Emma Horsfall

I’m Emma Horsfall, I’ve been working for Barclays for 14 years. My career at the bank began with me as an admin assistant, but I soon moved to work within the branch network and now working as part of the Digital Eagle team.

While working in the branch I signed up to become a Digital Eagle. This gave me the opportunity to help people – which is something I’ve always felt really passionate about. I specialised in teaching digital skills to people with disabilities and people who were unemployed and struggling to find work. To help them, I created work experience programmes, which helped to change the way employers look at employing people with disabilities. The programme was a huge success and remains one of my career highlights – seeing a group of people who are autistic or have Down syndrome thriving while working the line in a busy fine dining restaurant made me feel so proud.

Working in a branch, you get to meet lots of different people. I had a customer who came in weekly who is deaf. It felt rude talking to him via scraps of paper, so I took the plunge and signed up to learn British Sign Language (BSL) at night school, where I studied for two years. Word soon spread throughout the deaf community, and more and more deaf people came to our branch for support.

It was this work that caught the attention of the Digital Eagle team, and I was offered a training and development role within the team. My job is to teach a group of our Digital Eagles, based around the country, BSL and to create a learning module to help more colleagues learn the basics. The work I’m doing allows Digital Eagles, all over the country and in different roles, to better support our deaf customers and to help the deaf community boost their digital skills.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve never sat down and planned out my career. I got married and had children when I was very young, and although I wouldn’t change that, it put my ideas of going to university on hold. I’ve always had a passion to help and support people as much as I can, particularly those groups that tend to be forgotten or left by the wayside. Having a disability myself, I know how that feels – so that’s definitely propelled by career direction and the decisions I’ve made throughout my career.

Once my children hit their teens – my eldest is 21 now – I felt more able to concentrate on my own career and think about the work that was important to me. It was at this point that I started getting involved in more things at Barclays – like becoming a Digital Eagle. I also chair the Reach medical and physical focus group – which I’m incredibly proud to be part of.

 I’d still love to study and get a degree – but I can’t decide what to study.

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

There have of course been challenges along the way. No one’s life or career is completely plain sailing, but I feel it’s our attitude towards challenges that helps to shape us and the direction our career takes.

When my eldest daughter was 15 she was diagnosed with a blood condition. Later she chose a career as a pastry chef – which she loved. As a result of her condition she developed an issue with her wrists and after several corrective surgeries she needed to change the career she’d chosen. She was devastated and struggled terribly. On two occasions, she tried to take her own life. It was an incredibly difficult time for us all and part of my passion for helping people with disabilities comes from my determination to show her that living with a disability doesn’t need to hold you back in life.

I’ve had career challenges of my own. The perception that you must have a qualification to be successful has hindered job applications for me, often not even progressing to interview. But that teams loss is another teams gain and I won’t let their preconceived ideas of what success should look like affect my believe in my own ability.

When I was diagnosed with cancer my sickness record at work took a subsequent, inevitable hit. I wanted to continue to work as much as I could but that meant many short periods of absence on my work records. I felt it was important for me to continue to work, to show people in similar situations how hard work and determination could help them, and to make sure I was there to support them through difficult situations. I was often told that my illness would prevent me from progressing in my career, and that I’d be held back to have a least a full year without surgeries or time off before being allowed to apply or new roles. I’ve never let anything hold me back and continued to move forward with the same drive and determination I’ve always had.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’m in the very privileged position of struggling to choose my biggest career achievement.

I suppose there’s a mixture of three things. As a Digital Eagle, one of the key programmes we work on is Code Playground, which helps children – predominantly in key stage 2 – learn the basics of coding. I put together a team of people to help me create a coding device that allows blind or partially sighted children to learn how to code just like their classmates. Learning to code is a huge part of future proofing children’s futures and I didn’t want anyone to be left behind. Creating the Megabit won me the top Women in Tech award in 2018, something I’m hugely proud of.

I’ve also worked as part of the transgender taskforce, helping to change the way that we identify and behave towards LGBTQ+ customers and colleagues. That work earned our team a diversity award in 2018. In that same year, I also won an award for my work as a business impact champion.

I’ve also had the pleasure of representing Barclays as part of a panel discussion at the Houses of Parliament on International Day of the Disabled Person to talk about my experiences, which was massive highlight.

Finally – I know this is technically the fourth thing – joining the Digital Eagle team became a coveted role for me, so being asked to be part of it is up there with my biggest achievements.

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

I put my success down to my determination to show my daughter that life can be amazing with or without a disability and that having a disability doesn’t mean being stuck behind a desk or sat at home. She’s now working, studying for a degree and happily engaged to a lovely man. She’s even started giving talks to parents whose children have also tried to commit suicide.

Knowing that the work I’ve done has inspired her to help people too has been a huge force continuing to drive me forward. The work I do has a clear and tangible benefit to people, from building digital skills and teaching BSL, you can see the difference it makes almost instantly, that’s incredibly rewarding.

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

My biggest tip for success is to never stop learning and never stop believing in yourself. Set your sights on what you want to achieve and just go for it. If you don’t know how, learn how. Pick up a book, go to ngiht school, search the internet, find the answer. We all begin knowing nothing. There’s no such thing as can’t. if you want to do something, you can find a way to do it.

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

I think there will always be barriers to success for lots of people, but do you know what? You just have to prove people wrong. If you really want to do something, then put your mind to it and do it. Be the person who puts themselves forward and gets involved. It’s never crossed my mind that I shouldn’t do something because I’m a woman. And I would never let my gender dictate what I can and can’t achieve, because I don’t let my gender dictate what I’m capable of, I’ve noticed others don’t either.

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

I’ve been lucky to work with brilliant innovators, role models and leaders during my time with Barclays. Some have been men and some have been women, and I’ve learned something from them all. I do think Barclays stands out as a leader in its field when it comes to equality in general. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some truly inspirational female leaders in my time here who are paving the way for other women coming up the ranks.

There is currently on 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?

If I had a magic wand, I’d give every woman the confidence to know that their gender can’t hold them back. I’d let them know – and make the believe – that there is a role for them in the tech industry. I think it’s that belief that’s holding us back, and so believing in yourself is the only way to accelerate the pace of change in the industry.  I think our ability to believe is affected by our experiences in life. I’ve never lived a life with stereotypical gender roles – when our children were little, my husband stayed home and I went to work – so it is easier for me to push through those barriers. But, belief is the key. Whatever your experience, keep going and know that you are strong amazing, powerful and capable humans and can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t look back, only look forward to what you’re going to achieve.


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