It’s all about building networks to giving women the step up in IT

Walk into a room and be proud to be one of the many women who had the courage to step out and show just how good we can be at what we do.

For me, getting into IT was never an education or a school thing. At my comprehensive school in East Grinstead their job was to get us out to work as quickly as possible, so I left school at 15 and became a hairdresser. I was was rubbish so I tried it for three months then eventually went into the banks, and I was actually a receptionist at a wardrobe company.

At the time I started to use things like the first almost typewriter-type word processor. Then local area networking came into play and all of a sudden I was so interested in understanding how things connected together. We started to have computers talking to other computers and the most basic technology. I’d read things and I knew where the business was going. Everyone was talking about this reliance on IT- it was still really early days, but it was such a buzz. I decided that if I was going to out and make a name for myself, it was going to be in this area, so I went straight into London and I decided I wasn’t going to contract as a secretary to any other company than an IT group- I was quite focused about it. It was something you had to want for yourself, nobody was going to give you ideas. Even just going on the train into london my mum was a nervous wreck, it wasn’t something you did, to go from village life to that.

> See also: Women in IT Awards 2015- finalists revealed

I had no particular skills in IT so I started working in IT departments in administrative roles. On the second day of one of my contracts the lady training me on a word processor resigned, and I asked for the job. They were so shocked at my cheek that they hired me, and I became in charge of training and IT support. This was around the time of mainframes, changing big tapes- PCs weren’t really about. I worked as an IT contractor for ten years in the city, going from offices in Canary Wharf right down to crawling under the floors and doing ‘rat watch’ on my knees as I recabled the floors.

At the time it was an 100% male environment, and I never knew any different. As the only female contractor in network management at the time, I think I got more contracts than my counterparts because nobody else believed somebody would be prepared to pull cables. I’m still absolutely terrified of rats to this day, and I’ve got scars on my knees. For me networking was never hard, I completely got it. I was such an early adopter that I could stand out, and it wasn’t to do with being educated- everyone was learning.

After ten years working in the City I joined IBM in sales, and stayed for around 15 years. It was a great company to work for and I felt like I could be there forever, but one day I woke up and decided to do something bigger and better, so I joined Microsoft. I loved it, but after a year and a half I felt I was still firmly in my comfort zone. When Software AG came knocking at my door and asked me to consider taking on the UK business, I took it up. I went from a team of 12 to looking after a team of around 56. I’m completely proud I decided to make the jump, because I’d had opportunities in the past and I just was not going to chicken out of this one.

You don’t get many worse environments as a female than in IT on a trading floor, but I knew what I was getting into, and I wasn’t intimidated. I think I was very toughened from an early age, but you just get used to it when you don’t know any different. Once I got into sales I started to see a slightly more equal spread of women to men, but I was the only female sales person in Software AG when I joined, out of forty. Now I’ve got three female sales directors and I really good 50/50 split. Two of them were alerady here, one I brought into the business. Am I proud of that? Absolutely I am. Did I consciously go out and look for women? No, I didn’t, but am I pleased we have a fairly even split in my company, absolutely I am.

Software AG is perhaps not typical- we’re fairly unique. In previous organisations I could easily be the only female manager in the room. Microsoft had a slightly better split than IBM, and I think maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Microsoft sales are not as technical. Once you get the senior management though, it’s still really male dominated. There is still an absolute imbalance. When I looked at the C-level execs I’ve spoken to in the past year, I’d say around 10% are female.

Still, it’s getting better. Ten years ago that number might’ve been 5%. There are many women out there, you just don’t hear about them. That’s why I think the Women in IT Awards will be so exciting. I want to go out and circulate with other females in senior positions, and I want to walk into a room and be proud to be one of the many women who had the courage to step out and show just how good we can be at what we do.

15 years ago I was asked to go on the ‘women in IBM’ support team, and I couldn’t have run fast enough in the opposite direction. The whole thought of it was just horrifying – I never wanted to be called out as a female in work because it was my challenge nobody else’s. Whereas now when I’m sitting higher up the tree looking down at the challenges females actually face, I’d positively encourage it if there are networks we could build that would allow the cross-fertilisation of women in different parts of the organisation.

> See also: A quarter of women working in IT think it’s impossible to reach senior management

The problem is that the network of men is so vast- I go to female sellers and they might only know one or two others. We just don’t have the pool of skills to choose from, but it’s growing over time. But we can start to build these networks and environments- that’s why the Women in IT Awards was something I was really interested in. It’s our responsibility as female excecutives to mentor and encourage, and understand the issues females might face when wanting to move up the IT ladder. And it’s not just women in my company- I would be happy to mentor women in other companies, and I think that’s quite a female mentality! A man might be more reluctant to talk to the competition.

I really believe females have to be convinced by others to make the leap onwards and upwards- a guy is more likely to believe he can do it for himself. You need convincing or someone to take you under their wing, but it’s a bit of a vicious circle, because the females aren’t up there in the first place. Until we start being bigger and braver and bolder, we are a little more hesitant to step forward. We need to stand up and shout louder and make our voices heard.

Elaine Shoare is VP of sales at Software AG

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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