Equality, diversity and inclusion… what’s it like to be women in tech?

In celebration of International Woman’s Day last week, our Founder and Group CEO Sherry Vaswani caught up with Lesley Salmon, SVP & Global CIO at Kellogg’s, both with over 30 years’ experience in the tech industry, to discuss and share their personal stories and insights on Women in Tech. 

In an environment that is known to be traditionally male-dominated, both women have successfully built careers and businesses within the tech sector. But it’s not been without their fair share of challenges along the way, and despite more and more women entering the tech industry, evidence shows that the glass ceiling still exists for many. 

“Over time, I learnt the importance of self-confidence and self-belief,” said Sherry. “At times people judge you instantly because of being a woman, or the colour of your skin – sometimes before I’ve even said a word or met them. I’ve had to work harder to build trust, even though we women do have the skillset and expertise to bring to the table. I found that having that confidence is the best way to overcome it.” And these barriers resonated with Lesley too. “Unconscious bias is a very real thing, and we all have the responsibility to call it out when we see it,” she said. “When I first came into the workplace, I did put pressure on myself to work twice as hard, to be looked at in the same way as my male colleagues. But as I’ve grown in confidence and come to realize what I am able to do and the value that I can deliver, I do now find it an equal playing field.”

Both women joined the tech industry 30 years ago. Sherry at an exciting time, when the internet was becoming a commercial network and email was just starting to be a thing. “I took a summer job during my second year at University with an IT company to gain some work experience. I asked lots of questions and found out that the telecoms market in the UK was deregulating and thought there was the opportunity there to specialise in this space.” Completing her degree, Sherry started a consultancy and within a few months found a customer wanting to refresh all their telecoms. From here, her first company Worldstone was born, followed by Xalient some 25 years later. 

For Lesley, she had the opportunity to join the sector at the age of 18. “I was working in a clerical role for United Biscuits when the opportunity to join IT as a computer operator came up,” remembers Lesley. She applied and was offered the role as one of 2 females on a team of 16. “It was my first experience of bias from an interview process, but from that point, I’ve never looked back,” says Lesley, who has had a very traditional career through IT and has loved every minute of it. 

In the UK, just 17% of tech staff are women, and even though we are slowly starting to see a change, with more and more women entering the industry, it’s clear that there is continued work to be done. But how do we change this? 

Time for change   

Only 35% of STEM students at University in the UK are female, and schools/the education system should be the initial starting point of raising awareness both Sherry and Lesley agree. “There are a variety of job opportunities the tech industry has to offer and it’s important to change the perception that there is more to the industry than complex codes, or being a ‘geek’,” says Sherry. Lesley adds: “More visible female role models in the industry for young women to look up to and aspire to is also key.” Seeing what other women have achieved, and having vocal spokespeople for women in tech, will undoubtedly encourage more ambitious women into the industry. 

But what about employers?

Sherry and Lesley both understand their responsibilities in ensuring they can continually attract, support and retain female employees. “The pandemic has shown that working remotely is fully possible whatever your role, and I think that helps attract returners back to work or new entrants into tech for those who need or prefer flexible working,” Sherry said. Both Xalient and Kellogg’s have been fully supportive of flexible working. “You’ve got to be forward-thinking,” adds Lesley. It’s critical that all businesses work towards creating an environment where everyone, regardless of their gender, or any other factors for that matter, can flourish. 

“I hear these jobs like software chef, software wizard or project ninja and they just sound more appealing than typical IT Jobs,” said Sherry, who supports the idea of making IT roles sound more appealing and accessible. “It helps if we describe what we do better, in a way that people can relate to” Sherry said.

The field of technology is often perceived as a man’s world, and it’s going to be companies, like Kellogg’s and Xalient, that focus on building rich, diverse and inclusive cultures that will undoubtedly help drive the change needed to balance the playing field.