Q & A with Sheila Flavell, COO of FDM Group

Sheila Flavell


Sheila Flavell, Chief Operating Officer of FDM Group, has just been recognised with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Scotland Women in Technology Awards. The Award was presented in recognition of Sheila’s work to bring greater diversity into IT.  Among her achievements, her latest initiative has been to introduce FDM’s Getting Back to Business programme for returners to the company’s Glasgow Academy. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to her about how to get more women into higher positions in STEM industries.

workingmums.co.uk: How much progress do you think there has been with regard to getting more girls to consider a career in IT?

Sheila Flavell: To date, I think we’ve created awareness of the issue and a lot of discussion around it and there are lots of very good schemes – like Stemettes, Everywoman’s Modern Muse, WISE’s People Like Me and our own Women in Tech initiative – to support girls as they explore the opportunities. However, we now need to build on this and we need to help those who influence young people parents, extended family and teachers understand the opportunities that a career in IT offers to their children.

WM: What works to convince girls that IT is for them?

SF: From my experience of speaking with some of the local school students we invite into our centres and the graduates who join our career programme, the real eye-opener for them is when they gain an insight and first-hand experience of what’s involved in IT. They realise that it’s not just coding or sitting at a computer all day long, but that it’s about people, it’s creative and it’s literally changing our world. Then they become excited about the prospect of being part of that change. Role models, mentoring and employers working with young people, their parents, teachers and influencers are key in enabling this.

WM: Does more need to be done to entice returners back?

SF: Earlier this year, the Government sanctioned £5m for returners, although this is a drop in the ocean, it is at least a starting point and shines a spotlight on the issue. Returners are an untapped talent pool and for the UK. They have the potential to help organisations fill their digital skills gaps. Since we started our Getting Back to Business programme, we’ve seen a lot of activity from many organisations, with different styles of programmes for returners. This is very much a growth area and I think we will continue to see developments as employers adjust to support returners. One of the basic things all employers can do is to look beyond the CV gap and recognise the talent and ability that someone has and the benefits they will bring their organisation.

WM: Is there still too much resistance to flexible working, such as job shares and remote working, even given IT enables this?

SF: Flexible working is a changing landscape year by year and sector by sector and there is no doubt that changes in technology are enabling greater flexibility. Some businesses find this easier to adopt than others. At the end of the day, every employer has to look at what it can do to accommodate its employees and help them create a work/life balance that works for all parties and that will help retain talent within our organisations. In the future, I’m sure that the nature of work will be disrupted by new technological innovation such as artificial intelligence which will have a big impact on roles and the way we all work.

WM: Is start-up culture more progressive or is a lack of women creating workplace culture problems for the future?

SF: Before we can address whether start-up culture is more progressive or not, one of the biggest issues we have is the investment attitude to women start-ups, despite the fact that research points to the fact that women are successful in business, more so than men. Only 9% of funding into startups in the UK went to women-run businesses whereas men are 86% more likely to be venture-capital funded and 56% more likely to secure angel investment, according to a report published earlier this year by the Entrepreneurs Network. Thankfully, despite the difficulties in getting funding, women are still creating businesses; a 2016 report showed there are 762 female-led companies in the UK with revenues of between £1m and £250m.

WM: How important is getting middle managers on board with diversity initiatives?

SF: For us, it’s not just about middle managers; it’s about embedding diversity very firmly in the culture of the company as a whole. This needs to be, and in our case is, driven from the very top. Rod Flavell, CEO, started FDM searching for talent regardless of background, ethnicity or gender. He knew if he did this, diversity would follow and so would success. If you are diverse you build a culture of innovation and creativity. Diversity simply can’t be a tick-box exercise; every single person in the organisation needs to be bought into it.

WM: Could Brexit and the skills shortage be an opportunity for greater diversity?

SF: We don’t yet know exactly what Brexit will bring; however, I think all employers will be looking at how they will continue to find the talent they need for their future skills needs. Our attitude is to recruit from as wide a base as possible and I think others will adapt their recruitment policies to achieve the widest possible recruitment base too.

WM: How important is getting more men to work flexibly for diversity?

SF: When we launched our returners programme we envisioned it would predominantly be attractive to women. However, we have had several male returners pass through the programme. I think attitudes are slowly changing to men taking career breaks and working flexibly. As employers we need to adopt policies and practices that support all of our employees to help us ensure we retain talent and help them establish a work/life balance.

WM: Is recruitment still done too much by word of mouth?

SF: I think that every employer wants their employees to make recommendations to their friends if they think you’re a great organisation to work for. I know that we do, we want returners, graduates and our ex-forces employees to recommend our programmes to their friends and many do. Once recommended these people apply and go through our recruitment processes like any other applicants for our programmes.

WM: How important is ongoing career development for all [ie not just full timers] for women’s career progression?

SF: I believe that you should never stop learning, whether that’s through formal routes such as study or by working with mentors and role models. Career development is a very important aspect for everyone. It’s not just about progression; it’s about all round growth and personal satisfaction. At FDM, we have a variety of options available to support people’s growth and progression, from a mentoring scheme open to all to e-learning platforms which employees can use to update their skills.

WM: Is FDM planning any new initiatives on the diversity front?

SF: We are continually reviewing our processes and keeping abreast with new thinking. Since launching our gender pay report earlier this year, where we reported an average gap of 6% and a median gap of 0% against the national median gap of 18.4%, we have introduced rising star breakfasts and started to look a junior management succession planning. We’ve also adopted a policy of removing education institutions from CVs and application forms that go to our recruitment team and we are looking to potentially introduce further game-based testing in our graduate assessment centres.

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