You Don't Have to Be a Geek to Be Successful in Tech!

Sheila Flavell, COO of international IT services provider FDM Group and a Cranfield School of Management '100 Women to Watch 2013', looks at why there aren't more women in tech; why a career in this field is so rewarding; and at some of the women at the top of the industry. Part of The NextWomen Technology Theme. 

This is my first contribution to The NextWomen. I have been vigilantly reading it for a number of months so hopefully I won’t disappoint. Let me start by telling you a little about myself; I am a mother of five, a wife and the COO of the UK’s leading IT graduate employer.

I am a firm believer in equal opportunities in the workplace and I lead FDM Group’s global Women in IT campaign dedicated to encouraging more women to pursue a career in information technology.

I've spent most of my life working in male dominated environments, which has encouraged me to learn the skills necessary to take me on my own path to success: determination, resilience and persistence. 

I started my career in the Glasgow police force and shortly after I joined, the city introduced equal pay, which spurred the men in the force into putting women on foot patrol. It was a big step for us as women, and we were put on the toughest and roughest streets to ‘prove our worth’; that we deserved equal pay.

My next job was working for an international airline company based in the Middle East. This was a huge cultural change for me: men can have four wives while women can have only one husband, women can’t drive in some states while men have no limitations.

I’m now in IT, a sector notorious for the lack of women in its industry wide workforce, with only 17% of UK IT professionals being women, according to research by IT skills council, e-skills.

I can’t think of an area of our lives that hasn’t been transformed by technology; IT is no longer a back office function, it sits in the driving seat at the forefront of business developments and underpins the production of every other industry, making a career in this field increasingly desirable. However, according to e-skills, over half a million IT professionals will be needed across all sectors between 2011 and 2016 but the IT skills shortage UK wide (e-skills notes Computing and ICT A-levels taken in the UK constitutes just 0.5% and 1.4% of all A-levels taken respectively) is a huge problem for the country’s economy.

We, as an industry, are missing out on an enormous pool of raw technological talent as women, 47% of the UK workforce, continue to stay away from a career in IT. So why is this?

Campaigning agency, Lady Geek notes in its book ‘Little Miss Geek’ that girls at a young age see the tech industry as dull and unappealing, determining which career path they choose.

During its research Lady Geek asked children to draw an IT professional and interestingly every single one drew a man.

Speaking at FDM’s Driving Change Through Leadership session, CEO of Lady Geek Belinda Parmar said, “We need to get rid of the stereotypical male image of a pizza-guzzling nerd that can’t get a girlfriend and has never seen sunlight.”

The overall negative perception of this industry has made it extremely difficult to recruit women to join the IT workforce but IT is one of the most creative jobs in today’s job market, Cisco in 2009 found that 80% of women want roles with creativity, and technology is about problem solving and perhaps more importantly, imagination. Additionally, Cisco found that 90% of girls want a job that provides a service to society and IT does just that; as I mentioned there is no area of our lives that technology hasn’t revolutionised – banking, travel and communication processes have all been turned upside down.

The selection of Marissa Mayer as the CEO of Yahoo put women in technology well and truly in the spotlight. This appointment was vastly publicised and there’s no doubt in my mind that it has proved inspirational to many women in the technology world and also to those wanting to enter the industry. Despite Mayer’s self-proclamation that she is indeed a “geek,” Mayer’s background lies in fashion and ballet, dismissing the common stereotypes that often detract women from pursuing a career in the sector.

According to Lady Geek, you don’t have to have a ‘magnetic attraction’ to computers; you do not have to live and breathe them, instead you need a keen mind, a willingness to learn and a healthy interest. Eileen Brown, CEO of Amastra, a social media consultancy offering clients help with their social media strategies, comments on LinkedIn “I’ve never written code; coding is not the be all and end all of IT. A thirst for understanding and a knowledge of how systems are put together will stand people in good stead for a career in IT.”

I have to say that I agree with Eileen, I’m not a technical person and I don’t have a technical background but I am a process-driven individual and I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that I have had and am still having a successful career in technology.

To be successful in this industry, I don’t believe that you necessarily have to be a coder or a developer or have specialist knowledge; there is such a diverse range of roles available.

Take Meg Whitman for example; she had originally wanted to be a doctor so she studied maths and science at university but after spending some time selling adverts for a magazine, she switched to economics. Whitman is now the CEO of tech giant Hewlett-Packard.

When Whitman was first appointed as President and CEO of eBay in 1998, the company had 30 employees, half a million users and revenues of $4.7 million in the United States. During her ten-year reign, she led eBay through its move to become a public company, seeing a target share price of $18 rise to $53.50 on its first day of trading. By the time she left in 2008, eBay had expanded worldwide, had 15,000+ employees, hundreds of millions of registered users and revenues of almost $7.7 billion. Five years on and Whitman is still one of Time Magazine’s most powerful women in technology despite not having an educational background in a technical discipline.

Although the IT profession lacks a gender balanced workforce right now, women in high powered positions of technology companies are on the rise and the importance of this balance is being recognised industry wide. Research by Women in Technology found that men believe they would benefit from a more innovative environment and better departmental communication if they had more women in their technology department, and Harvey Nash found that seven out of ten technology leaders believe they are missing vital skills as a result of low representation of women in their teams.

So if you take one thing from this article, please remember that you don’t necessarily have to live and breathe computers or even have a technical education.

Success in this wonderful industry is open to anyone who loves to be creative, imaginative and a problem solver; all of which are innate traits in many women.

Image courtesy of Fortune Live Media.

Sheila Flavell is the Chief Operating Officer, Founder Director and part owner of the international IT services provider, FDM Group. Sheila has enjoyed a hugely successful business career spanning over 25 years in both the public and private sectors of IT. Sheila is fully committed to both lifelong learning and promoting women in IT. She completed both an MA and an MBA, whilst raising her family and playing an integral role in the flotation of FDM on AiM. Sheila was also a key instigator of the management buyout of FDM in 2010 and spends the majority of her time traveling around the world, spearheading FDM’s global expansion programme. Sheila is the driving force behind FDM’s global Women in IT initiative and initiated FDM's Female CHampions mentoring programme. 

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