In honour of International Women’s Day, our Marketing and Communications Manager, Alison Orr interviewed our Head of Skills, Heather Thomson about her career journey and what she has learned along the way.
As the Head of Skills at The Data Lab, Heather Thomson manages one of the largest teams in the organisation and has recently been promoted to join the Senior Leadership Team. Demand for Data Talent continues to grow as business, and life in general, becomes more impacted by data. The Skills Team provide a range of services, supporting people looking to develop their data skills across a range of levels and working with industry and businesses to connect them into Scotland’s emerging data talent pool.
1. What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
If you had asked me twenty years ago, it would have been a different answer but working in tech for over 20 years has highlighted the importance of International Women’s Day. For me it is about celebrating the success of women across the globe and their achievements whilst raising the awareness that there is still a way to go in recognising stereotyping and bias.
The book ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez was a real eye-opener for me in highlighting the effects of data bias on every day life for women in a world designed with men in mind. For example, under-representation of women in drug trials, mobile phone designs being too large for female hands, voice controlled software not recognising higher pitched voices and women not being as safe as men in their workplace as a result of being provided with PPE that is not designed to fit the female body.
Whilst these examples are of data bias, they highlight a broad range of areas in research and design where the requirements for women were not given as much consideration, if any at all.
Celebrating International Women’s Day also provides an opportunity to highlight the work and campaigns going on around the world that are available to support women in their personal and professional lives. Although this support is available throughout the year, the opportunity to shine a light on these valuable resources on this day in particular helps to promote the availability of these to help women with career support, health advice, discrimination and other challenges.
2. What more could organisations do to support women (and diversity in general) in the workplace?
I think organisations are already making real progress in this area, but there is room for more change. Companies need to listen, to explore and to learn. I think that in general The Data Lab do well at this with the whole team encouraged to demonstrate Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) values in everything that we do. Support and Respect are two of our main company values, and this ethos is evident when talking to people who work for The Data Lab, but we strive to do better, looking to learn from other organisations, personal experiences and specialists such as EQUATE.
I think organisations are already making real progress in this area, but there is room for more change. Companies need to listen, to explore and to learn.
Workplace diversity should be integrated into all areas of work, not just in recruitment. For example, across an organisation it’s important to consider every area where diversity matters. In the instance of The Data Lab this covers many areas including within teams, when allocating scholarship funding and when planning events. We aim to ensure that EDI is embedded throughout everything that we do.
It is vital to be prepared to be challenged and to learn, with the ambition to improve and be proactive rather than reactive.
I think it’s important that organisations don’t assume that because they have an EDI policy in place and nobody is complaining, this means that there is no room for improvement. It is vital to be prepared to be challenged and to learn, with the ambition to improve and be proactive rather than reactive. It only takes one person being unhappy or unsupported, to change the dynamic of an organisation.
An important point for organisations to consider is how they provide support in the workplace for women throughout the various milestones of their life. For example, pregnant team members supported throughout their pregnancy which for many can be a very difficult time; and return to work after maternity leave is life-changing as women can struggle with adapting to the multiple responsibilities and battling priorities all of which can be happening on minimal to no sleep.
Another topic which has become more visible recently is menopause, with many women facing a daily battle to continue to function whilst adapting to changes over which they have no control and where accessing medical support can be challenging. These are just some of the scenarios in which organisations need to be considerate and create a supportive and inclusive environment. In addition to the more obvious challenges that these situations present, comes the risk of imposter syndrome, which in itself is an area which organisations should be mindful of, ensuring that this is recognised and that support is available for those who need it.
Organisations need to take responsibility for starting these conversations, advertising their awareness and openness, demonstrating their pro-activeness to support in these types of situations.
Organisations need to take responsibility for starting these conversations, advertising their awareness and openness, demonstrating their pro-activeness to support in these types of situations. The opportunity for women to join ongoing conversations rather than feeling they have to put their hand above the parapet or raise something that is ‘not spoken about’ can be a real confidence booster as people realise they are supported and not on their own in what can sometimes seem an endless battle between work and home life.
