The most influential women in UK tech
Finding female role models in the IT industry is, statistically speaking, no mean task. According to the Government’s science gender-equality organisation, UKRC, there were 13 million women working in the UK in 2008, the latest figures available.
But only 5% of them were working in the science, engineering and technology (SET) sectors, compared to 31% of men. No wonder companies have told us they struggle to find qualified female recruits.
The shortage of women going into the industry filters through higher up the chain of command to the boardroom, where they hold only 9% of directorships in SET companies.
The gender imbalance makes the achievements of our British female tech elite even more impressive. From the executive in charge of BT’s fibre broadband roll-out, to the head of future media at the BBC, and the Superintendent of the Police Central e-Crime Unit, we’ve tracked down and interviewed women performing critical IT roles for some of the country’s biggest organisations.
Read on to find out why top tech positions shouldn’t be considered only jobs for the boys.
The fibre tzar
Olivia Garfield, chief executive, BT Openreach
While the headlines centre on what politicians are promising for Broadband Britain, Olivia Garfield had the onerous responsibility of delivering it – she was once tasked with building the UK’s next-generation fibre infrastructure.
In 2011, she was promoted to the top role at BT Openreach, which employs the 19,000 engineers charged with taking care of “final mile” of cabling that connects the UK’s homes and businesses to BT’s exchanges.
And in 2014, she became the CEO of water company Severn Trent, making her the youngest female CEO of an FTSE 100 company- not bad for a linguistics graduate that specialised in 15th-century French literature. However, being adaptable is one of the attributes that Garfield thinks is invaluable for women in senior positions.
“I didn’t get into IT until I started working at [consultancy firm] Accenture, which was good because there was a really good breadth of technology, and when I moved to BT I vowed not to get stuck on a single technology,” she said. “If you go into a single technology you either get a really good, deep understanding of the area or you glaze over,” she added.
“You need to think analytically and creatively, and that’s something women are good at,” Garfield said. “When you’re junior, you tend to be focused on one thing. Now I’ll have a meeting in the morning about fibre deployment, then on Wi-Fi strategies, then another on white-space spectrum allocation, then on rural broadband; and later I might be talking about TV evolution. There’s no greater role than this one.
“There will also be meetings on how to improve customer experiences, how can we move or lead the industry through our role as a wholesale provider, or how we go about micro-trenching for fibre, or being hands-on with technology companies.”
One career achievement stands out on Garfield’s CV. Although the speed of BT’s fibre roll-out has been criticised, it wouldn’t have taken off without Garfield’s input. “The biggest thing is fibre – it was my baby,” she said proudly.
“I made the business case, sold it to the board and was involved in elements of the engineering, plus trying to sell it to the public. When we’ve finished, we’ll have deployed fibre quicker than anywhere else globally. And it will make a difference to the shareholders and customers.”
It’s a major achievement, and Garfield believes women in IT need to make sure that these are always acknowledged. “As a senior woman you have to get on with just doing your job. If you’re in a meeting with only men then you need to ignore that; otherwise, you risk it becoming an issue.”
The multimedia mogul
Kerstin Mogull, COO, Future Media & Technology, BBC
Responsible for delivering the BBC’s future technology platforms, Kerstin Mogull dealt with almost every area of the BBC. “Future Media & Technology is the technology powerhouse at the BBC – it covers online media, converging media and IPTV, for example. It also covers research and development, so looking at what technologies will be doing in ten to 15 years’ time,” Mogull said. “The third element is the technology that the BBC uses, from digital cameras and production technology, and we also look after digitising the BBC’s archive.”
Unlike some of her team, Mogull’s educational background isn’t in computing (she trained as an economist), but she realised early in her career that technology would drive consumer access. She was a driving force behind the phenomenon that is the iPlayer.
“With the iPlayer, I was involved in leading it from a strategy point of view, all the way from a concept on a piece of paper, trying to work out what on-demand would mean to the BBC, and convincing the organisation it could cope with the change. Now we have 140 million download requests a month.”
As with many of our top ten, Mogull’s days are varied. “On a typical day, I might be looking at longer-term things or specific points such as the iPlayer and what new features we might want,” she said. “Or we might be discussing mobile apps, working out who we should be collaborating with, and understanding what consumers are interested in.”
Mogull believes that women bring complementary skills to technical roles. “We’re perhaps less obsessed with bells and whistles, and can explain technology to other executives in a way that’s clear.”
The museum mastermind
Sarah Winmill, Chief Information Officer, British Transport Police
While huge corporations might have specific teams for each section of their IT systems, Sarah Winmill is a jack-of-all-trades with years of experience behind her.
