Article by Sinead O’Donnell is Director Human Resources at Raytheon UK

Girls in techLots of children will remember a “big bang” moment from their youth, when the world exploded into excitement, chock-full of possibilities.

That moment might be sparked by a shared experience, a new moment of learning or – in my case – a gift that spoke to a new world of technology.

Even now, I distinctly remember unwrapping my Sinclair Spectrum 48K computer, complete with a full suite of games and a manual the size of a telephone book.

I was just 10 years old at the time, and although it was a big unwieldy thing, it felt like the stuff of dreams. Whilst my siblings and friends were desperate to play the games, I was desperate to grasp how it all worked.

From the outside, it all seemed so mysterious, but there was clearly some wonderful technology at play here. And if I could understand it, who knows what it could do or what could happen? It was a lot for me to contemplate but it helped that I had some wonderful people around me to help ask the right questions.

I had a fabulous maths teacher at the all-girls grammar school I attended. She encouraged her students to think outside the box and to apply maths in our everyday lives. She also introduced a GCSE in Computers to the school, and I was therefore able to study for that and a Computer Science A-level.

The strong support and encouragement at school meant that I was not aware that tech was often considered a “masculine” profession. But I was one of just seven women on my Computer Science course at university – out of 70!

I didn’t know it at the time, but the Spectrum computer represented my first steps towards a lifelong love of technology and a career that has revolved around those early questions: How does it work? Can I understand it? What if I did this?

These questions played a vital role in my former role as a software engineer and are still relevant as I lead human resources for Raytheon UK. Even in a role that is ostensibly less technical, I’m still using the same engineering and development mindset. That might mean understanding how and where to add value, or agreeing requirements up front, and making sure to support creativity within the framework of what the deliverables should be.

We’re always looking to continually improve our HR offering and being an engineer has undoubtedly helped me to have a better understanding of how HR adds value across our organisation and the defence sector more broadly. But do many other girls and women understand that a background in technology or software development can take you beyond the obvious tech jobs like coding?

The variety of careers available to women who have a background in STEM is hardly obvious. Ultimately you can’t be what you can’t see. Although I was oblivious as a child and young adult about the gender divide in technology, it became obvious that I was in a minority when I undertook an industrial placement during my third year of university.

After a month of being treated differently on the placement- being asked, for example, to undertake more administrative tasks than my peers- I explained to my boss that the status quo was failing to teach me anything of value and could leave me unable to either to complete my degree and or become employable in my chosen field. It might sound extreme but this approach paid off– my boss became a great mentor and helped me learn how to navigate office politics.

In HR, a key part of my role is to enable entry points into STEM for women later in their careers. I have taken on as a personal challenge to ensure that we are giving a new generation of female talent a sturdy leg up. We need to mentor the next generation of women in tech by reaching out, sharing our experiences and offering networking opportunities. We must challenge unconscious bias where we see it.

I’m proud to be the executive sponsor of Raytheon Women’s Network. Open to all employees – male or female – we work to address common issues in the workplace and to encourage greater equality, not only tech, but in all roles.

I hope these efforts will help broaden the tech talent pipeline. Because we don’t just need more women in tech, we want more women with technical mindsets in other roles too. Let’s strive to spark those “big bang” moments in the next generation of young girls.

Sinead O'DonnellAbout the author

Sinead read Computer Science at the University of Ulster, before spending over a decade working in software engineering.

In 2007, she transitioned into a more HR focused role. Today, she is the UK Director of HR at defence and cybersecurity firm Raytheon.

On Wednesday 22 January, Raytheon will be sponsoring the inaugural ADS Women in Aerospace and Defence Summit, as part of its commitment to promoting greater diversity within the sector.