Steph is Head of Manufacturers for IRI, a leading provider of big data, predictive analytics and forward-looking insights that help FMCG, health care organisations, retailers, financial services and media companies grow their businesses. 

She joined IRI from Britvic where she spent five years as head of business insight.

Before that she worked in several client leadership roles for dunnhumby after initially beginning her career on Unilever’s Future Leaders Programme.

In 2018, Steph was named by Women in Data as an inaugural member of the ‘20 in Data & Technology’ which set out to discover stories of inspiring women in data science, to tackle the issue of gender imbalance and to inspire the next generation of data science leaders.

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

After leaving Bury Grammar School with four A-levels, I later went on to study chemistry at the University of Oxford and obtained a master’s degree (MChem). From the age of 19, I became interested in rowing and I went on to represent Great Britain in the women’s senior rowing team, winning a gold medal in the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Slovenia.

In 2018, I was named by Women in Data as an inaugural member of the ‘20 in Data & Technology’ which set out to discover stories of inspiring women in data science, to tackle the issue of gender imbalance and to inspire the next generation of data science leaders.

I worked in several client leadership roles for dunnhumby after initially starting my career on Unilever’s Future Leaders Programme. I then spent five years with Britvic as Head of Business Insight before joining IRI as Head of Manufacturers. Essentially, my current role is all about relationships. My team looks after the manufacturers that sell fast-moving consumer products, such as Kraft Heinz, Mondelez and Mars Confectionery. We help them understand the performance of the market, their products, promotions, media, etc. to optimise performance and improve the offering to their shopper.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about the work we do with our clients is to allow them to make decisions faster based on the data we provide. We give them a competitive edge that allows our clients to spot opportunities faster than their competitors. Double digit growth in this industry is rare, so as in high-level sporting competition, it’s all about marginal gains and having the skills and knowledge to win.

Current projects include working with manufacturers to help them understand the impact the soon-to-be-implemented high-fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) legislation will have on retail space, in-store promotions and media planning, which includes online and TV. The data we have provides real insights and allows manufacturers and retailers to make informed decisions such as whether to reformulate product ingredients or change media buying plans. Through scenario planning we can help de-risk decisions for our clients, allowing them to spend their budgets more effectively and efficiently.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

If you had asked me at 18 years-old, what I’d end up doing, I would never in a million years believed it would be working in data and technology for one of the world’s leading providers of big data, analytics and insights. I honestly had no idea that this sort of career existed. I went to an excellent all-girls school which provided the usual sixth-form careers advice, but this was limited to traditional careers and didn’t cover the wide expanse of roles available.  Clearly this was back in the 1990s and the world has changed significantly since then, so I see a much broader spectrum of careers in the schools and colleges I visit. My career has progressed when, if ever I’ve felt that I wasn’t being challenged or I wasn’t adding value to a role, I would make a change and look for something new

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

Career challenges, or ‘mistakes’ will happen all the time but you learn from them. The way I’ve dealt with these in the past has been to face into these mistakes immediately. You have to deal with them quickly. In the world of FMCG, businesses need to be aware of the latest competitive landscape and to do that they must be agile. Being agile is also about acknowledging when you’re heading in the wrong direction and being able to change course quickly; something I’ve certainly learned from performing at high level sport. Also, having self-belief and being resilient has helped me overcome career challenges.

These skills can help you feel grounded, reveal your true capabilities and reinforce the fact that you have a voice that is worth listening to.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

That would have to be balancing a full-time, client-facing role alongside training for the GB rowing team. When I was in the team, I was also doing a full-time job in 20 hours. I was fortunate that the company I was working for at the time, allowed me to continue in the same job without changing it. Of course, there were some difficult days, but they allowed me the flexibility I needed to be successful in both my sport and my day-to-day job. I see some very talented women in FMCG but the thing that often holds them back are inflexible employers.