For the past two years, Winmill has served as the British Transport Police Chief Information Officer, but most of her growth as an IT head occurred during her five years with the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she directly ran nearly aspect of the museum’s systems.
“To an extent, IT heads have to be generalists. But you have to know what questions to ask, so you have to stay current in several fields,” she said. “We run all the IT, so we support the museum and 1,000 members of staff, the digital archiving, and we also run educational workshops. We’re also a retailer in terms of sales through our shops, as well as a publisher and printer, and we support all this in-house.”
One of Winmill’s day-to-day roles was overseeing the digitisation of the collection – a huge undertaking given the number of artefacts in the catalogue that need preserving for posterity and online access.
“Given the scale of the collection, there’s always something to do,” she said. “There are, for example, 1.2 million 3D objects and we have a team photographing them at 120MB a pop. We have half a million photographed so far, and data storage is one of the biggest challenges.”
Despite the trend towards outsourcing data to the cloud, Winmill kept it within the V&A, where she knows it’s safe. “We have high-integrity requirements, and although availability has been as good as any service level agreements in the cloud, it isn’t the overriding factor for us – it’s still far cheaper overall to keep it in-house.”
Winmill’s educational background was in music, not science or technology. “I’m a classic IT person in that I wasn’t initially trained in the field, but was seduced into it. I trained as an orchestral viola player – I was one of the few people that got into IT for the better hours, with less weekend and evening work,” she said.
Once she fell into the industry, she quickly realised the need for further education if she was to fulfil her potential. “I started as part of an install team on a ticketing system and quite quickly realised that input and output on wire was where it was all going. I formalised that with a masters degree in data communications in my spare time.”
Spells with consulting firms completed her education and Winmill says that she’s been made welcome in the industry, but still believes there’s room for improvement.
“It irritates me at trade shows when there’s a sexual element with what girls are wearing on the stands, and I think that’s inappropriate. I sometimes say I’m not interested in a product because they clearly aren’t interested in marketing to me.”
The financial high-flyer
Jane Phillips, COO for Global Rates & Currencies Technology, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Not your average banker, Phillips’ job is to ensure the IT behind billion-dollar currency deals works properly, in an environment where downtime could cost millions.
Another classically trained musician, Phillips got into IT when she realised music didn’t pay too well and went to work for BT. They sent her on training courses to gain more relevant qualifications, which led to a position at the London Stock Exchange at a time when electronic services were being introduced.
“My main focus of expertise is in operations and transformation programmes,” she said. Her daily routine varies, and she spends her day liaising with teams in Asia, Europe and the US.
The perfect host
Kate Craig-Wood, Managing Director, Memset
Craig-Wood began programming when she was only nine years old. Her technical nous led to successful roles with consultants and web hosts before she started her own company, Memset, a multi PC Pro award winner as the UK’s best host.
With a degree in biomedical science, Craig-Wood has a strong scientific background. That has helped with the technical intricacies of not only building a solid business, but also one that claims to be the UK’s first carbon neutral ISP.
“We set up shop and built the systems, did the marketing and technical support – now I have more of a commercial role, but I started very hands-on,” she said. “My focus is now more on strategy, new ideas and where business comes from. We’re also trying to get into bigger government contracts, and that means focusing on quality assurance and ISO qualifications.”
As a transgender female, Craig-Wood knows more than most the different strengths and obstacles faced by both sexes.
“Males are often great at technology, but not always so good at communicating it,” she said. “I do a lot of London networking and speak at a lot of conferences and events, which men don’t always enjoy. Getting a male and female perspective at the top is increasingly important.
“I’m female, but I grew up as male and from an early age was encouraged towards science. People expect girls to be less technical and that’s a big disservice to girls and the IT industry. I speak at schools because we need to get more girls into IT.”
Craig-Wood believes IT in schools is boring because it’s about basic skills that children can do in their sleep. “They’re not being exposed to the creative side of things, such as programming.”
The technical arm of the law
Charlie McMurdie, Head of the Police Central e-Crime Unit
The IT industry certainly doesn’t seem dull when you’re trying to crack international cybercrime gangs or deploying the latest computer forensics to catch murderers, which both fall under Superintendent Charlie McMurdie’s remit.
Although McMurdie came from a non-technical background – 29 years of undercover work, murder and the Flying Squad – she’s now responsible for employing technical staff to build up the computer crime unit she created.
McMurdie’s role involves pulling together various aspects of technology within the police and lobbying for much-needed additional funding.
“It’s about focusing on the forensics capabilities within the force, to help solve cases and get prosecutions; it’s about training both for mainstream officers and dedicated officers that are working in e-crime,” she said.
The search firebrand
Shivaun Raff, Founder, Foundem
Not one to shy away from taking a risk, Shivaun Raff’s skills have eventually led her into a high-profile spat with Google in the European Commission.