3. Tell us about any inspirational women in your life.
When I think about inspirational women, there are three that immediately spring to mind.
Professionally I would like to mention the ex-Chief Executive of The Data Lab, Gillian Docherty OBE. From a leadership perspective Gillian personifies the word ‘inspirational’; her presence, confidence, and open and transparent nature have a huge influence on her leadership style. As a manager Gillian, encourages you to be confident and take the risks knowing that you have her support, always ensuring that people are recognised for their achievements. Gillian is a role model for female leaders all over the world and the type of leader I aspire to be.
From a personal perspective, there are two. My mum has taught me so much over the years and as I grow older the respect I have for her also continues to grow. As a mother myself, only now can I begin to imagine how difficult life must have been for her losing her own mum when she was only 21. So many years, events and advice they were unable to share, and knowing how much support I had and continue to have from her since having my own children, I can’t imagine having got through the last 10 years without her. Even in her 70s now she is my rock, full of life, fun and wisdom and I hope that my children see me in the same way that I view her in years to come.
Finally, I would like to mention my friend Karen Henderson, who sadly died last year. Without a doubt the single word to describe Karen is Inspiration. Diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at 44, from the minute she received her diagnosis, Karen decided she wouldn’t let cancer win. Karen spent five years moving from one treatment and surgery to the next in her fight against the disease. However, no matter what was thrown at her and how awful she felt, not a day went by that Karen wasn’t smiling, joking, laughing, shopping, singing and dancing, and devoting every ounce of energy that she had to raising funds for research into secondary breast cancer, determined that even although it might not be able to help her directly she would make a difference for other people. During this time Karen raised over £35,000 for research into secondary breast cancer and created a significant legacy that continues to live on through the Karen Henderson Legacy Fund. With Karen, there is no doubt that her mind-set and positivity played a significant part in prolonging her life, I have so much respect for how she dealt with the situation and would aspire to have her strength and determination in a similar situation.
No matter what was thrown at her and how awful she felt, not a day went by that Karen wasn’t smiling, joking, laughing, shopping, singing and dancing, and devoting every ounce of energy that she had to raising funds for research into secondary breast cancer, determined that even although it might not be able to help her directly she would make a difference for other people.
4. What barriers (if any) have you encountered in your career and how did you manage this?
In all honesty, I don’t think I have experienced barriers that I have recognised. Having said that, my entire career has been based in male dominated sectors.
I was always interested in computing. During my Computer Science undergraduate degree, only three of eighty students were female and by the end of the course, it was only me remaining. I didn’t feel intimidated, or out of place, I just got on with it. For the first ten years of my career every job I had was in male dominated industries and environments.
Did it make you feel like you had to work harder?
At the time, no – but looking back now I think I probably did, somewhat unconsciously, adapt my behaviour and style in order to fit in. I imagine that some of the traits I developed were as a result of spending so much time in male-dominated environments. I never ever felt uncomfortable, unhappy or unsupported, in fact I really enjoyed working in these roles and had the opportunity to work with some fantastic people who I have the utmost respect for. However, it wasn’t until recently I was attending a training course and was asked to reflect on this, that I realised that these days I feel that I’m a much more authentic version of myself. I’m not sure what has changed over the years, whether it’s that I entered motherhood and have a different view on life entirely or that although I still work in a male-dominated sector, I’m now in a less male-dominated environment with around 50% of The Data Lab being female. I’ll probably never be able to pinpoint the change but I do know I feel much stronger and confident for it.
Where is the aspiration for a junior graduate who joins a company to find that everyone above a certain level within the organisation is a stereotype white male?
5. How important is it that there are female representatives at a senior level in organisations?
It’s extremely important for there to be gender (and other) diversity at senior and board levels to ensure representation at a strategic level and to inform decision making. From difference in perspectives, strong communication skills, the ability to wear different hats, balancing work and home life, to the different ways in which women’s brains approach and solve problems, it is essential to have diversity across all levels of an organisation.
