Attending an event addressing “gender equality” or lack
thereof seems to be a given these days, but attending one where men are
described as “allies” refreshingly bridges the gap between two sides who are
too often being described “in conflict”. A discussion by a very balanced panel
(men/women, experienced grey hair/young and on a learning curve,
established/still breaking through) made time fly past quicker than one would
expect. But that would be down to the passion, which was equally shared between
all panellists and the fact that the engaged audience counted men and women and
included people with even more grey hair than I have!
One of the issue that was brought up is that the challenges
of this issue is created by how careers have changed, where in academia and
STEMM careers we now reach stability well after our life responsibilities have
become serious: mortgages, relationships, children. Trying to manage the career
breakthrough when these responsibilities become all-important has added
pressure, which unfortunately, still weighs on women more than men.
It would be easy to say that “things are changing”, but that
is a cop out statement: bullying of women (and men) who may approach their life
choices, priorities or career and staff management in a novel or simply
different way is still pervasive and effected by the new generation as much as
the old. What has changed is the number of people who don’t accept the status
quo. But institutions can also play a role: promote people who are good leaders
as well as decent scientists! The promotion application does not contain any
item about how we manage a meeting…yet as a senior staff member, isn’t that
what we spend 75% of our time doing? I heard the following remark: “We should
fix the system, not women”. And can we replace ‘the system’ in that sentence by
‘the university code of conduct’?
The thing that struck me last night was a statement by one
of the panellists: “It is easier for men to do something than finding out what
to do”. Even for the most motivated of men, changing the culture, even in the
microcosm of one’s own little work group, triggers often a “saviour” behaviour
where we think we know best what to do. I raised that question last night and
one of the panellist’s answered: “ask the question rather than come up with the
answer, get people to spell out their own strengths, appetites and drivers”. It
may seem obvious…but it is not always the natural reflex.
Institutions set out big policies, but often just basic
decent human behaviour is a much more straightforward way to deal with issues
on a daily basis. It is about simply being interested and involved in how other
people tick. There was a lot of talk about shared parental leave. It is clear
that, from a personal point of view, being more involved with the running of
the house and looking after my girls, has made me understand the challenges of
running both a career and personal time. It has also given the opportunity to
my wife to have time for her own career. As well as head space and energy! But
shared parental leave is still less than accepted these days (apparently only
5% take up). Financial incentives as well as practical incentives are absent
whilst they are in place in other countries. It may sound counter intuitive
these days, but let’s look beyond the borders and see what works somewhere
And a last point for whoever thought the above is just “sissy
stuff” or that last night’s discussion was not worth attending: diversity is
strength, the most resilient systems are those that have enough inner diversity
to adapt and grow through any challenge and have long-term sustainability. If
you don’t promote and champion differences at some point, you and your work
will be a dying breed.
In my previous blog I discussed how women can help male
leaders to realise the value of their individual strengths and the potential
for diversifying their work force beyond the usual range of characteristics
that they look for. This article goes on to look at how we changed our
recruitment process in light of this new realisation, and the dramatic results
We started with increasing our ability to understand what mattered to various people in their professional careers. We split the problem into three steps: recruitment, retention, and promotion. It rapidly became obvious that we had to start at the first of these, and then shift focus upwards as the benefits moved up through the company.
We introduced several changes to our recruitment process. Adverts were updated to remove gendered language. For example, saying “We are looking for candidates with outstanding technical skills” seemed just an honest request to me, but I came to realise that some really good candidates would be put off because they weren’t confident that they would meet the requirement. All candidates were given a guidance document to help them prepare. Upon arrival, they got a tour by a member of staff similar to themselves who could act as a role model. Candidates were asked to start talking about one of their own projects, to help get into the swing of the interview before tackling the more challenging technical questions. We spoke at more length in the interview about the many training and mentoring opportunities at our company.
