Women at top of tech sector discuss next generation

In partnership with Burness Paull

Female mentors: From left, Morag Hutchison, Issy Urquhart, Mandy Laurie, Polly Purvis, Morna Simpson, Nicola McGouldrick, Lesley Little.

THE technology industry employs an estimated 80,000 people in Scotland, with women accounting for around 16,000 – just one-fifth – of that total. Morag Hutchison (MH) and Mandy Laurie (ML), employment specialists and partners at leading Scottish law firm Burness Paull, met with six female tech sector leaders who share their thoughts on the sector and how it’s changing for the better. They are:

Polly Purvis (PP): chief executive of ScotlandIS, trade body for the digital technologies industry, which represents over 300 businesses.

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Morna Simpson (MS): a freelance product manager who helps tech businesses grow and founder of Girl Geek Scotland, a community for women working with computing, creativity and enterprise.

Lesley Little (LL): managing director at Sport Technology Services, which creates technical solutions for sports professionals.

Issy Urquhart (IU): executive vice president, organisation development, at Craneware, a healthcare technology firm.

Nicola McGouldrick (NM): general manager, DigitasLBi, a global marketing and technology agency.

Anne Marie Alexander (AMA): chief executive/founder, the Tech Collection, a digital health company and associate business development and marketing director at Burness Paull, working with the technology team to help them further understand clients and their needs.

What are the key challenges in getting more women into senior tech jobs?

ML: Diversity at a senior level is a big issue. Women make up over 40 per cent of the labour force, but only about 10 per cent are in senior management and technology, so we need to understand why this is. The lack of women in higher-paid sectors also compounds the gender pay gap problem which the Government is currently trying to tackle.

MS: When I was teaching at Dundee, we had 50:50 applications on our design course, then about 1996 there was a sudden drop-off and only one female left on the course. That was quite shocking and made me think “I’m going to do something about this”.

Once into the sector I don’t think there is a pay gap between males and females, but there are barriers and obstacles that stop women getting into it in the first place when they choose university courses and after maternity leave. I had a period of ill health that lasted about five years and struggled to get a decent job and had to work really hard to get back.

Most women are going to take two or three, even five, years off to have children and there’s a real issue with getting women back after this. An awful lot could be done to make that much easier.

PP: I would challenge that idea of most women taking a three to five year maternity; most don’t. But we are an industry that is hugely flexible. You can work from home or the office, work in the morning, spend the afternoon with the family and then be on a conference call in the evening to the US.

That flexibility is hugely important. It is about keeping that skills base up and the market moving on. That can be an attraction.

NM: In my experience and in my company, the split among men and women in senior roles is balanced. However, I know there is an imbalance in some companies. I don’t think the issue is that of flexibility as a parent, as more recently, there is an increasing amount of mothers choosing to go back to work and the father stays at home, there are also many flexible options in the workplace.

I agree the main problem may be more about women being attracted to the types of jobs on offer, and acquiring the skills to break into the sector in the first place.

IU: My female friends worry about what else is out there for them in the employment market. They think “I can’t leave my current employer as I won’t get the flexibility I need elsewhere. I’ve built up loyalty with my current employer, so I can’t move”.

There’s something in the female psyche where we think we can’t just ask to have that flexibility. We need to just challenge ourselves to do that.

Every tech company I have worked at has offered flexibility for all employees regardless of gender.

LL: I have a positive story. We just had someone return to work as a technical engineer through the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) at Robert Gordon University.

She took a five-year break to have children and got in touch with the university. From half a dozen candidates she was by far the strongest because she had that pre-children experience, her university degree, work experience. She had a technical gap, but the KTP will support her to get up to speed.

PP: This is not just a Scottish problem, it is a UK problem, and a problem in the US.

MS: On the other hand, Vietnam, India and China don’t have it at all.

PP: Skills Development Scotland’s ICT skills group has just commissioned research on this and what came back is that IT is seen as a way out of poverty for bright women in Asia.

Tech jobs are seen as respectable, in a good working environment. It’s clean, safe and protected, but at the age of 27/28, many of them go off and start families and don’t return to work. But there are things we can learn from countries like India and Vietnam.

IU: Having spent time in India setting up software companies, I have seen the positive impact the family environment and education system, which is much more geared to supporting women into tech roles, has. We can learn from this.

MS: I think there is a level of curiosity about women at the table [in Scotland]. That is still a problem. I don’t get this abroad. We should be challenging this.

PP: I think the law is a very good example of an industry that has solved this problem. It was very male 15 years ago, but lots more female partners are coming through.

MH: There are now more female than male solicitors in Scotland for the first time, though that is not yet reflected at senior level.

What’s the solution? What role can education play? And how do we invest in women through high-quality mentoring?

ML: My daughter is at university and was very slanted towards mathematics so I said great, do engineering – and she said “No chance”. I think there is a lack of investment in the schools to encourage or attract girls.

PP: Teaching of computers at school is very mixed. Too many non-computing teachers think IT is word processing. We are trying to get computing embedded in the curriculum from primary school.