It is also important for organisations to represent female role models at a senior level, as leaders and as mentors. Where is the aspiration for a junior graduate who joins a company to find that everyone above a certain level within the organisation is a stereotype white male?
From difference in perspectives, strong communication skills, the ability to wear different hats, balancing work and home life, to the different ways in which women’s brains approach and solve problems, it is essential to have diversity across all levels of an organisation.
If organisations want to be viewed as proactively supporting increased EDI within the tech sector this is an extremely important consideration. Returning to a previous question where we discussed bias, it is essential for the tech sector to attract more women, including at senior levels, if we are to maximise the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and ensure that technology is developed from a balanced perspective for the benefit of everyone.
6. How diverse and supportive of women would you say the tech sector is?
There is certainly an increased awareness of EDI within the sector but as we mentioned before, there is always room for improvement. The recent events and impact of Covid-19 have to some extent helped organisations be more supportive of women as they have adapted to flexible/hybrid working and realised that this can be achieved without a reduction in productivity, in fact for many it has led to an increase. However, it’s worth noting another side to this where the boundaries between work and home life have become blurred, creating increased pressure for many.
To impact a real step change in the future it is essential to focus on making the sector an attractive place to work, promoting careers in STEM to attract girls from grassroots school level.
To impact a real step change in the future it is essential to focus on making the sector an attractive place to work, promoting careers in STEM to attract girls from grassroots school level. There are some fantastic initiatives such as the DELL STEM Aspire programme, Scottish Women in Technology, Women in Stem and Dresscode. I also strongly believe that in order to attract young people into STEM it needs to be embedded across the curriculum, enabling those who may struggle or have no interest in the traditional STEM subjects to learn the importance of these skills and their relevance to everyday life, hence making them more attractive and interesting.
My hope is that the changes seen in the tech sector keep up the pace, keep up the agenda and always push for new things where there are gaps. A sense of community is so important in helping people to feel supported, and providing the opportunity to meet, share and learn from like-minded individuals. The initiatives mentioned above are small communities in themselves but it is the role of the wider tech community in Scotland and beyond to work together to attract more women and to keep them there by ensuring that they feel supported and welcome.
From a Data Lab perspective, we recently created a Community Platform which we are actively encouraging people with an interest in data from all walks of life to join. It offers a platform to engage in conversation and interesting discussions in a safe space, to network with people in a similar sector and we also post jobs too. We arrange webinars for a wide and diverse range of speakers; we want to help demonstrate the breadth of people who work in the data and AI sector.
7. Data Talent, which you manage, always has a very diverse panel of speakers, how do you manage to ensure this works?
Data Talent is Scotland’s largest in-person showcase, bringing together fresh talent from across Scotland with organisations in the public, private and third sector, actively recruiting for a variety of roles in the field of data and AI. We are so excited to have the opportunity to have a face to face event again. We’ll be at the Hilton in Glasgow for the 2022 Data Talent on the 15th March and are expecting around 300 delegates.
When working with organisations to prepare for the event, we encourage them to think about demonstrating diversity in the way that they represent themselves with exhibitors, speakers and workshops. When it comes to inviting keynote speakers and panelists we always try to ensure there is a broad range of women and others who span diverse backgrounds.
Data Talent is an opportunity for employers to showcase what it’s like to work for their organisations and the roles they have available – we want to ensure that the event is attractive to women and they feel welcome and confident to attend. When working with organisations to prepare for the event, we encourage them to think about demonstrating diversity in the way that they represent themselves with exhibitors, speakers and workshops. When it comes to inviting keynote speakers and panelists we always try to ensure there is a broad range of women and others who span diverse backgrounds.
It’s important to remember for an event like Data Talent that delegates are coming to the event thinking about their future career and we want delegates to leave thinking of at least one organisation they met ‘I want to work there!’ – there is no doubt that in order for this to be successful, representing diversity is key.