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

Probably learning and acknowledging when I’m operating at my best. For example, I perform well when working under pressure and I’m most productive the early morning part of the day.

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

There will always be parts of any job you don’t enjoy. Find out what you enjoy doing most and do what you can to allow you to do more of that.

It’s not necessarily what you know, but how you think and your experience that matters. Recognising that ‘you’ are the most valuable asset is key to success, and knowing that you can undertake training for areas that you don’t know. If the job feels too big, too demanding or you think it might be too overwhelming – go for it! After all, there’s no opportunity for growth in your comfort zone.

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

I do. Both schools and certain industries such as FMCG, can do more to promote the wide range of jobs available in data and technology and to encourage young women to apply for them. I think there tends to be a view that these sorts of careers in technology are heavily focussed on data science; that these jobs are ‘geeky’ and that you need to be incredibly intelligent to succeed. But of course, we are all intelligent in different ways. Schools could perhaps do a better job of explaining that there is a need for people with a variety of skill sets that would be suitable for a career in the FMCG data and technology industry.

We need to encourage more girls to take STEM subjects at school, particularly those from underrepresented groups and diverse backgrounds. For example, the STEM worker shortfall is estimated at 69,000 each year and less that 6% of UK students studying STEM subjects at university are black. There is still much work to do to attract the next generation of diverse, bright young talent into the industry.

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

Companies, particularly those in the FMCG industry, have an important part to play in attracting more numbers of young women into the technology sector. One of the simplest things they can do is to be more open minded and offer greater flexibility in terms of working hours. I see some really talented women in FMCG, but they are often hindered by inflexible working practices. The industry could also be more supportive and encouraging towards those women that are thinking about applying for senior roles, otherwise they risk being passed over. Possessing a lack of confidence can be a big issue for many women when faced with such decisions. Companies could do more to address this such as offering supportive peer networks and mentoring programmes. I think there’s still a considerable amount of unconscious bias within the industry which no doubt can be off-putting for large parts of the potential candidate pool.

Also, the data and technology sector has historically been portrayed as being very ‘data heavy’. Certainly, within the FMCG sector what we’re ultimately talking about is people. We analyse how consumers behave; what purchases they make and why; where they shop and their reaction to media advertising.

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?

Gender is the most obvious diversity factor because it’s usually fairly visible. Whether it’s your ethnic or social background, age, sexuality, having that diversity is crucially important in any modern workplace. Certainly, within FMCG, having a female voice at a senior level is important. In data and technology, women do think and behave differently. These should be seen as positive attributes and employers in technology should embrace and promote these differences as much as possible. The importance of gender parity and diversity that seeks to understand the lives of millions of people cannot be overstated. Having more women employed in data and technology industries can, for example, be extremely useful when creating research algorithms, building models and generating insights, all of which take into account the experiences of over half the population.

But also, according to research, women are statistically far more likely to put their hand up and ask a question that men in the room don’t particularly want to ask. For lots of reasons I think having a gender balance and therefore encouraging more women into technology is really important even just for that difference in thinking and adopting a different approach towards problem solving.

Women need to challenge businesses on how different job roles can be delivered by working more flexibly. What the global pandemic has demonstrated is that flexible, remote working does work. With many employers now offering this as a permanent benefit, the playing field is become more level. A flexible, more inclusive and diverse organisation helps future growth and prosperity and it’s one that partners, investors, consumers and employees have come to expect.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Women in Data UK is the UK’s largest female data professional network and event.  It provides a platform for female and gender diverse data professionals to share their technical knowledge and experiences and aims to encourage more diverse representation in the industry.

The Female Lead was founded by Edwina Dunn OBE. She is a data science entrepreneur who co-founded Tesco’s Clubcard, so she knows first-hand what it feels like to work in a male-dominated industry and what it takes to navigate the many obstacles women have faced.  She set up The Female Lead to celebrate women’s stories, and showcase the lesser-known successes of women, in order to support and encourage the next generation.

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