All this was progress in the right direction, but it didn’t
really get to the root of the problem, which was insufficient applications from
women. If they don’t apply, we can’t offer them jobs. So our focus turned to
how to get more women to apply for our jobs.
We started a ‘Women in Technical Consultancy’ scheme, with
the aim of reaching out in a personal way to potential applicants. The key
attribute of this scheme is a variety of soft ways to get to know the company
before taking the step of applying and coming for interview. For example,
applicants are welcome to have an informal phone call, or drop by for coffee
and a look around. We give talks at the university and hold open evenings at
our labs. There are internship options as a possible first step to something
longer-term, and there is the potential for 6 – 18 month placements. The
literature for the scheme also makes prominent reference to some of the great
features of our company: our ethical policy, STEM and outreach work, focus on
learning. Every person in our company loves these features, male and female
alike, so why not make it known in a way that attracts candidates?
The scheme has been a satisfying success. Applications from
women grew every year, starting originally at 13% and rising, four years later,
to 33%. And so now that we’ve got many more applying, and a great interview
process, we are starting to get some cracking members of staff joining us
thanks to this initiative. With that part of the process showing results, we
are able to move onto the later stages of retainment and promotion. I’m looking
forward to that challenge!
The key to this success is for the manager to put themselves inside the heads of the candidates. It is really not that difficult, if only the manager has a sufficiently open mind to give it a try, which many don’t. I tend to think of it like this: applying for a job is scary. You might be asked things you don’t know. You might be rejected. You might make a silly mistake. We can all relate to that, men and women alike. So by making the application process a little gentler, and allowing confidence to build steadily over several touch points, candidates are more able to perform at their best. This is a good thing for all candidates, and helps us get high quality people including those who were always good enough, but find it hard to prove in the interview.
Springboard is a technical consultancy which develops innovative medical devices such as auto-injectors, infusion pumps and electromechanical surgical equipment. Springboard works through all product development process stages: concepts, proof of principle in the laboratory, design for manufacture and verification. Through its strategic partnerships with broad industries and technical areas, there is opportunity to develop careers in project leadership, technical specialities, line management and sales.
I recently attended QuantumBlack’s Women Transforming Tech event. It was a fantastic day, and in this post I talk about the day’s activities, what I learnt and women in technology.
QuantumBlack, a data, analytics and design company, had three goals that they wanted as take home for the delegates: learn, connect and enjoy. We started with breakfast at the QuantumBlack office, which was a great start and a good opportunity to talk with other attendees immediately. The day was opened by QuamtumBlack’s Jeremy Palmer (CEO) and Helen Mayhew (COO, Europe). Helen outlined some sobering facts about gender and tech: when you ask six year olds, equal numbers of boys and girls like computers, however, at the middle level of the tech workforce, only 17% of workers are women. The higher up you go, the proportion decreases further. It is well known that diverse teams and companies perform better in every metric you can think of, and achieving gender parity in tech would increase UK GDP by £3.6bn. The message from QuantumBlack was clear – diversity matters. With that in the forefront of our minds, it was on to the first talk.
Jacomo Corbo co-founded QuantumBlack and is now its Chief
Scientist. He outlined how his work in Formula 1, modelling optimal stopping of
cars for Renault, led to the creation of QuantumBlack. After the first coffee
break, we then heard from Martha Imprialou, Analytics Engagement Manager.
Martha spoke about algorithmic fairness and explainable Artificial Intelligence
She took us through three key concepts to building trust in
AI, which is crucial, in that AI is embedded everywhere we go and services we
use. This can be built through algorithms that are 1) explainable (can humans
understand how it has come to a decision?), 2) fair (is it biased in some way?)
and 3) resilient (is it repeatable?). Martha explained how to try and achieve
each of these in our work, and I found the discussion around fairness
particularly interesting. For example, an algorithm can reflect societal bias –
if there is less data available for a small protected group, then it cannot
learn well, and this can lead to decisions which would negatively impact the
group. You can see how this is critical for tasks such as making parole
decisions, or University admissions.
