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CIO interview: Juliette Atkinson, IT director, Bradford University

Bradford University’s IT director took a different route than most to get into IT leadership

By her own admission, Bradford University’s Juliette Atkinson is “not your normal IT director”. She has had a diverse career, littered with challenges the vast majority of IT leaders have never faced.

“I came at it in a completely different way,” she tells Computer Weekly. While most IT directors tend to have worked on the service desk and moved up or studied for degrees in computer science, her progression could hardly be more different.

At 22, Atkinson was a single mother, at a time when the political environment had been shaped by years of Margaret Thatcher in Number 10, who famously later said she believed unmarried mothers and their children would be better off in religious orders than on welfare. Thatcher was the first woman to become prime minister, but not the best role model for aspiring young women.

“It’s not great when a woman at the top doesn’t think you can crack it,” says Atkinson. “Being a single mum wasn’t exactly ideal. I was solidly on my own with no safety net.”

But she tackled the challenges she faced, which shaped her future. “The situation made me really resilient and also capable of working around a problem or issue, even when I was told there was no solution,” she says. “I don’t accept defeat. While there are always failures and issues, these are learning experiences and make me better than before.”

Determination pays off

Her career path, over more than 25 years, is a testament to her determination, willingness to take on challenges and her different approach.

“I don’t accept defeat. While there are always failures and issues, these are learning experiences and make me better than before”

Juliette Atkinson, Bradford University

Atkinson completed her A-levels and entered the world of work, but within a few years, she wanted to try something different. “I was a single mum and needed a job, so I started off selling telephone advertising and saved enough to buy a house,” she tells Computer Weekly. At 23, she had made enough money and did just that.

It was during her time selling advertising that she was offered a job that took her into the sphere of IT. While selling advertising to a mobile phone reseller, Atkinson was offered a job, which she accepted. She began selling mobile phones as the technology moved from analogue to digital.

Once again, she made an impression and was soon offered another opportunity to progress, which would plant her firmly in the IT industry. “I got into IT through selling mobile phones and was poached by BT, where I was able to learn engineering skills,” she says.

Atkinson moved from working with mobile phones into networks and connectivity. “Before my time at BT I had had no IT training,” she says. “At BT, I moved more into support. I enjoyed fixing technical problems more than I did selling, which is why I got out of selling fairly quickly.”

Her next job was in operations at internet service provider Daisy Group, where she built up nine years of operational and managerial experience.  

While carrying out operational roles, Atkinson continued to gain additional skills in her own time, including IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) engineering qualifications.

Six years ago, she got her first IT director role through various internal promotions at a healthcare company, before moving to Aviva as global head of IT services.

It was after this that she moved into her current position, heading up IT at Bradford University. She is 18 months into the role, in which, alongside 60 IT staff, Atkinson caters to the IT demands of 10,000 students and 900 staff.

Battle for equality

Despite her success, Atkinson says there is a long way to go in achieving equality between men and women in the IT industry. “Throughout my career, the conflict of providing for my family and spending time with them has been an ongoing battle,” she says.

Challenges like this face many women in the IT and other sectors, and they start early. Atkinson describes the challenges she even faced getting into IT at school.

“I remember walking into computer studies on my first day with a friend, the only other girl in a class of 30 boys, and the [male] teacher turned to me and announced loudly that the typing class was two doors down and that we were clearly lost,” she says.

She complained to the headteacher and his response was: “Well, he may have a point.”

“I remember walking into computer studies on my first day with a friend, the only other girl in a class of 30 boys, and the [male] teacher turned to me and announced loudly that the typing class was two doors down and that we were clearly lost”
Juliette Atkinson, Bradford University

Atkinson doesn’t think much has changed. “I may have been in the 6% minority back then, but I’m still only one of the 17% minority of women now in IT, and the number declines rapidly when you look at those in senior positions. You are on the back foot to start with, but I’m no stranger to that,” she says.

Education is required in society to teach people about what is or isn’t acceptable in terms of behaviour or attitude, adds Atkinson. “I’ve been in a meeting with a supplier more than once where I was the only woman, and the vendor assumed I was there to take notes.”

But the biggest issue “by far”, she says, is that it is still too easy and ingrained to think that a man will provide better value for money than a woman doing the same job. As a consequence, she says the gender pay gap is real and applies to “not just wages, but other benefits”.

Atkinson says if political and business leaders are serious about removing the gender imbalance in the IT and business sectors, there needs to be a systemic change to the way we advertise roles and recruit women.

Read more about diversity in tech

  • Many IT workers say their companies are working to address gender diversity in their IT departments, according to Computer Weekly’s salary survey.
  • Coding bootcamp operators must actively engage with issues of access, diversity and inclusion if they want to stop reproducing the same gendered, racialised and class-based outcomes the tech sector keeps promising.
  • The enforced move by many employers to flexible home working during the pandemic is challenging the culture of long hours in the office – and opening up new opportunities for women in tech.

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