I recently attended Women In Digital 2019, an annual conference hosted by DWP Digital, aimed at bringing together a range of voices from across the digital sector in order to champion better gender balance within the industry.
The Importance of Warmth
The day began with a keynote delivered by Cheryl Stevens, Deputy Director at DWP Digital. Her speech, The Importance of Warmth, discussed the difficulties she faced in returning to work after a year-long period spent battling a serious illness. I found this talk to be both incredibly moving and extremely important.
Stevens talked about how the after-effects of her illness made actually doing her day job much more challenging, even after being signed off to return to work. She discussed the additional difficulties around returning to work in the tech sector specifically, and how the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of the industry made her feel as though she was returning to a company and a job role that had evolved without her. Finally, she talked about how she overcame all of these challenges and re-learned how to succeed in her role.
The most important take-away point from the talk was that neither admitting you need help, nor asking for help, is a weakness. We are all only human, with our only-human limitations, and – even in the workplace – it’s absolutely OK to not be OK.
Following the keynote and a quick break, we chose two breakout sessions to attend from the three on offer. (I chose to give the Demystifying Coding session a miss – one Computer Science Master’s and two years software engineering experience later, and if anything, I think I’d prefer coding to be a little more mystified at this point…).
Setting up a Network to Support Women in Tech
This session was run by several representatives from Northcoders, a company who provide 12-week “coding bootcamps” in the Manchester and Leeds areas.
The breakout session began with us being presented several prompts written on large pieces of paper – things like “What barriers do you face when working towards your career goals?” or “What does your company do to improve diversity?”. We went round each prompt, writing some of our thoughts and opinions on Post-Its, and then discussed the answers as a group.
I found the group discussion to be really interesting, as it highlighted just how many people had run into the same problems again and again at their places of work. However, it was important that the session be constructive, not just a chance to have a bit of a collective grumble. To this effect, we brainstormed ideas on how to tackle some of the most common problems.
It was also important that the solutions we came up with for some of these problems weren’t tailored exclusively towards women. For example, one of the recurring things that cropped up was that the women in the room often felt like they were talked over or ignored in meetings, or didn’t have the self-confidence to speak up in meetings at all. This particular problem could (and does) just as easily apply to more junior developers or members of staff, female or otherwise. Something that Northcoders do at present to tackle this specific issue is to run communications workshops, open to all their staff and students.
Finding our Digital Voice
The Finding our Digital Voice breakout session consisted of a series of short talks given by three participants of the DWP Digital Digital Voices programme. The programme aims to help women in the organisation grow their confidence, and to become advocates and role models for other women and girls looking to enter the tech industry.
The thing that struck me the most about the Digital Voices talks was just how brave and how honest the speakers were. They talked about their personal journeys and the things that led them to take part in Digital Voices. They spoke about facing down imposter syndrome and a crippling lack of self-confidence; about applying for non-technical roles that they were well over-qualified for because they didn’t believe they had what it took to succeed in tech; about trying to find their way back into the tech industry after bereavement.
The breakout session clearly highlighted the value of a programme like Digital Voices, and the impact it can have on its participants. I – and, I should think, most people – can’t imagine the idea of standing up in front of a room full of strangers and talking about my own personal journey, warts and all, in such an open and honest way. The breakout session concluded by leaving us with the following points:
- Be brave, step forwards
- Take opportunities
- Believe you can do it
Sky Returners Programme
The second keynote of the day was given by Renee Hunt, Director of Group Digital Platforms at Sky, and focused on Sky’s Returner Programme. Sky’s Returner Programme is a new initiative launched at the end of last year, designed to target those people who were previously at a senior level in a corporate environment before taking an extended career break. The programme is a 6-month (paid) secondment into a department in one of Sky’s key business areas, leaving participants well-placed to apply for a permanent job at Sky once the 6 months are up.
The Returner Programme was launched for a number of reasons, as Hunt explained. Former senior leaders looking to return to work are a high-calibre but largely under-utilised talent pool – taking on a new hire straight into a senior leadership role after their having a long career break isn’t something most organisations look to do. However, Sky have a target in place to have a 50/50 gender-balanced leadership team at their organisation by the year 2020, and tapping into this pool of unused talent is a good way to try and meet this target.
Although the Returner Programme is open to anyone previously at a senior level looking to return to work, it is something that especially benefits women – women are, after all, far more likely to take an extended career break than their male counterparts. In her speech, Hunt mentioned one applicant that she’d come across previously, a woman with more than 10 years experience looking to return to work, who’d applied for a trainee, entry-level position. When questioned, the woman explained that she didn’t feel confident enough applying for a senior position, despite her vast wealth of experience, simply because it had been so long since she’d been immersed in the world of work. This is why an initiative like Sky’s Returner Programme – aimed at bridging the gap between being on a career break and being employed in a senior leadership role – is so vastly important.
The day wrapped up with a few lightning talks from several attendees about their career journeys and job roles, and a (hilarious) Q&A panel session with several of the guest speakers.
All in all, I found the Women In Digital event to be a fantastic day. The overall atmosphere was incredibly positive and effortlessly inclusive right from the off – from the badges we were given at the front desk on which to write our names, job titles, and pronouns, to information about prayer rooms being given out in the introductory briefing. There was a real sense of community in the room, never more so apparent than when one speaker mentioned she’d been awarded a promotion last week after a long road dealing with imposter syndrome and self-doubt, and every single person cheered and applauded. As far as the content of the day goes, some of the talks and the topics discussed were emotional and hard-hitting, others were funny and irreverent, but all were inspirational.
I don’t think anyone who works for Infinity Works could argue that it’s perfect from a diversity standpoint – I should imagine there are very few companies in the tech sector, if any, who could make that claim. However, what I can say – and what I’m proud to be able to say – is that I work for a company that’s committed to improving the diversity of its workforce, that places great stock in providing support to its staff when they need it, and that’s genuinely passionate about continuously improving itself, one step at a time. I’ve left Women In Digital inspired and full of new ideas, and can’t wait to get cracking on and seeing how I can put them into practice to help make Infinity Works better.