Occupation & Background
My name is Siobhan Maughan. I trained as a software engineer and have worked in and around the technology sector for almost 30 years. Training as a software engineer originally, I have led engineering teams but have made a number of pivots in my career – I now focus on the more strategic aspects of mentoring and coaching senior executives in leadership positions on market-focused product strategy. I held a senior VP position in Product Management, so I have worked at all levels in the organisation and know the challenges that you can meet. I up-skilled as an executive and team coach, which I find is hugely beneficial when working with leadership teams.
I am also a mum of 3 – my not-so-small-kids are either in college or well established in the secondary school system. When I started out in college to train as a software engineer in the late 1980s, almost one-third of my college course were female – I believe the number of females taking technology courses is nowhere like that number now, and I wonder how we are going backwards in relation to encouraging more females to focus on STEM.
Gender Balance in the Technology Industry
There is a lot of talk lately about the lack of gender balance in the technology sector and the growing need to attract more female talent; we need to do more to show the sector as a place where women are encouraged and given the right supports to succeed. We need to show young women in school and college that they have the same chance of success and the same opportunities for promotion as their male counterparts. We need to see more female role models at a leadership level – otherwise, the lack of women in the technology sector will become a self-perpetuating problem.
The sector needs to do everything it can to address what is an acknowledged gender imbalance. I remember having a discussion with someone in the sector who said that they were slightly irritated by the drive towards “positive discrimination” in the technology sector – they stated that they viewed men and women as “exactly the same” in the work environment; if they were presented with two CVs for a software development role in their company – and they were identical on paper – they would just toss a coin to choose one. My belief is that it has to be about more than just tossing a coin or promoting positive discrimination without purpose. Science has proven that the male and female brains are pretty much the same – results in schools and colleges across maths and science subjects prove that boys and girls perform equally well. However, on average, less than 25% of technology roles are filled by women – this is an acknowledged figure across the world (in some tech companies, it is far less than even that).
If 50% of technology users in the world are women, then surely it is crucial that we get their input into the creation of the technology of the future! Fewer and fewer women are taking technology courses – given this acknowledged imbalance, we have to do more than merely “toss a coin” to fix the problem. The pool of addressable talent in the technology sector is shrinking as demand for the skills of both male and female technologists is growing – this problem will not go away without countermeasures being put in place.
If through inaction, businesses continue to perpetuate a view of the technology sector as a testosterone-filled and macho culture, then it will continue with its struggle to find talented people (men and women) to address this growing skills shortage. It will continue to alienate 50% of the population – females – from attaining the necessary skills in the first place.
Retention of Female Staff in Technology Sector
As well as encouraging more women to study science and technology, we need to do more to retain the skills of the women who already work in the sector. Studies have shown that 41% of women leave the technology sector after 10 years of experience, as opposed to 17 percent of men (https://www.dreamhost.com/blog/state-of-women-in-tech/). A 2008 Harvard Business Review report indicated that “reducing female attrition by one-quarter would add 220,000 people to the highly qualified [science, engineering, and technology] labour pool” (https://hbr.org/2008/05/women-and-technology-the-ugly). Across Europe, 20% of women aged 30 with ICT-related degrees work in the sector, but only 9% of women above 45 years of age do so. Women who have left the sector often feel that things have moved on too far for them to return; they can lack confidence in their ability and they need to familiarise themselves with the technologies and business models of today. Taking innovative approaches to up-skill and re-introduce this pool of talent to the skills-starved technology sector makes sense.
Women ReBOOT (https://www.softwareskillnet.ie/women-reboot/) was one such initiative that I had the pleasure to deliver for Technology Ireland for almost 3 years. This was a sector-led approach that specifically focused on supporting businesses in the ICT sector in Ireland to connect with experienced and competent female talent. This enabled these organisations to address specific resourcing opportunities in their organisations and to help them in meeting their diversity objectives. I passionately feel that women bring a lot to this sector in terms of their diversity of thinking and approach to their work.
When Technology Ireland approached me about this initiative, the Digital Technology sector was booming, employing around 120,000 people in Ireland (with about 5000 new job openings in the sector). Studies were showing the proportion of women employed in technology roles in Ireland was between 16 and 18%. And, as mentioned earlier, a key issue was that after 10 years of experience, an average of 41% of women leaves the technology sector.
The Women ReBOOT initiative used innovative approaches to support women to up-skill and to help re-introduce this highly competent pool of talent to the technology sector. The women in this programme were given the opportunity to re-engage with the sector through work placements. The companies then had the opportunity to engage with and assess these women – almost 80% were offered roles again in the ICT sector. There was such a transformational change in the women from their first day joining the programme to the day they graduated.
Coming into the room on the first day of the programme, many of these women held strong beliefs that re-engaging with the technology sector was just not possible. With my background in coaching, I could use our initial seminars with these women to help them to tackle these very limiting beliefs and to develop a forward-looking focus. They suffered from a loss of confidence in their professional ability and a lack of recent experience. They had outdated technology skills, a lack of professional networks, and a lack of information on job roles that were in demand. With no idea how to approach the workplace (after what was sometimes a long period of time), many of them just felt completely stuck and feared that there were little or no opportunities to get back in. Many had the impression that the sector has moved beyond them and that tech companies were now dominated by younger professionals with skills that were too difficult for them to learn. They were also worried about how they would manage family and work responsibilities.
An integral aspect of the programme was the time and coaching support that was given to the women. It is wrong to think that simply re-engaging them with the sector with some technical re-training is the answer. Many of these women needed the time to talk through their concerns with a trained coach – someone focused on helping them to see the bigger picture and who could help them to achieve their goal.
Returning to work after a long period of time is a hugely emotional journey for some of them, especially those who have been out of the sector for over 10 years. Helping them to get a much clearer view of their professional strengths and core values, as well as developing better self-awareness, was crucial. We supported them to not focus on the gap in their CV, but to instead think about the skills that they have acquired in their career break – transferrable skills. The training they received in CV and interview preparation proved invaluable in their ability to re-engage with the IT sector and articulate their core strengths. They up-skilled in over 130 online programmes and most continue to engage in eLearning. These women are now part of an established mentor and returner network where they continue to encourage and motivate each other.
Initiatives for Women Returning to Work
These women returners are a fantastic resource pool for companies because they are often in a more settled time in their life and have established routines around family life that allow them to focus more clearly on their careers. They often have great work experience and the energy and enthusiasm for returning – they are hugely focused and motivated to up-skill and develop their capabilities. Although companies might have the perception that these women returners are technically obsolete, this is very much a temporary condition – the right training and attitude addresses this concern. Women returners are typically “self-starters” who are already actively seeking the necessary support to up-skill and hit the ground running in the organization.
I loved the opportunity that I was given to deliver a programme that supports these amazing women to get back into careers that reflected their capabilities – I am proud when I observe their ongoing progress on LinkedIn. The Women ReBoot programme was one of the most professionally rewarding initiatives I have ever worked on and I am delighted to have even played a small part in helping this amazing cohort of female talent to return to the ICT sector. We need more initiatives like this across other sectors – this is not a challenge only being faced by the technology sector.