marquette University; a Master of Leadership Studies degree from North Central College; a Master of Arts in Gender and Cultural Studies and Master of Science in communications management from Simmons College; and a Doctor of Education in organisational leadership degree from Northeastern University.

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

My background is in corporate communications, although I have graduate degrees and certifications in multicultural leadership and gender and cultural studies. I have also taught cultural diversity classes, so I am used to giving foundational knowledge around the importance of inclusion and diversity in the workplace. If I think about it, I was always destined for a career in inclusion, diversity, and belonging based on my lived experiences. I have always been one of the few in various capacities – in the courses I was enrolled in from a young age, to the universities I chose to attend, to the teams I’ve been on, to my personal interests. I’m used to being in a space where there aren’t many people who look like me. This has helped me to have a better understanding of how important it is to get people to connect with you before you ask them to think about the way they see the world and the people they connect with.

My current role as the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress allows me to make a meaningful impact in the lives of my colleagues as I dive into the importance of inclusion in the way we see one another, and the way we work together. I understand how subjective diversity and inclusion can be for everyone, so I try to find balance in respecting and understanding various perspectives, but also trying to create the type of change where people don’t feel excluded any longer due to the colour of their skin, their gender, who they love, where they went to school, their role in the business, their age, their abilities, or any number of factors that lead to others unfairly prejudging them.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Never. Fifteen years ago, I would never have thought I’d be leading an inclusion and diversity function for a global, public tech company. I never sat down and said, “In five years, I want to be in this role”. Much of my success was built on making real connections with people, and the opportunities came from that.

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

I remember early on in my career when I had several graduate degrees and a ton of insight into digital communications, but was the lowest paid person on my team. I struggled for a year or so trying to understand how I could be teaching senior level employees how to make the most of their social media marketing campaigns, but not be paid fairly. I remember a recruiter telling me that my title made it seem like I only “stapled papers and made copies.” It was at that moment that I decided to take control of my career and start working towards more senior level roles at another company.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Moving into my most recent role as the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer stands out above all of my other career achievements. It’s a great responsibility to lead this function for Progress, but being able to connect with employees and help them to see why this work is so important to the success of the business – and their own individual growth – has been very rewarding.

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

I think a big part of my success has centred on meeting people where they are, which requires intentional listening. What I mean by this is – it is important to listen to every individual as they talk about their work priorities, but also their life priorities. What experiences are they having? What story do they have to tell? When you can connect with someone and let them know that you understand their priorities in work, but also in life, they tend to form a deeper connection with you. They see you as someone who “gets them.” And, I believe, this is what transformative leadership is all about – being able to transform the way we connect with one another, which, in turn, can impact the way people can speak positively on your behalf when you’re not in the room.

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

As cliché as it may sound, network with others in the tech space – and not just at your company. LinkedIn is a great place to connect with others who are working in industries similar to your own. There are a number of professional groups on that site that you can join and connect with others in the tech space. Another great way to excel is to join your university’s alumni group and ask for a mentor. Or, if you didn’t attend a university, there are non-profit organisations who have leaders and board members from the tech space that would be open to connecting with you over coffee to discuss your career aspirations and ways to grow within your organisation. At the end of the day, the connections you make with others who are more tenured in the space are what will help propel your career.

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

I talk a lot about the importance of allyship and advocacy from men in the tech space. It is no secret that the technology space is male-dominated. There is no shame in admitting that. I think the real shame comes in when we know there is an imbalance in the opportunities afforded to women in the tech space – especially when it comes to leadership roles – but we are apathetic about making any changes. We need men to develop, grow, and promote women in the same way they would their male counterparts. There are some brilliant women out there who are ready to make a big impact in the technology space – all they need is someone willing to give them a chance and help develop their career.

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

Companies need to start investing in their women. Sponsor their attendance at a tech conference or offer them training that can help develop their skill sets. Identify top talent and start mentoring those women. Leaders should let these women shadow them to see what their workday is like, which will help them understand what it takes to be a leader in the tech space. They should also spend some time with these women and ask them what their interests are, then connect them with other leaders who are doing great things in that space. It’s important to use your connections and influence to help women grow. Additionally, I think companies could invest in tech nonprofits that are geared towards motivating young females to enter the tech space. Building that talent pipeline from a young age could pay off dividends ten years down the road as those young girls become women looking to work for an inclusive company which values gender diversity.

There are 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?

I mentioned it before, but I’d get more leaders to understand their unconscious bias as it relates to women in the tech space and have them give women the chance to prove they can be great leaders in this industry. Leaders need to understand that women aren’t waiting around like they used to, hoping that a leader will one day “give them a chance.” Women are creating their own opportunities, starting their own businesses. If these organisations don’t want to see this talent one day turn into their competitor, they’d better start providing real, impactful opportunities that can highlight the many talents and skills that women bring to the table.