Gender diversity continues to be one of the most talked about topics amongst Technology leaders worldwide and yet it’s still a problem that remains relatively unsolved. Recent studies show that approximately 17% of the tech workforce is female and whilst there are individuals, communities and organisations trying to make a difference in this space, women remain the minority.
At Burns Sheehan, we’re hoping that by increasing the visibility of female leaders and role models in tech, we will encourage others to follow in their footsteps and seek out opportunities in the sector.
Senior Recruiter Charlotte Smith, has been discussing this topic and the challenges that come with it with Cath Trotter, former Technology Director at Moneysupermarket Group and now Interim Programme Director at Financial Wellness Group. Cath has worked in tech for most of her career and shared with me some of the challenges she’s overcome working in a male dominated environment, and some advice she has for other women on the same journey.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey to your current role today:
I went through school not really knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up. I remember seeing a Career Advisor who told me that she had a magic questionnaire that I could fill out and that would help me find the job for me, so excitedly I completed it. I was pleased to see that it concluded that I was a caring person who liked to get things done but I was somewhat disappointed to learn that this meant my career path was Social work . I had no issue with social work per se but at the time I knew that the world was a big place and so it felt odd to me that Social work was my only option.
I chose to ignore the careers advice and instead made a plan to go to University so I could leave home, but I was still trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to study. I applied to Lancaster University for a place on their Advertising and Marketing degree course and received a conditional offer but when results day came around, I hadn’t achieved the grades I needed, so I had to make a new plan.
My Dad was an Electronic Engineer, who was passionate about technology. We always had logic boards at home and he was forever taking things apart and putting back together, so as technology progressed he encouraged us to understand electronics and computers. He suggested that whilst computing wasn’t a passion of mine, it was clearly something I could do and he encouraged me to take a place on a Computer Information Systems course at the University of Liverpool. Seeing an opportunity to leave home, I decided to go for it and (unbeknown to me at the time) I embarked upon my career in Tech.
The degree was very technical and whilst I completed it and passed with honours, I left university seeking a more satisfying career path and was convinced that Tech was not for me. I joined the Graduate Scheme at Marconi in Coventry where I completed placements in Finance, Bid Management and HR. It was a great learning experience which gave me visibility of the different functions and roles within the business, but it also made me realise how integral technology was becoming in every function.
After Marconi, I joined Taylor Woodrow on a short term (3 month) contract in their HR team which actually led to me staying there for 5 years and working in Tech. I then relocated back to the North-West and took a job with Auto Trader as a Project Manager working with the software development teams - that was the start of an amazing 9 years with the business. My career at Auto Trader gave me the opportunity to work on a variety of projects in tech. When I joined the development was largely done offshore in slow waterfall cycles but gradually we brought it back on shore and built delivery teams in house. I went from managing a single delivery team to managing a few, to eventually overseeing a tribe of delivery teams and learning about agile development along the way.
A new CEO joined the business and embarked on a huge digital transformation programme. He asked me to step out of my comfort zone and take on a project to deliver a new billing system; a project that was already in flight, was behind plan and was over budget. I knew nothing about billing systems or in fact about that side of our business but with some trepidation, I took on the challenge. I had no idea whether I could deliver this project or not but the CEO told me that he believed that if anyone could do it, then I could and so I figured it was worth a shot. Over the course of the 4 months that followed I reorganised the team, changed the delivery approach and moved the change programme from being a failure to being a consistently delivering operational engine. It was a huge achievement but more importantly for me, it was the moment I began believing in myself.
After Auto Trader, I joined Money Supermarket. An ex-colleague of mine was the CIO and he asked me to go and run the Travel Supermarket Technology team there. It was a familiar role in that I was working with Product Engineering teams in a digital business again but it was a more senior position than I’d held previously and so I had to draw on some of the leadership lessons I’d learned on the billing project; restructuring the team, embedding new ways of working and changing the culture. I spent 6 months working with Travel Supermarket before my role was expanded to include some of the Money Supermarket Tech teams too. I spent three and a half years in the Tech Leadership team at MSM and learned a huge amount, but in 2020 I decided it was time for my next adventure.
I joined the Financial Wellness Group in February this year as an Interim Programme Director. In this role I’ll be helping to put some structure and governance around the delivery of their strategic objectives and digital transformation.
Throughout your career you’ve had key male role models who have supported and encouraged you, how important is it to have both male and female role models?
I’ve been really lucky in my career, I’ve worked with some hugely inspirational leaders who have taken the time to support and develop me. Unsurprisingly (as I worked in Tech), they’ve mostly been male but I actually think that male colleagues have a significant role to play in encouraging their female counter parts to achieve their potential. There’s no doubt in my mind that men and women are wired differently, but those who understand those differences and can capitalise on the best of both are those teams that will win.
