group of young multiethnic diverse people gesture hand high five, laughing and smiling together in brainstorm meeting at office, company culture

For boosting gender diversity in STEM, confidence is key

group of young multiethnic diverse people gesture hand high five, laughing and smiling together in brainstorm meeting at office, company culture

By Aimée Williams, vice president of content, consumer & business services division at IDA Ireland

Organisations may be starting to recognise that gender diversity is key to success, but the bigger question is why we don’t see more females in executive and senior leadership teams.

The New York Times reported in 2015 that there were more large companies run by CEOs called John than women CEOs. Since then, a report conducted in late 2018 shows that, despite female CEOs driving more value appreciation and improved stock price momentum for their firms, there was still a male-to-female ratio of 19:1 for CEOs. Attitudes towards women in business may have evolved over the last few years but not enough; there is still a vast underrepresentation of females in key executive positions. When looking at the proportion of women in top leadership positions in STEM, the difference becomes even greater.

The main challenge with increasing gender diversity in STEM senior leadership roles is more about encouraging women to work in STEM full stop, which needs to be addressed at a young age. A survey of more than 2,500 schoolgirls in Ireland revealed that 85 per cent of girls say they would like to know more about STEM or STEM careers, and interestingly, 93 per cent of teachers surveyed ranked self-belief in the girls’ ability as a major challenge to the promotion of STEM. To overcome this, we need to showcase the diversity of roles that come from STEM careers, tell the stories of successful women, have the opportunities seen and develop the confidence in the younger generation so that they see a career in science or technology as an exciting, diverse and rewarding journey.

If I reflect on my own experiences at school, I was definitely not aware of the career opportunities in STEM or the rising presence of technology companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple in Ireland. In truth, I never set out for a career in the technology industry; I didn’t feel good enough at maths and science in school. Routes into STEM are varied though and it’s important that young girls and women know this so that they don’t block themselves from opportunities where they could succeed and feel fulfilled, whether that’s in STEM or not.

For me, studying international business and languages at university, which included a year’s study abroad in France, truly opened my mind to different cultures and new ways of thinking and engaging with others. It encouraged me to step out me out of my comfort zone, which helped me to start building my networking capabilities – something that has been a huge benefit in my career.

My involvement in the technology industry started while working at IDA Ireland, the Irish Government’s agency for foreign direct investment (FDI). Our job is to partner with multinational companies of all sizes, in helping them leverage Ireland for business support growth opportunities. Technology companies – be they enterprise tech, edtech, travel tech, sports tech or consumer tech – are one of the core focuses of our business. Over the past 10 years I have worked in attracting some of the world’s most innovative companies to Ireland, whilst also supporting many of our existing technology companies to scale and expand mandates in Ireland.

Like a lot of women, at varying stages confidence in my abilities has been the biggest inhibitor during my career, despite having terrific male and female managers who have supported its growth and pushed me onwards. I’ve found that confidence builds through action, and sometimes the best way to overcome a lack of self-confidence is by adopting a ‘just do it’ attitude. It takes constant investment, resilience and focus to keep building and growing.

Not coming from a tech background, it was daunting at times to find myself face to face with founders, CEOs and CTOs of tech companies, where I needed to understand their business in order to identify a solution. To overcome this, I went out and sought knowledge. I spoke to friends who were software developers or other IT experts and asked them to explain to me how all the pieces of tech fit together. I also read up on articles talking about software-as-a-service (SaaS) models and attended tech conferences to expand my knowledge and boost my self-confidence.

Investing in growing my confidence and knowledge has also helped me to tackle other challenges that many women working in STEM often face, such as being listened to in meetings. There have been many times where my ideas haven’t been considered and then, frustratingly, the chosen idea is flawed in many ways and does not represent the best option. As I have grown in experience and confidence with speaking up, I’ve learned how to deal with this. My advice to women in this situation would be to highlight the positive parts of the idea and ask more about the delivery of the solution to establish how the outcomes will ultimately help to achieve the end goal. The purpose of this is to have my voice heard, present an alternative option, but also contribute with ideas, so that a blended and optimal solution is reached.

It’s important for women to work in all industries across all functions and sectors, but mostly to work in roles they enjoy, that challenge them, that help them grow. We know that diversity of thought, approaches and experiences only add value to companies, and this equally applies to STEM careers. I’ve never put definitions around what I wanted to be when I “grow up”, other than being successful in my chosen career, and keeping that broad mindset has facilitated my career in successfully adapting to work across multiple sectors, cultures, personalities and size of companies.

Overall, I would advise women to share what they want to achieve – it’s surprising how many people will support and help them get there. By pushing myself to be curious, asking for help and surrounding myself with positive energy, my confidence and career has significantly grown and allowed me to deal with challenging situations.

