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Role models best way to increase diversity, says Most Influential Woman in UK IT 2017 Sherry Coutu

The winner of Computer Weekly’s 2017 Most Influential Woman in UK IT award, Sherry Coutu, says role models are the best way of addressing the diversity imbalance in the technology industry

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Social enterprise Founders4Schools connects schools with local businesses to showcase potential career paths to children between the ages of eight and 18.  

Its founder and executive chairman, Sherry Coutu – the 2017 winner of the Computer Weekly list of the Most Influential Women in UK IT – is a serial entrepreneur who believes in the power of using visible role models to encourage children into higher education and careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).

“One of the things that rings in my ears is, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” says Coutu.

Many believe a lack of role models is one of the main reasons many girls are put off Stem careers, and Coutu nods to the subtlety of having people in Stem-based positions, especially women, speak to young people about their careers to make them seem more accessible.

“Role models are critical,” she claims.

Tackling unconscious bias

Despite many initiatives designed to encourage girls and minority groups into Stem, the technology industry is still predominantly white and male. Coutu admits there is a “cultural bias” that implies girls are not as good at Stem subjects as boys, which, she says, “you and I know to be rubbish”.

With highly accessible content such as television shows and other entertainment media perpetuating this belief, Founders4Schools aims to break these stereotypes in the school environment. Using its online system, it takes just five minutes for a teacher to book a role model to talk to a class.

In the past, when it was discovered that only 10% of speakers chosen by educators were women, Founders4Schools set up an alert system to suggest more women speakers or to put forward only female speakers for the school’s next event.

“It changes the behaviour of the person who is putting in for speakers,” says Coutu.

“Role models are critical – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”

Sherry Coutu, Founders4Schools

Often, people don’t mean to display unconscious bias, so alerting them to the fact by asking a simple question can help them change, she says, adding: “Those are the sorts of things you can do around unconscious bias. There are ways we can use technology to improve that.”

In the interest of increasing workplace diversity, Coutu claims to have a “love-hate” relationship with quotas – the practice of placing guidelines around hiring statistics to increase the number of minority applicants considered for roles.

But quotas are a controversial issue where hiring for diversity is concerned, with some claiming it encourages tokenism rather than hiring for talent.  

“To a certain extent, it means we will be able to put people in the right position and remind boards when they’re trying to make an appointment that they should be keeping an eye on ratios,” says Coutu. “But if it meant they chose someone who wasn’t capable and not by merit, then people might say that’s not a good thing.”

To tackle situations where a quota system leads to a company hiring someone who has the credentials for the role but might be “raw talent”, Coutu suggests having a coach or mentor alongside this person to help them overcome barriers.

Making the invisible visible

Dealing in the business of making the “invisible visible”, Coutu claims the media could do more to represent minority groups, and offers up the Founders4Schools database of more than 2,000 women to ensure publications have access to knowledgeable women in tech for articles or events.

“It’s for teachers, but I’d be happy for any journalist to use it. If you’re looking for a woman who is running a tech business, you can find them on our website,” she says. 

Unless companies make an effort to showcase women who are doing great things in the technology industry they will go unnoticed. Coutu points out that women rarely put themselves forward.

“There’s a cultural bias, particularly in this country,” she says. “Women don’t typically brag about themselves – it’s not usual in Britain for women to draw attention to themselves.”

In addition, Coutu says if women do choose to put themselves forward for speaking opportunities or to sit on a board, that will require them to take time out of their job or other commitments.

“[Some] women have the added burden of trying to whip out of the office at 4pm so they can meet their kids at school – and that’s 17 to 18 years of their life – if they’re also choosing to be a mother when they’re making that compromise of ‘do I nominate myself or do I pick my kids up from school?’,” says Coutu.

“Guess what – most people are going to pick their kids up from school, make them dinner, help them with their homework, and then maybe think about it.”

Creating work-life balance

Almost 20% of companies in the London tech sector have no women at board level, despite statistics suggesting companies with more diverse boards and workforces are more profitable and more successful.

Coutu sits on several boards and is involved in advising many businesses, including the London Stock Exchange, Raspberry Pi and Zoopla, alongside her work at Founders4Schools.  

“If I don’t schedule balance into my life, I say yes to too many things, and then my family gets the message that they’re not important and I get completely frazzled”
Sherry Coutu, Founders4Schools

As well as ensuring she has a support system around her to make work-life balance easier – for example, until a year ago her husband chose to work from home to do the school run for their three children – Coutu puts her ability to juggle so many commitments down to ensuring she sticks to her specialisms.

For each of her chosen investments and business endeavours she utilises her 20 years of experience in using digital technology to enable “double-sided marketplaces” in various sectors.

“There is a very similar pattern to the boards I sit on and the investments I make,” says Coutu. “I do lots of things in that niche, and I’m usually regarded as an expert – and that expertise is in bringing people together through technology.”

She points out that Founders4Schools is a double-sided marketplace – bringing schools together with role models in business, in the same way Zoopla brings together people wanting to buy and sell houses and the London Stock Exchange connects buyers with stocks and shares.

“Being an expert in technology and marketplaces allows me balance, and that is the filter I use when I’m considering investments or positions. If I went outside of that fairly narrow area, it would be hard to get the balance I need for my family, so I choose not to go outside of that,” says Coutu.

As well as being selective about her investments, Coutu is also careful how she spends her time, ensuring she is home by 6pm on 20 out of 30 week nights and not working between 6pm Friday and 6pm Sunday.

“That really helps because if I don’t schedule balance into my life, I say yes to too many things, and then my family gets the message that they’re not important and I get completely frazzled,” she says.

There have been investment opportunities Coutu has chosen to turn down because they did not fall under her specialism – one of these being artificial intelligence company DeepMind Technologies.

“Although as an investment I thought it was very smart and what they were doing was important, it wasn’t a double-sided marketplace and I didn’t think I’d be able to add as much value to it,” she says.

As workplaces aim to increase parity, close pay gaps, introduce flexibility and create a more welcoming internal culture, everyone should benefit and begin to find work-life balance.

“There are lots of interesting things in the world, but now, while the kids are at home, I’m choosing to narrow my focus of attention,” says Coutu.

Read more about diversity in the technology industry

  • To encourage more minorities into IT, Google’s head of diversity and inclusion in Europe claims the industry needs to redefine the stereotypes around what a job in tech entails.
  • IT firms in London need to do more to reduce a gender bias and increase diversity in the workplace, says research.

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