Front runner Jenni Ashwood

John Kavanagh

Jenni Ashwood has moved from being a maths teacher to full-time mother to programmer and is currently business systems manager...

John Kavanagh

Jenni Ashwood has moved from being a maths teacher to full-time mother to programmer and is currently business systems manager at department store chain Bentalls, where she has a team of13 IT staff.

Seventeen years after taking a self-study Open University course, Ashwood has carved out a globe-trotting IT career. She has just returned from Australia, where she spoke about Bentalls' e-commerce experience.

The company has replaced standard electronic data interchange (EDI) for supply chain management with a simpler and cheaper system based on the Web which is used to communicate with 2,500 suppliers.

All this is a long way from her days teaching maths to A-level students in the early 1970s. After three years she had a daughter and gave up work. "There's no point having children and giving the fun bits away, so I put my career on hold," she says. A second daughter was born three years later.

By 1983, Ashwood had been away from work for nine years and felt it would be hard to get back. "I saw an advert from the Women In Technology organisation, about a scheme to get women back into work," she says. "It involved a one-year self-funding Open University course. I was a bit daunted and needed my confidence building up, but I sat the assessment tests and discovered I was very good at programming, so I studied practical and theoretical computing for a year by remote learning."

In 1984 she competed against 100 other applicants for one of 12 jobs on a project to monitor business efficiency at the Greater London Council. She was the only successful female. "I sometimes wonder if I was chosen as the token woman, but I know I justified their choice while I was there," she says.

Ashwood quickly applied to join the computing department as a programmer and set about convincing management that the IBM 3090 mainframe needed to be replaced with more flexible systems to better suit the council's needs.

"I thought I could do better for them, but then Margaret Thatcher came along and abolished the council and I found myself looking for another job," she says.

That new job was at Bentalls, which in 1987 was replacing its IT. Ashwood worked in support management and systems analysis before helping to spearhead the e-commerce project, which won one of the 1999 BT E-Business Innovation Awards.

Ashwood now works on IT strategy and promoting the company's approach, both internally and externally.

She thinks other women can make a success of IT. "It is traditional to promote people on hard skills, yet soft skills are of equal value," she says. "It is because soft skills aren't as valued that women fail to value themselves highly enough, but that situation is changing. The Internet is proving to be a great leveller for business and for women in computing. Hopefully, we'll see more women in IT in the future."

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