I can specifically remember my boss, the COO of Auto Trader, asking me to get involved with a ‘Women in Tech’ forum that was meeting at Auto Trader. At the time I didn’t like the idea of being labelled a ‘woman in tech’, I was just a person in tech, I didn’t understand why my gender was important and naïvely, I believed that meetups that were labelled in this way, were perpetuating the segregation. The COO was brilliant, he told me that he understood where I was coming from but he encouraged me to get involved anyway and to learn more about diversity and inclusion. With his mentoring and a lot of reading, I soon came to realise that as a successful woman in a largely male environment, I could help others just by sharing my experiences.
I went on to attend lots of industry events and I eventually built up the courage to share some of my experiences. It all felt a bit alien to me at first; talking about yourself felt like arrogance but when women started contacting me on LinkedIn and saying they really related to the things that I’d said or the experiences I’d had, I realised the importance of this topic staying on the agenda. Strangely, it was actually that encouragement from my boss; a white, middle-aged man, who understood his position of privilege, to make me realise my potential. I’d love to see more male allies blowing the trumpet for gender diversity and encouraging their female colleagues to achieve their potential.
Have you faced any challenges when working in a male dominated environments? If so, how did you overcome these challenges?
I’m very used to working in male dominated teams and as a result I’m often the only woman in a meeting. Generally this isn’t a problem however, there have been occasions where I’ve struggled to be heard. I have raised a point which has been quickly dismissed and raised it again, only for it to be dismissed a second time. That in itself isn’t an issue (I know I’m not always going to be right) however, there have been occasions where one of my male colleagues has then made a very similar point, using very similar words and it was not only accepted as valid but he was also then praised for making such a clever point! I’ve reflected on this a lot; did I not articulate it as clearly? Did we really say the same thing? Are my male colleagues discriminating against me? And I’ve concluded that this isn't a conscious discrimination, they don’t dismiss my point because I’m a woman, it’s just that we’re wired differently and somehow it seems to make more sense to the men when another man says it. I also found that the men in the room would be able to relate to each other and so would generally (subconsciously) agree and back each other up but without another female in the room relating to and agreeing with my point, it was easy to dismiss it as a minority perspective.
I’ve overcome this challenge by educating myself on different values and perspectives so that I can understand and hopefully speak to different peoples motivations.
As a successful leader, what advice would you give to others?
I’ve learnt that we’re all human, none of us are perfect and with so many things, there’s no single right answer so sharing your stories and experiences with others and listening to theirs is a great way to learn, develop and help other people.
I’ve also learnt the importance of authenticity. I’m a real people person and I think that I’ve gained a lot of trust, loyalty and commitment from people I’ve worked with because I’ve been me and I’ve let them in to my world; I’m friendly and open, but I’ll also stand up for what I believe in and I think it’s a quality that people relate to. We all have the right to be in the careers we choose and there’s nothing that says I’m any less capable than my male counter parts but yet so many successful female leaders seem to feel the need to mirror their male counterparts to get ahead. I believe that my strength is my difference.
What is the importance of having a network?
Having a network that you can draw on is massively important. I’ve met a lot of people throughout my career who have supported me, picked me up when I was down, encouraged me to keep going when I felt like giving up and ultimately, helped me to grow.
I’m incredibly grateful for that support and as a result, I try and seek out opportunities to help others where I can too. I was presenting at an event a few years ago where I met a lady who was presenting to an audience for the very first time. She was due to be speaking with a colleague but at the last minute her colleague couldn’t attend, leaving her to present alone. Not only did she present her colleagues slides (that she was seeing for the first time) but she then went on to talk about her journey into tech, the knockbacks she’d experienced and how she’d overcome them. In the question and answer session at the end, I just raised my hand and said how well she’d done and how she should feel really proud of what she’d achieved that night; at the point she broke down into tears. It had been a huge thing for her and had taken every ounce of courage to stand up there, so she was overwhelmed to get the encouragement and support. Several years on, we are still friends and we periodically contact each other for encouragement and support. From my perspective, it was a tiny thing for me to do to acknowledge her efforts but it had a lasting impact on her. She has gone from strength to strength and the encouragement helped her to speak again, to improve and to be more confident. I strongly believe that females should support one another and lift each other up, mentoring, coaching and encouraging one another along the way. I also believe that you should have male and female allies in your network. I think it’s really important for male Leaders to represent females in senior roles to encourage more diversity.
What more can be done to encourage a more diverse tech workforce?
I think that organisations can do more to help educate their employees, particularly in tech development teams. Organisations often assume that people have a good understanding of the importance of D&I, but it’s a huge topic that people in positions of privilege wouldn’t necessarily see a reason to seek out.
I also think businesses can do more to help educate school age children about opportunities in the industry. I’ve personally been involved in partnerships with local secondary schools trying to encourage more young women to consider career’s in Technology but the industry has a stigma and there’s a lot of work for us to do to overcome this.