Female careers in technology

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Julia Whitney, General Manager of User Experience and Design at the BBC talks to workingmums.co.uk about her career and about women in technology.

When I ring Julia Whitney she laughs that her day very much illustrates the work life issues we are due to talk about. She is working from home as her son is sick, doing a few work calls before her husband comes home and takes over the afternoon shift. She says she splits childcare 50/50 with him and that this is vital to her being able to thrive in her senior management job at the BBC as General Manager of User Experience and Design.

He runs his own design company which gives him a degree of flexibility. This can be useful as Julia has to travel quite a lot for work, mainly to Salford. Sometimes she has to stay overnight which means her husband has to take on more of the childcare responsibilities.

Julia says there is no set routine for her work so she sits down with her husband once a week to do a planning session. “It is logistically challenging,” she says, adding that it can be particularly difficult when things crop up at school with little warning. “The BBC is a meeting rich culture. There are days when I have back to back meetings and so it can be hard to reschedule if advance warning is not given,” she says.

Julia began her career in the US where she worked for public broadcaster WGBH and taught design part time at Yale. She decided to leave WGBH because she had reached the limit of what she could do there and felt she needed a change of scene.

She met someone at a conference who worked for the BBC. She loved the expansive view the broadcaster took and decided to try and get a job there. She took a two-month mini-sabbatical from WGBH and through contacts got a six-week artist in residence type arrangement where she got to work in six different departments. The experience helped her to make connections.

When she went back to the US there were no jobs on offer, but shortly afterwards one of her contacts mentioned that there was a vacancy she could apply for at the BBC. She got the job in the central design team as user design manager, working on projects like the iplayer design. She moved up the ladder, rising to head of user experience and design, news, sport and weather. Then she became pregnant.

When she returned after a year’s maternity leave she was able to do so on a three-day week. However, she says: “It was hard at the level of seniority I was at to figure out a substantive role for me,” she says. She thinks this is a challenge for society as a whole and that it will only change when men start to take on more part-time roles.

Two years later Julia’s boss left. She was in the right place at the right time, she says. Many members of the team were leaving and the BBC wanted continuity. “That made me the best person for the job,” she says. “And I really wanted the job even though it was a very big stretch. It was a big opportunity. I was ready to engage the broader range of my skills and intellect.”

She took the job a year before the Olympics which was clearly a busy one, but Julia says her main job was to rebuild morale and that meant putting in some serious hours in her early months in the job.

Women in technology

Her son was at a childminder when she was working three days a week and has gradually moved over to nursery. Julia felt a bit uncomfortable about going back full time at first, but her son seemed to love nursery so she came to understand that it was her problem not his.

She realised, though, that she loves her work and would not be happy being a stay at home mum. “I would get too easily depressed and isolated. I enjoy being with a group of adults getting things done, much as I love being with my son,” she says. Her job at the BBC allows her the ability to use all her skills and to do so in as flexible a way as possible so she can spend quality time with her son.

Julia says that she wishes she could be more optimistic about women in technology. She feels it comes down to having leaders who are committed to consciousness raising and changing the work culture. “It’s very difficult in a male-dominated culture to understand what impact that has on others. There are a lot of well meaning, nice men who do not get the impact of having 10 men in a room with one woman,” she says.

She adds that organisations should not take their eye off the ball on gender. They should be transparent on how many women they employ, how many apply for jobs and how many go for promotions. “They need to keep an eye on what’s happening,” she says, “and we need to encourage women to be more bold.”

She states that the BBC’s future media team is doing a range of things to tackle the work culture and make it more attractive to women, including promoting flexible working and having board members mentor more junior staff members. Her team is fairly well balanced between men and women. One of the men in her team took additional paternity leave. She says he faced many of the same issues that women confront on returning to work after time out. “Everyone expected him to just pick things up. He needed support though. The more men do that the more society will offer that support,” she says.

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