It has been updated at Higher and Advanced Higher, but with subject numbers at school dropping from seven to eight Standard Grades to (as few as) five to six National 5s it’s less likely computer science will be chosen.

Work is being done to up-skill teachers and we’ll see a pay-off in three to four years, but more work is needed on up-to-date careers advice. Also, nothing has been done to address common perceptions about technology businesses being a very geeky environment, in a negative way. This puts women off and we need to address this.

LL: I would love to show kids our office, which is kind of cool. Our geeks are geeks, but they have a personality.

NM: It’s important to share success stories of women in tech, and also help people understand the different career paths available. Mentoring should play an important part and should be on offer from both men and women.

MS: A lot of it is getting the right mentoring. Research shows that senior men often mentor men and women differently. They don’t like to criticise women, they just say they don’t have enough confidence, which is a rubbish piece of feedback.

We just express confidence differently. What they don’t say is “You are going to have to up-skill and this is the skill you need to get” – but they will give this advice to men.

PP: Big multinationals have worked hard to support young women coming through their workforces and are good at putting positive reinforcements in place – but they still haven’t solved the problem of how to get more women into their technology workforce.

I’m with Morna – we need more mentoring. We also need to start saying to the industry “you have to walk the walk” – look at the [composition of] boards.

MS: Technology Scotland has committed to 50:50.

PP: We’re working on getting 50:50 by 2020 on our own board but its not easy. Tech companies must get women into their senior management teams. I’m horrified by the number of mid-sized Scottish companies with no women on their senior management teams.

LL: I always think we should get the best person for the job whether that’s male, female, black, white.

PP: If you wait for women to come up merely on the basis of merit and nothing else, you’ll be waiting a long time.

MS: This is where mentoring could come in. If women aren’t good enough, why not? There’s nothing stopping them so we need to skill up and enable people.

AMA: At Tech Collection, while I have a very strong board, they are all men. I can’t seem to find execs or the equivalent who are female. Why? My non-execs don’t get paid right now.

The biggest challenge is that these men are very tolerant of the fact that I am a woman in tech who has made significant inroads and has kids. However, if I can’t attend a meeting because I need to pick up a child, or can’t attend an evening meeting, they are less tolerant. Is that just an issue about gender or responsibilities at home?

IU: I’ve worked with all-male senior management teams and the majority of them have stated that they do not believe in positive discrimination towards women on their board or in their executive team. It’s my belief, however, that unfortunately they don’t understand the subtlety around the bias that we know goes on.

MH: We all have bias [sometimes unconscious bias] and this is the reason why education is so important.

MS: This is why I really like mentoring; you upward mentor as well and it’s about educating yourself so you notice these things and know how to respond to them.

So how do we move things forward?

PP: It’s about investment in education. We have a good range of women applying for courses at CodeClan but not as many take up the opportunity. Women are more worried about the financial aspect of the fees.

MS: Loads of women are coming out of science-based degrees that might have done quite a lot of statistics for instance. That’s a perfect background skill to have. There are courses all over Scotland in data science and lots of women apply. But MScs in data engineering have only one different module and no women apply.

NM: There’s definitely scope to improve the different ways people can break into the sector. Education is really important, as is work-based learning. It’s interesting to see the broadening range of apprenticeships on offer. As an industry we also need to be more vocal and promote the great stories about successful career choices.

MH: So what can the Scottish Government do in moving this agenda forward?

PP: It must keep behind us, keep working with us on the skills continuum. This issue is not going away; short, sharp interventions won’t solve the problem, it’s a ten-year horizon. We are on the crest of the wave of the next information revolution as the pace of change speeds up. We need the whole of society to understand the opportunity and embrace it, so we aren’t Luddites saying “We’re not going there”.

MS: There is an imagined barrier to learn about technology. People have to learn about technology and how to fix problems themselves.

PP: The other thing the government can do is buy from and use local Scottish technology companies because they are really poor at this. Scottish firms often sell into the public sectors in other parts of the world and can’t make inroads into their local market.

AMA: This is a huge issue for the med tech sector, which is trying to address it with the NHS.

PP: The big issue is around procurement. NHS Scotland is so big. Getting the Scottish public sector to actively seek out local companies and buy from them is part of that.

ML: More generally, we need to say to Nicola Sturgeon, “Let us be your ambassadors”.

PP: I think that’s right, but there is work being done. A new campaign was launched last year, Digital World, to highlight the opportunities in the industry. It’s advertising on bus stops in Princes Street, on Instagram and places the kids are likely to see it.

IU: As tech employers in Scotland, we have an obligation to get engaged with the education system and go into schools and share what we’re doing within tech businesses.

LL: We have a responsibility to engender a hunger and a passion for this very broad subject. We have to encourage this across gender. I have spoken to girls working 
in a male environment and I have always said “Don’t try to be a man. Be yourself. Be the best you can be and be the best person you can be”. What are you passionate about, what is your dream?

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.