Dr Shivani Sharma is Head of the Department of Psychology, Sport, and Geography at the University of Hertfordshire. She is an advocate for making health and psychological care equitable and accessible for all, regardless of disadvantages arising from factors such as ethnicity, economic means, gender, disability, or language.

Dr Shivani Sharma’s research on health inequalities, especially how they relate to the experiences and outcomes of people with one or more protected characteristics, aims to re-imagine how care is planned and delivered, including for autistic youth and adults.

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

I am the Head of the Department of Psychology, Sport, and Geography at the University of Hertfordshire. I studied at the University for my undergraduate degree in Psychology and PhD too. Throughout my years in education from school onwards, I would describe myself as a late bloomer. I was thereafter quite a geek, always keeping my head down, aiming for the best grades I could. I grew up in a family that was not cash-rich, and so meeting everyday needs was always something I saw my parents work hard to achieve. I really wanted to study my way into a more stable future. Doing something I enjoy as well as having the means to experience things I wanted to without counting pennies. Academia happened by accident when I was encouraged to apply for a funded PhD. I can remember asking the then Head of Department, ‘What is a PhD and why would I want to do it?’ Fast forward 5 years from that conversation and I was already the Associate Head of the Department of Psychology aged 26, and within another few years, the Head of Psychology by age 30. I think this speaks volumes about setting high aspirations for yourself and having the environment around you that enables your capacity to flourish. What I love most about my current role is the diversity of each day which might include everything from people leadership, strategising, managing budgets, and supervising students, to my own research which is trying to reimagine mental health support for people living with long-term conditions. Outside work I enjoy training in the Indian classical dance form – Kathak – between spending time with my family. I have a 4-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

As a teen, I really enjoyed watching the TV programme ER. It inspired me to think that, since I loved spending time with children and science was my favourite subject, maybe a paediatrician would be a good career for me. The issue was that although I achieved really well in my GCSEs, I didn’t get along with my A-level chemistry teacher’s style of education. My brother-in-law, who is a GP, tried to help me, but I got 0/10 on my first A-level Chemistry homework! So, as I had loved A-level psychology, I decided to pursue this secretly without telling my parents. My dad was most disappointed until I eventually completed a doctorate. In short, while I started with a plan, I adapted it quite early on. As an undergraduate, my plan was to work hard, get a first-class degree, and pursue clinical psychology. Again, this is not the path I followed most. I was open to the opportunities and trusted advice that I received about alternatives.

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

My career has had different challenges at different stages. One thing I can say is that over time, I’ve learnt to feel more confident navigating my way through them. In the beginning, I knew that I was inexperienced in traditional terms to be in senior management. On the one side were those who could see my potential and capacity to learn fast, and on the other, were people who thought you’d need to be in your 40-50’s, and wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches before you enter senior management in academia. So, building credibility took some time. But I was just myself, always taking every opportunity to learn, never being afraid to ask questions, and setting clear goals and working towards them. It didn’t take long for those who were sceptical to realise that hey, this woman does know what she’s doing.

Despite the landscape of equality, diversity, and inclusion, I don’t think I will be the only woman to comment that although the men in the work context willing to support and celebrate women’s success outnumber those who don’t, there will always be a few you encounter who live up to the stereotype. The way I have managed this has varied. To begin with, I think the net impact was that I was overperforming, always trying to prove why I was suitable for the role I was appointed to.  But this is personally taxing – there are only so many late-night candles you can burn. The better strategy is where I am now. Accepting that I’m fine just the way I am and choosing when and how to call things out. Life in senior management is unpredictable. I often just need to take a deep breath and manage the next curve ball the best I can.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date? 

I was recently invited to be part of a team leading the National Review of Kidney Health Inequity. Looking back at my early days in research, I can recall reading such policy pieces, and research articles, listening to people at conferences and thinking, wow, how are they managing to have such an impact in the world? So, it feels like a proud moment to be invited to do this, and more so because I have managed to develop expertise in this important area whilst also balancing senior management and spending time with my young family. It’s so important for work success to go hand and hand with what you want to achieve in your personal life too.

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

Having a plan but being flexible in where it might take you. Whenever I have thought I know exactly what I’m doing, and where I’m going, something else has come along and I’d say it’s this veering off track that has in most cases led to the biggest opportunities for me.

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

For anyone wishing to pursue a career in STEM, I would say a few things which I would equally tell my younger self. Think big. There are so many opportunities out there so never limit your mindset to where you want your career to take you. Writing this piece having just turned 38, I have already surpassed the job title I initially thought I’d like to get to in my career in academia, with many working years still to go. Second, relationships are everything in the workplace. The people you meet and the connections you make will be invaluable. Finally, aim to do good things, do them with integrity, and get used to feeling comfort in discomfort. The rest will fall into place, even if you have a few scars along the way.

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

Though there’s currently a lot of momentum and action surrounding equity in careers. My experience is that we still have a long way to go. This needs women to have the right mindset as well as those enabling careers to be flexible. Certainly, as a working mum, I’ve always championed equality starting in the home. My husband does as many, if not more, nursey and school drop-offs and pick-ups as me. It’s never been part of my thinking that my career will take a backseat.  Equally, I’ve always had a line manager who facilitates autonomy. Allowing life to happen around work, and trusting that I will deliver. So, self-generated barriers, equity starting in the home, not being afraid to be ambitious for yourself, and the work environment, are all factors which enable women to shapeshift between different life roles.

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

Be bold and ambitious for women. This might mean re-imagining how and when work happens. Something which has certainly fuelled my career even before the natural changes we are seeing post-COVID-19. As well as recognising that to level the playing field, there needs to be a dynamic shift in the culture of many organisations. This applies to the whole career cycle, from recruiting through to training, development, recognition, and reward. I don’t think that most companies and higher education institutions are progressive enough in their strategies to accelerate, intentionally, women’s careers in STEM. I would really like to see that change.

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

This is a complex question because the ownership is at many levels. I think we need to look at how, from the early years of education, girls are being excited about and encouraged towards STEM. My own sector has a responsibility here in relation to outreach and demystifying STEM subjects and careers, fostering a sense of belonging to reduce the so-called imposter syndrome. Thereafter, employers need to take seriously the wide range of evidence of the longstanding barriers that women still experience. Stereotyping, bias, and lack of mentors and sponsors as just some examples. But, as women, I also think we need to own our seat at the table, not being cultured into putting high-profile careers as secondary to other life roles. Parents, that’s where you come in and something I have tried to instil in my daughter from the start. Close your eyes, and imagine a doctor, a scientist, and an engineer. It’s not always a man!

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, e.g. podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?  

Of late, I have really come to value the impact of networking. I was never one of the academics to register for every conference possible. Typically though I am quite extroverted. I didn’t really like walking into a room full of strangers and trying to talk to as many people as I could. But more and more I recognise how connection is everything. So, whilst I think that reading and listening are important, everyone’s flavour will be different. The power of connecting 1-1 and the opportunities this creates shouldn’t be underestimated. Even just this week, a chance conversation at a weekend conference is leading to an exciting project in the making. Connection and opportunity go hand in hand.

Read more about our inspirational women here.