A computer science graduate, Raff cut her teeth in technical roles with BT – first programming, then analysis and design. This grounding led her into consultancy, where her highlights included designing a content management system for a major retailer in only 12 weeks, after the company somehow forgot to include one in its website launch plans.
So when Raff and her husband started Foundem, the search engine, there was no shortage of technical nous. But it was Raff’s decision to stand up to her rivals that thrust her into the limelight when she lodged an anti-competition complaint to the EU, claiming that Google gave preferential rankings to its own products.
The complaint has sparked a full-blown EU investigation into Google’s practices, and being part of such a high-profile case has forced Raff to learn how commercial politics works.
“In the past year, I’ve had to learn a lot about non-technical issues, such as how the media works, and it can be pretty grimy,” she said. “Technology is a clean world where things are either right or wrong – and that was a really big shift.”
The green giant
Dr Kirstie McIntyre, Head of Environmental Compliance, HP
Ethical responsibilities are an integral part of the IT industry, and environmental awareness has gained prominence in recent years.
Dr Kirstie McIntyre heads up a team of environmental engineers at HP looking at minimising the green impact of technology – what materials go into equipment, how to lower power consumption, and lobbying industry bodies and governments on regulation of green issues.
“I’m one of those rare people that qualified in environmental engineering and went on to work in that field,” said McIntyre, who undertook a PhD while working for Xerox.
“I love the job and the fact that I can make a difference. I’m not a radical; I work for an IT company and that means selling computers, but I believe IT can be an enabler of environmental good.”
Much of her work involves measuring what that impact is. “In a typical day I might be looking at how greener IT solutions can make a difference – such as smart networks or green grids,” McIntyre said.
“But it’s about more than that, such as how these things should be measured. If governments are going to buy based on efficiency then there need to be clear methods for measuring them. If HP, for example, says it’s 98% efficient, and Dell says it’s 99%, what does that actually mean?”
Although she says an ability and willingness to learn is more critical to success than possessing the correct qualifications, the majority of her team have PhDs.
Looking after environmental issues in 118 countries means there’s plenty of opportunity for travel. Although half of her team is female (HP has a good record for employing women at senior positions), she recently attended a conference on green electricals where only three out of 100 attendees were female.
“There is a difference, but it’s mostly down to schooling, not the industry,” she said. “There was no careers advice pushing us towards sciences in the 1980s. School was very geared towards churning out nurses and other traditional female roles.”
The Cyber Baroness
Baroness Joanna Shields, CEO, BenevolentAI
Very few women in the tech industry have as many accolades as Joanna Shields. The BenevolentAI CEO was named No. 1 on the Wired 100 in 2011, and she was awarded the OBE for her “services to digital industries and voluntary service to young people.”
Her accomplishments are well-earned. Her MBA from George Washington University has given her and a knack for business. She’s spent her entire career working with some of the largest names in tech, like Google, Facebook, and AOL, and in 2014, she was named group CEO of the London-based medical startup BenevolentAI.
But most of her prestige has come from her government work. She’s spent years of her career working on government cyber security teams as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Internet Safety, and founded an initiative called WePROTECT, which works to engage other companies and organizations in the effort to end internet child exploitation.
It was this work that earned her a place in the peerage in 2014, giving her the title Baroness Shields, of Maida Vale in the City of Westminster. A tireless advocate for children’s welfare, Lady Shields believes that a partnership government organizations and tech innovators is “absolutely vital” to combating cyber crime.
The globetrotting techy
Alicia Navarro, Co-founder and CEO, Skimlinks
Alicia Navarro is the perfect example of the jetset lifestyle that awaits tech-savvy women willing to work wherever the business takes them.
Having started programming aged nine, Navarro spent ten years developing online businesses and setting up Skimlinks, a tool that allows publishers to generate money from online content.
“I don’t code myself now, but I understand the technology involved and what needs to be done,” she said. “I think it is hard for a non-tech person to head up a tech start up.”
Far from feeling excluded from IT because of her sex, Navarro says it has a positive effect. “A lot of business is all about building trust and rapport and females are generally good at that,” she said. “Most of the founders in San Francisco, for example, are engineers or programmers or techies, but they are encouraged to bring in a CEO to look after the commercial side of things. There aren’t many people that can do technical and commercial.”
The perception that IT is dull is often cited as a turn-off for women, but Navarro – whose bases in London, Sydney and San Francisco disprove the rule – blames the education system for the low ratio of female IT staff.
“The technology industry has got to get to girls when they are in school,” she said. “By the time they are in university it’s too late – the lure of other industries such as fashion, media and PR are all huge, but the IT industry needs to get across its benefits.”