Meet Emma Presley Abbott, Deputy Director at DWP Digital

Emma Presley Abbott

Emma currently works as Deputy Director within Data and Analytics at DWP Digital as Head of Enterprise Insight.In this piece, we talk about her career, her advice to her younger self and why it's important that we accelerate the pace of change for women in the technology industry.

I’ve recently started a new role as Deputy Director within Data and Analytics at DWP Digital as Head of Enterprise Insight.

Essentially, this means I’m responsible for the department’s Enterprise Reporting Service and data platform that provides a set of reporting services and solutions. This enables all colleagues across the department to be able to use data to support their decision-making. Prior to this role, I was Data Lead and Head of Data Science for the Universal Credit programme, also within DWP.

Previously, I worked as a consultant data scientist in the private sector. I’m also a mathematician by training and a self-confessed nerd.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t necessarily sit down and plan my career, however I make lots of time for regular reflection. I think about what I’m enjoying or not and what I would like to do next, either within my current role or maybe my next role. However, I don’t really think much further ahead than that.

I guess it was that kind of thinking that brought me to the Civil Service. During my time in the private sector, I loved the variety of data and projects I worked on and using data to solve business challenges. However, I found I wasn’t motivated by the purpose and reflecting on that was the motivation that I needed to move into the Civil Service and end up at DWP Digital.

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

Working in a range of different organisations has meant that I’ve had to get to grips with a range of different coding languages and technologies. It can take a bit of time to get up to speed and can make you feel like a newbie all over again. Dealing with that kind of challenge has given me a broader appreciation and understanding of a range of different technologies and that’s really beneficial to my role today.

Another challenge I would say I’ve faced is the journey of evolving from being a technical practitioner into a leadership role. This can be quite hard because they require very different skill sets. At times it still feels like a work in progress, but again taking time to recognise the progress that I’ve made and thinking about what I enjoy and what I want to do next has really helped.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I’m pleased to say I’ve done a lot of exciting things during my career. However, one of the things I’m most proud of is in my previous role, when I was Head of the Data Science team for Universal Credit. When I first joined that team, it was a small group of really smart people just delivering ad-hoc pieces of work. Over time, I worked to create a fundamental shift in the organisational structure of the Universal Credit programme to turn Data Science into a core role within all of Universal Credit’s digital development teams.

That’s not something you can achieve overnight. It took quite a lot of hard work and tenacity to change people’s minds about the value and use of data in decision making, but ultimately moving to that new organisational structure meant that the Universal Credit programme was ready to respond to the unexpected and urgent challenges brought about by the onset of the COVID pandemic.

My team of data scientists felt empowered to collaborate across multiple different professions they were working with to quickly prototype and build innovative user-centric data science products. This enabled a rapid response to some of the challenges Universal Credit was facing as a result of the pandemic and enabled us to use data to direct support to citizens who were vulnerable and most in need. That was pretty cool.

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

I would say caring deeply about the people that I work with. Working in a technology- or data-focused role, if you were to suddenly remove all the people that worked in a team, everything would fall apart. I don’t think you can achieve success without making sure that your team feels motivated by the work they do and acknowledged and supported by you as a leader.

Emma Presley Abbott

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

As I mentioned, I’m quite a reflective person. I find the opportunity to discuss things that I’m finding challenging really beneficial. I have three mentors at the moment, and I connected with them recently through my application process for the Senior Civil Service and from different areas from data across DWP. They’re all amazing women and having the opportunity to discuss my problems and challenges with different and fresh perspectives is truly invaluable.

I think it is also important to make sure you make the most of your mentor’s time and it forces you to sit down and think about what you want to discuss. What challenges are you facing? What are the things that you want to seek help and support with? And I think encouraging that kind of regular reflective thinking is really beneficial.

I’ve been a mentor as well, usually to women within the data sector. I love being able to do the same thing for others, supporting other women to work through their own challenges and journeys, and encouraging them to think about the sort of roles and projects they’re genuinely passionate about.

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

I applied for my current Deputy Director position whilst I was on maternity leave, after having my first baby. I was overwhelmed with the encouragement and support from my Director and mentors who took the time to support me through the application process. I found out I was successful whilst I was on maternity leave and was able to return to work in DWP Digital on a promotion. My advice to companies wanting to support women is to not forget about women who are on maternity leave, as this is a clear statement of support to all women in the workforce, whatever their choices.

It’s also important that organisations create a network of support and provide a safe space where colleagues can come together to discuss issues with other people who understand. That’s why at DWP Digital, we’ve recently started a ‘Women in Data’ network, where we can openly have these discussions.

There is 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?

The thing that I say most often to people and it’s to ‘just do it’. Just do that one small thing, because lots and lots of micro-actions will always add up. An example I often give is speaking out if something doesn’t look or feel right. It’s a quick and easy way to bring everyone’s attention to the issue of gender equality.

I was on an interview panel a few years ago for data scientists. I was the only woman on the panel, and I was the only one that noticed that out of the 15 candidates we interviewed only one of them was a woman. And that woman was incredible and she got the job. But it was just such a shame that we didn’t have equal representation among the candidates that we were interviewing.

Unfortunately, nobody else had noticed, because I think you don’t always see what doesn’t affect you. But for me, it was an easy thing to just point out the fact that we didn’t have gender balance within our pool of interview candidates.

Since then, there’s been a lot of work going on from the DWP Digital data practice as a whole to review our overall recruitment practices and processes. This has led to a lot of changes and improvements. We’ve seen significant improvements in the gender balance of our applicants and interview candidates since then and look forward to seeing even more improvements over the next few years.

So, I would say that comes from doing one easy thing and pointing out when things don’t look or feel quite right. You don’t have to do it all yourself.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Figure out what you believe in and work hard for that. It’s the best way to stay motivated.

What is your next challenge?

I’m enjoying my current challenge in my new role as Deputy Director, as I’m only a few weeks in. I would love for the Enterprise Reporting Service that I’m responsible for to be ubiquitous in decision making at all levels and across all services within DWP. That’s quite a challenge, but I set my sights high.