She finished with a quote from John von Neumann – “In mathematics, you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” – and likened this to AI. We’re getting more used to AI the longer we live with it and at the same time society is evolving. We should write our tech in a way that reflects our ethics and beliefs, learning from mistakes. (side note – Martha is nominated for a Rising Star award that recognises female talent across industry sectors! If it’s something you’re interested in you can check it out at https://risingstars.wearethecity.com. Martha’s presentation was brilliant!
After lunch I joined the Software/ Machine Learning
Engineering group breakout session. This was a practical session, which
provided tips for writing reproducible code. It also introduced the cool new
piece of software from QuantumBlack, giving a behind the scenes look of
developing a new product.
The final talk was from Professor Sue Black. Her story is incredible, whereby she moved from living in a women’s refuge with her three children at the age of 26, to one of the 50 top women in tech in Europe, and an OBE. The title of Sue’s talk was ‘If I can do it, so can you!’, and she described some of the highlights of her career, including running a successful campaign to save Bletchley Park. An interesting fact she shared with us was that were 8000 women working at Bletchley Park during the Second World War! She started Tech Mums, teaching mums computing basics. For some of the women this had been truly life changing, leading to them getting jobs or improving their business, and having a massive impact on their confidence.
Finally there was a careers Q&A with Helen Mullings (Chief
HR Officer, QuantumBlack) and Michelle Gregory (Senior VP of Data Science, Elsevier).
It was interesting, and new for me to learn that Michelle Gregory, whilst
working in a male dominated field had not been affected as a gender minority in
the workplace. She prefers to ignore gender and instead focus on technical
skills during interviews. I’m not convinced that without active efforts to
increase the number of women in the workforce, gender parity will be achieved.
But it was good to hear a different perspective. She also spoke about recognising
your own bias and supporting people that might need it, such as introverts
regardless of gender, all of which was great to hear.
Michelle had shared invaluable advice, particularly around
the importance of having a mentor and how to approach the relationship. For
mentees, don’t be shy, ask the questions you want to, and then allow time for
general advice from your mentor. Always be respectful of their time, as they
will be very busy, and if they give you advice about something specific, like a
conversation you need to have at work, let them know how it went. For mentors,
care about your mentee’s life outside of work too.
Fear of networking was an accidental theme that ran through
the day! Helen Mayhew suggested at the beginning that by seeing it as making
friends it was a lot less scary, and Professor Black spoke about how shy she
was when first attending conferences. I think making it a goal of the day to
connect with others was helpful. It meant everyone had a similar mentality of
wanting to chat and find out what other attendees were doing, and ample breaks
meant there was plenty of opportunity to do so.
I met women who were studying or working in a range of
fascinating areas, from a mathematician working at a start-up, to other PhD
students researching the spread of disease and homelessness. It was interesting
to hear of different ways machine learning is being used, other women’s career
paths, and exchange tips, such as using Twitter. By the end of the day I’d made
a few firm friends and we all swapped LinkedIn/ Facebook/ email details, and I
hope to continue the relationships with my new found connections.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event, but I’m really glad I had the opportunity to attend. Personally, it met all of QuantumBlack’s goals for me. I came away feeling genuinely inspired, by both the speakers and other attendees, and it’s great to know that there are companies who care about women in tech and want to support us. This was the second time QuantumBlack have run the event and I hope they will do something similar in the future, as I can’t recommend it enough.
If you’re a woman in tech, keep an eye out for it and apply!
*CamAWiSE is pleased to have collaborated with QuantumBlack in promoting its “Women Transforming Tech” event which took place on 17 May 2019. Natacha Clarke was one of 77 women selected for the programme. You can follow her on Twitter – @psychinthecity_
Are you wondering how to best utilise your scientific skills? Are you planning your next step in academia or considering pursuing a career away from the bench? Would you like more information about different scientific careers from a diverse range of speakers? Then this is the event for you! Read more…