About the author

Aimée WilliamsIDA Ireland Aimée has over 17 years of working in the fast-paced Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) industry and her experience spans a diverse range of sectors including technology, consumer products & services, engineering, life sciences, start-ups and clean technology across international territories. Currently based in the Digital Technology Division at IDA Ireland’s global HQ in Dublin, Aimée is responsible for promoting Ireland as an international investment location, as well as supporting the EMEA Leadership teams of existing clients. At present, Aimée’s focus spans across the content platform technologies, consumer tech, consumer products and business services sectors, working with North American fast growing, mid and enterprise size multinational clients as they develop international growth and talent strategies. Prior to this Aimée spent 5 years working with early-stage companies from all across the US and Europe as they scaled internationally and built-out growth strategies for EMEA. Aimée has also spent three and a half years on an international assignment at IDA Ireland’s Paris office, can speak French and has a BA in International Business and Languages. Aimée currently sits on the Board of the Digital Hub Development Agency.

Laoise McCluskey featured

Inspirational Woman: Laoise McCluskey | VP Europe Content, Consumer & Business Services, IDA Ireland

Laoise McCluskeyLaoise is VP Europe & UK in IDA Ireland’s Content Consumer and Business Services Division. 

IDA is the Irish government’s inward investment promotion agency with responsibility for attracting and developing foreign investment into Ireland. As VP for Europe & UK, Laoise oversees a client portfolio of more than 60 international companies with operations in Ireland; and has responsibility for driving new business development across the region. Prior to assuming her current role in January 2016, Laoise spent over 6 years managing corporate client relationships with key strategic IDA clients in technology, digital media & games from West Coast, US.  Prior to that, Laoise spend 3 years managing key relationship with global business services clients.

Laoise has extensive experience in helping global companies leverage Ireland as part of their internationalisation strategy and she has played a key role in shaping and delivering new value propositions to clients in emerging sectors and activities, most notably in global business services, and digital media & games. She has also represented IDA on a Government-led cluster development initiative (for Games) to support industry needs in Ireland.  With over 27 years’ experience working in IDA and associated agencies, Laoise has also held roles in marketing, legal, and facilities management.

Laoise is a previous Board member of Forfás Credit Union, holds a Degree in Business Studies, is a graduate of the Irish Management Institute, and holds an ACCA Diploma in Accounting and Finance.

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

It surprises me a little when people describe themselves through the lens of what they do rather than who they are.  My start is my core; I’m a Dubliner, a wife, and a mom of four kids ranging in age from five to fifteen years old, working full-time.  So a quiet life! I’ve a Degree in Business Studies, Business Strategy, and a Diploma in Accounting and Finance. I have over 27 years of industry experience. That experience started at the lowest rung on the ladder as a secretary but included marketing, legal, tech, and business development, building to where I am today. I’m currently VP Europe & UK, Content Consumer and Business Services at IDA Ireland. It’s a long title, but essentially, I’m responsible for driving all FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) into Ireland from European and UK companies for my sector which means I help companies in technology, business, and consumer markets understand why Ireland is  an excellent location in which to expand their operations.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve always envied people with a plan who’ve instinctively known their future path, mine wasn’t the most direct! I originally wanted to be a primary school teacher. I was gifted an opportunity to work with a friend who was a teacher, basically subbing in a primary school for two months. I really enjoyed it, but quickly realised I’d probably burn out after a few years, so it wasn’t a long-term career, for me at least. I then pivoted, changing my college options to marketing and business.  But before I started, I was offered a job as a secretary and decided to take it, defer college, gain work experience and study by night instead. My logic was that the blend of on-the-job training and experience coupled with my degree would position me better and get me where I wanted to go faster.

I always assumed there’d be another twist in the road, and that I’d be a founder of a small online business someday.  It may still happen, but for now, I love what I do, and I think you need to love what you do to stay committed, motivated and to succeed.  I’m fortunate that I get to work with companies across some 25+ sectors, striving to be best in class on a multiple-function basis, and all operating different business models. That plus the potential to support their continued growth in Ireland is really interesting to me.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

I’m starting to think this piece is up there on the challenges list - looking inward to answer these questions isn’t as easy as you might think!  Looking back, I didn’t take the most expedient route in terms of my career and in many ways wish I did accept my college offer, get my degree, and then join the workforce as a graduate. Instead, I chose to work my way up and study by night.  At the time, I didn’t realise that many people saw a direct correlation between a person’s job title and their capability which, for a very long time, limited my options and my ability to grow. It was a hard reality because I knew I had decidedly more to offer.  So, I sought to move roles and work with a leader I knew saw the world differently, worked incredibly hard and pursued opportunities to prove myself and my potential worth at every opportunity. That’s when the opportunities started to come my way and my confidence started to regrow. Thankfully today, organisations are far more in tune with all forms of bias and leaders generally are better equipped to harness, support, and grow talent. I think my journey and the supports and barriers I experienced really shaped who I am, who I want to be, and how I choose to lead.  I’m hoping I’m a better and more empathetic leader for it.

