Women in IT: A word of advice

Dame Stephanie Shirley and other inspirational females share advice on being a woman in tech at We Are The City event

Inspirational female leaders offered their advice to women in technology at a We Are The City event recently.

At the event, hosted by Morgan Stanley at its Canary Wharf offices, Dame Stephanie Shirley (pictured) and India Gary-Martin were among those sharing their personal experiences and career tips for women either new to the tech industry or taking their next career step.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Shirley opened the evening by saying: “I’m in the Bletchley Park Museum, so you’re looking at a museum piece here.

“I’m still listed as one of the most powerful women in the UK, but I don’t feel powerful. The cat doesn’t even come when I call it.”

Striking a more serious note, she stressed: “Women must recognise and grab the many opportunities the tech industry offers.”

When Shirley launched Xansa in 1962, only three of its 300 programmers were men. That began to change in 1975 when the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in the UK to protect men and women from discrimination on the grounds of sex or marital status.

Shirley said the new law meant that businesses had to employ women, “which is how it should be”.

Rise to the challenge

She said her career journey had made her tougher, more creative and sharper, and forced her always to rise to the challenge. “My friends thought I wasn’t tough enough to survive, but I did,” she said.

Shirley has since “morphed” her interests from just women to diversity as a whole, for example in her mission to get one million people with Asperger's syndrome into the IT industry by 2020, as well as tackling the topic of ageism.

“I’ve worked at going beyond myself to see the broader view,” she said. “That means going beyond the personal goal of wanting to be rich and investing in your community and even country. A certain amount of selfishness is needed to invest in yourself. Success is found on the edge of failure.”

Shirley officially retired at the age of 60 in 1993 and has since been a keen philanthropist, giving away at least £67m to more than 100 projects. “As with love, it’s more about giving than taking,” she said.

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“It’s not enough to do good. You have to make it sustainable. I’ve given away £67m and that’s serious money that has done wonderful things. So I’ll never have to worry about getting lost because there are several charities that will come and find me. My good fortune has given me something to get up for in the morning.”

Shirley believes the tech industry is slowly heading in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. “Just look at Facebook – it had no women on the board when it went public,” she said. “Gender is becoming less important as we move more towards a digital world.

“Women have little in common except they are all drawn to the challenges of the 21st century and it is a good century for women.”

Shirley advised women in technology: “Surround yourself with younger people and people you like, and choose the right partner. Every one of you can achieve whatever you want as long as you accept the rules of the game and believe in yourself.

“Get trained, then get trained and get trained again. Whatever your role, master marketing, finance and get some international experience. Think about how you want to spend the rest of your life and just go for it.”

Develop your own style

She said it was important for women to develop their own management style and not try to be 'pseudo' men.

India Gary-Martin, senior adviser at Consultant, a business she started herself after heading up teams at JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank, agreed with Shirley about the difficulties of finding a management style as a woman.

“The biggest leap you’ll ever have is from managing yourself to managing others,” she said. “It’s a really big leap the first time you do it. You want to feel approachable and for people to talk to you about career progression and to be all the things you want from a manager, but to be a good leader, you have to lead from the front and really get to know them. It’s not about tasks, it’s about personalities. If you can do that, people will follow you anywhere.

“Don’t be afraid to train your staff up to be as good as you. When I left for an opportunity in Tokyo, there was easily someone there to backfill me. Making sure your team is amazing is your next job opportunity to move on.”

Gary-Martin advised women in IT to grab opportunities that come their way. “I’m an accidental technologist, but still a very passionate one,” she said. “Take the opportunity and be fearless. Know what you want and be really clear about what you want to do. Go and ask what you need to do. I wanted to focus on international. I wanted to go to a different geography, so I asked what I had to do.

“Get to understand the business you support. Ask them questions and sit down with them.”

Three pieces of advice

Gary-Martin gave three pieces of advice for women to take away from the event: “Be passionate – love what you do. If you don’t, it will show through. Dress the part – if you want someone’s job, look at what they’re wearing. Do the things you love, too – you will suffer if they’re not there.” 

She added: “Work can’t define who you are. Leaving work to become an entrepreneur has been the most humbling thing I’ve ever done.”

Unlike Gary-Martin, Ulla Harker, executive director at Morgan Stanley, said she did not stumble into tech – it was a conscious decision.

Her advice to women in the industry was: “Build relationships and foster them. These types of roles have had such an effect on my career and I’ve been offered so many roles because of them.

“Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward for something or to do something that is a stretch role for you. Whether it’s a long or short opportunity, you will leave a good mark and be better when you move on.”

Highlighting the importance of a work-life balance, she added: “There will always be challenges, whether it’s looking after children or elderly parents.

“You need a good support network at work and at home. It takes both to make it work. We’re not alone in this challenge in the 21st century, whether you’re a man or a woman.”

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