Getting women into technology

The Government needs to do more to make IT more appealing to girls at school, says Sheila Flavell, Chief Operating Officer of  IT services organisation FDM Group.

“It’s seen as boring and male-dominated when it can be fun and sexy. There are so many different roles in IT and yet children just learn that it is about Word, Powerpoint and Excel. It’s really not a very clever approach,” she says. “Kids want to learn about mobile apps and cool things. Children as young as three and four are playing on apps. They are hooked on technology. Why can’t the government manage to hook them on IT education?”

Flavell has just been named one of Cranfield School of Management’s 100 Women to Watch and is a big champion of women in technology. She says that apart from encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects at university, one of the group’s major challenges with girls is to get them to see how diverse the roles are for women in IT. “They often see it as just about engineering when there are all sorts of roles within IT,” she says.

Another challenge is keeping talented women in the industry after they reach middle management. Sheila says flexible working has helped, particularly homeworking, for those with families, although she emphasises that you can’t work from home with a screaming baby. “Childcare is important, but not everyone has to do their work between 9am and 5.30pm any more.” She thinks there still needs to be a change in mindset among some managers about homeworking, though. Some still doubt people are working if they can’t see them, although research shows remote workers tend to overwork rather than underwork. “Employers still need to get their heads around monitoring output rather than hours spent sitting in the office, though,” says Sheila.

She says being nominated for awards and honours such as the Cranfield one is a good promotional tool and tends to lead to requests for trustee and board positions, especially since FTSE companies are so busy looking for women to add to their boards in the wake of the Lord Davies report. As you can only be on the Women to Watch list for two years running the list gives companies a greater pool from which to draw instead of always going to the same small group of women. “It’s a good way of finding women,” says Sheila.

She has been in technology for 24 years and when she started there were very few women. Now they make up 25% of the workforce so there is still a way to go.

Sheila is used to working in male-dominated professions. She started her career in the police force in the 1970s. She was working on the beat in Glasgow and her sergeant put her on the toughest beat. “He wanted to show men that women couldn’t do the job,” she says. Sheila wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. “I bought some bike clips to stop the rat running up my trousers during the dustbin strike and befriended the mortuary attendant. It was a survival game, like the Hunger Games,” she laughs.

She stayed in the force for four years and then went to work in the Middle East, which she describes as “equally discriminating”.  She managed, however, to make it to the top at Gulf Air by keeping a low profile. She was in charge of 2,000 crew members – the first woman to reach that position.

Women in technology

She returned to the UK in 1990 where, soon after, she became the first employee of the IT company which went on to be FDM Group. “It was an exciting industry and I was ambitious to get into something that was going place,” she says.  She was recruited by her now husband, although she didn’t marry him until years later. Since she joined the group has become the largest hirer of IT graduates in the UK and she says its name has become synonymous with the struggle for gender equality in the workplace. “Four out of five women on our IT programme joined because of what we do for women. It was a conscious decision,” she says. “We know that if we don’t get more women into IT there will be huge unemployment issues for the future.”

FDM Group has a dedicated Women in IT campaign, sponsors events and sits on the panel of events on women in technology, runs its own Women in Technology Awards and has brand ambassadors in universities and schools. “We are always looking at new ways to push forward,” says Sheila. These include a women returners programme focused on soft skills like confidence building and IT skills which FDM Group is looking to partner with another company on. She adds: “We are seen as a leader in the field for women’s career progression and we throw a lot of financial resources at this.”

Women who come into FDM Group are offered pastoral support which, she says, recognises that there is unconscious bias against them, for instance, when they are working with clients.

Sheila’s role at FDM Group seems to have rubbed off on her own daughters. All three are working in IT. “They love it and have grown up understanding that if they want to get on in life they have to work hard,” she says. She not only told them, but showed them the value of hard work – at one point when they were young she was doing a double masters while working.

Sheila is optimistic about the future, although she admits women executives of the boards of FTSE companies still stick out like a sore thumb. But she feels women must share some responsibility for this and need to promote themselves more while organisations need to groom them for management better. She  says: ”I think employers realise that the problems lie in middle management. However, their internal policies often constrain progress, for example, the red tape around job shares. It’s also about taking a leap of faith and giving people a chance and about defeating unconscious bias. I still get asked at evening events who my husband is.”

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