The other relentless challenge for all working moms, I think, is striving to find the balance between juggling the multitudes of demands and not letting the guilt take over when you don’t quite get it right. That one will always be a work in progress.

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

I think my top tips to excel would be the same whether it’s a tech role or a non-tech role.  First be authentic, be true to yourself. Second, excelling in any career is difficult, so pick your ‘hard’. Choose a tech role (or non-role) that you really enjoy doing, one that you are prepared to work hard at and that you’re motivated to do.

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

For me mentoring is an incredibly powerful process for both the mentee and the mentor when it’s done right, regardless of whether it’s a formal or informal programme, though formal mentorship teams are more common now. I know I would’ve benefited from it early in my career, in terms of accelerating my advancement, and have personally found value in it since. In my view mentoring works best when there’s mutual respect, trust, a sense of shared values, two-way commitment, and above all, great communication. Only when you have these can you have an honest conversation that’s reciprocated in support of deeper self-knowledge and growth. I’ve engaged in mentoring and coaching at different points in time and for varying durations. Honestly, it’s probably one of the most rewarding experiences a leader can partake in, and you come away with a sense of pride and achievement, stronger communication skills, and a deeper understanding of people and their perspective.

What do you want to see happen within the next five years when it comes to diversity?

It would be great to reach a point where the need to highlight diversity is diminished or extinguished, not because of any sense of reduced importance, but because we FINALLY reach a point where diversity, in all its forms, is inherent in our being, how we behave as individuals towards others, and is inbuilt in the fabric of organisations. But, knowing that’s some way off yet - in terms of all areas of diversity – everyone, particularly leaders, have an obligation as individuals to strive for a more inclusive society and working environment. To speak up and not settle. Leadership is a key enabler to change and organisational leadership should reflect its teammates, the communities in which it operates, and the customers they aim to serve and win.

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

I’m not sure there is any one thing. For every woman and every generation there are different factors and environments at play.  For me, and many women of my generation it was/is a confidence or a belief issue.  I’m not sure it’s the same for younger women in the main. I look at younger women in awe and with a sense of true satisfaction at the confidence many of them display.  What isn’t as prolific, female leaders or role models that emulate the right culture, a supportive culture for female colleagues in terms of assisting and celebrating achievements but also in enabling women to be comfortable in bringing their whole selves to the table – not just the image that they think they need to portray to succeed. Until we see increased female leadership that embraces authenticity, the cycle will never change.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Wow, that’s a tough one, I’m not even sure I can point to any specific one because every achievement, every experience large or small has propelled me forward in terms of who I am, and where I am today.  I guess securing my first business development role was a turning point because I was swimming against the tide for so long, that when I landed it, it was pretty sweet! All that has happened since, every opportunity, every success, stems from that win.  But I also think the failures are as important as the achievements because of the learning and growth opportunities they provide.  On a personal level, it has to be my family.

There is currently only 17% 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?

Increasing the percentage of women in tech is multifaceted. First the importance of STEM subjects and the potential career paths available needs to be communicated in a more effective way and at a much earlier stage. In Ireland today we have some 42 initiatives to attract and retain girls and women in STEM – and we’ve more to do. Second, companies need to create more flexible roles to enable greater female participation. Third, there needs to be increased promotion of women into leadership roles for several reasons. Increasingly in the current environment companies are looking to harness low touch competencies, sometimes over product knowledge, including problem solving, adaptability, learnability, connected leadership, and player coaching.  By promoting more women to leadership roles, it creates a pathway for all women to succeed, and of course, a more diverse leadership will positively impact future hiring and retention.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My current challenge is trying to stay off chocolate in the middle of a global pandemic in an effort to be the best role-model at home (!) … not sure I’ll succeed. Professionally, I’m still trying to figure that one out if I’m honest.  Right now, my focus is on supporting my clients, some of whom are facing some of the greatest challenges their industries have faced in decades. As in all things though, in times of crisis or recovery, there’s an increased focus on research, development and innovation in terms of products, delivery, and processes etc. and my job or challenge is to demonstrate how Ireland and its talent base can make that happen and support them.

I also think the current pandemic offers opportunities in terms of the future of the workforce and workplace with organisations and employees seeking to embrace a more blended approach – particularly with technology. This blended approach (including remote working) could be a real opportunity to increase female participation in higher value tech roles that, to date, weren’t within reach due to location or broader circumstances.  I’d really like to explore this.

Personally, I also want to take up something creative, art or sewing perhaps, something that’s not in my comfort zone.

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