woman coding on laptop, Code First Girls

A job in data and technology might not be the first choice for many young people, particularly women, looking for their first step on the career ladder.

However, Head of Manufacturers Steph Cullen, at IRI, and former gold medallist rower for team GB, discusses how schools and the fast-moving, consumer goods (FMCG) industry can take action to help more young women navigate a successful course into a data-led career.

Despite not having any real clue about what I wanted to do when I left school, I was the kind of person who believed that the right opportunity would present itself if I just continued to do what I enjoyed most. I was good at chemistry and maths so I pursued these subjects. While at university I realised that I particularly enjoyed the subjective element of numbers and how the interpretation of data could generate all sorts of interesting stories.

I think schools and colleges these days are doing a much better job at guiding young people into jobs. Encouraging pupils to attend career fairs and having people from different industries come into schools and share their experience is a useful way of discovering the different types of jobs available. However, when it comes to areas such as data and technology, I think there tends to be a view that these sorts of careers 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.

I’m not a tech geek. What I do find fascinating though is what data can tell us and how insights can provide us with a wide range of information that can impact and improve our lives. That’s the amazing part of working with data; it touches everybody and it’s relevant to everyone.

Most people don’t realise it, but we use big data and technology every single day. Whether it’s using ‘tap and go’ contactless payments with our bank card or spending points on our supermarket loyalty cards. For example, the amount of data and technology that goes in to determining which products appear on our supermarket shelves is mind blowing. Millions of people shop online now, which has increased significantly during the pandemic. The fact we can order just about anything and have it delivered to our doors within 24 hours is all down to how data and technology work together.

Transferable skills to help you succeed

There are many transferable skills that you can pick up at school, college or university that will enable you to pursue a successful career, including one in data and technology. Here are my top three:

  1. Self-belief – Knowing that if you put your mind to something and consistently show up every day with that goal in mind, you can pretty much achieve anything. It’s not about being at your best every single day; it’s not about never making mistakes. For example, if you’re feeling 4 out of 10 one day, as long as you show up with that and do what you can with it, that’s the most important thing. You’ll still end up being further on than you would have been had you just not shown up. Do I walk into high-level board meetings feeling 100% confident all the time? No, not at all. But what I do have is self-belief. This enables me to feel grounded, reminds me of what I’m actually capable of and that I have a voice that is worth listening to.
  2. Resilience – As a former elite athlete and GB rower, having resilience was essential. Performance at this level entails constant knock backs, failures and losing by the slimmest of margins. From an early age we’re taught that we don’t always win in life and can’t always get our own way. It’s the same in business and in sport it can be brutal. Having the resilience to accept failure as an everyday part of life and learning how to bounce back from it is an important skill worth having.
  1. Teamwork – Don’t fear or resent being the most junior or least experienced member of a team, because it means you’re going to learn, grow and benefit from those stronger, more experienced players around you, enabling you to progress faster. As in sport, teamwork is essential in business. A crucial part of putting together a successful team is recognising that we all have different strengths and weaknesses and that everybody has a different role to play. A team of people that can offer different experiences, views, opinions and ways of doing things are ultimately more likely to win.

As well as schools, the FMCG industry also has an important part to play in attracting more numbers of young women into the sector. One of the simplest things it 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. Offering supportive peer networks and mentoring programmes are just a few examples of how the industry can help support those employees lacking in confidence.

Discover what you enjoy doing most

As with most jobs, there are some parts that you’re not going to enjoy doing. My advice would be to not look for a job, but first discover what it is you enjoy doing most and then find a job that delivers this on most days. If you’re excited by numbers and data then immerse yourself in relevant events, films, books, TED Talks etc. that explain how important data is and how it operates in today’s fast-paced digital world.

The other thing to remember is that nothing is permanent. You don’t have to decide, for example, at the age of 20 that the first job you land will be the one for life. You can change your mind at any time. When I was younger, I didn’t love doing anything in particular. I found a job and just thought to myself I’ll keep doing this until it stops being interesting.

Children at every level of education should be encouraged to cultivate an interest in STEM, but particularly girls given their under-representation in these subjects. To do this schools must demonstrate how STEM can empower girls, women and gender diverse individuals to be agents of change.

Women have a role to play in all areas of data and technology and the current under-representation of women risks losing the experiences and perspectives of over half the population to the detriment of our industry.

About the author

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.

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