An alphabet for empowering Women in IT: Taking Collaboration to the Next level

By Ruby Dixon,Transformation Consultant, lead WiT Board Member

The ever-expanding technology sector now constitutes around 8.4 per cent of the total UK economy. Competition for jobs is tough regardless of the applicant’s capabilities. Despite this, the sector is famously under-resourced. There are 105,000 vacancies in ICT (e-skills) and even with 30,000+ graduates in Computing Sciences, it takes time before new staff can be trained to fill the gap. A raft of interesting up-to-date workplace research has been undertaken on how women are under-represented at all levels of the IT sector.

Equalities is a strong area for our public sector, but local government (LG) is arguably at a disadvantage to the private sector when recruiting and incentivising the IT’s best talent – regardless of gender.

Christine Peacock (former CIO of LB Hackney) and other women entering the early world of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in LG a few decades ago perceived themselves as accepted pioneers and didn’t recognise gender discrimination. Theirs was an ‘everyone’s on the same journey together’ mentality – a quest to discover what technology could do for the brave new world of the civic realm.

Austerity has reawakened this attitude in a new generation of female digital leaders in public services. As part of my role with the Socitm Women in IT (WiT) national Steering Group, I met two young women in IT who are leading digital collaboration and enterprise architecture in the Central Tri-Borough councils. Based in the heart of Royal Kensington and Chelsea, Amma Amosah and Katherine Richmond, are the archetypal 21st-century public servants with digital credentials.

Experts in computer sciences and communications respectively, Amma and Katherine work every day with corporate and front-line managers to harness digital technology for a better customer experience, improved services, and efficiency.

I caught up with them to find out more about their entry level to the IT sector, their typical day and aspirations for the future. The full interview resonates with many of your insights gleaned from our WiT events and on-line networks. Based on messages shared in this interview, WiT events, and headlines from respected global research, I’ve put together my own Alphabet of Top Tips for public sector Women in IT as a springboard for progression and leadership. If you find it useful, let me know on my Twitter handle: @rubymdixon

A is for Aspire — It’s ok to be ambitious and aspirational. Think about where you are now and where you’d like to be in 1, 3 and 5 years’ time, and think about external drivers that might present opportunities; and your skills fit

B is for Boldness– put your hand up. Let others know that you want to variety and involvement in your organisation

C is for Confidence – this comes from understanding the challenges you face and options available to you, so do your preparation, and speaking up for yourself and if appropriate others

D is for Dependable – earn credibility and trust by doing what you say you’ll do

E is for Explore your potential – find time to reflect on your strengths, where you can apply them and where you need to develop them

F is for Flexibility – this is a two-way street – be prepared to be flexible where and when you can to support your team and organisation, but don’t allow yourself to become over-burdened and undervalued

G is for Group – gender inclusion isn’t about you on your own but group action – for women leaders, public sector employees and board members together, gender equity is more than a social justice issue, it makes good business sense and improves productivity, engagement and decision-making. This is best harnessed collectively not alone.

H is for Health and Wellbeing – We all get caught up on the treadmill of activity and pressure, but we should play the long game, so always take the time to think about your health and wellbeing. Just 10 minutes in a quiet space can return your mindfulness and help you maintain productivity and alert decision making.

I is for iteration – we can all take small steps to improve or innovate our work and lives. You have the capacity to for continuous learning and iteration so celebrate your capacity for learning, and apply what you learn on a daily basis to make changes for the better.

Case Study: WiT Taking Collaboration to the Next Level

Ruby: What’s your role in the council’s Digital Collaboration Team?

Amma: For us it’s about introducing and embedding new digital processes and tools that make a visible and cultural difference to our workplace – but more importantly, for transformed outcomes in the quality and delivery for the councils’ residents, users and partners.

Ruby: How did you get involved with digital technology in the public sector?

Amma: My connection with the council dates back 1999. I did a sandwich course with a work at Kensington & Chelsea Council, and in the final year worked part time as an HR intranet officer, encouraging a cross-cutting HR function – the technology and software had changes so much since then! I’ve since gained Masters in Computer Sciences, and have combined my IT, coding, change management, and HR skills to engage staff.

Katherine: I joined RBKC nine years ago, as a Support Officer from Transport for London. This quickly moved onto Internal Communications and Web, where I worked with the then CEX and Corporate Managers every day on communications content. An opportunity came up for maternity leave cover to manage technical upgrades.

Ruby: It’s clear that no two days are the same, which means you can get a lot of variety. What are the underlying principles that determine your typical ways of working

Amma: We don’t make assumptions. We take a whole-systems approach that understands the connection between people and the technology, and this means some may need more support than others. We must earn respect from colleagues who have a non-traditional IT background – and that’s by add value to what they do so they can feel a positive difference.

Katherine: It’s our focus on needs and empathy: that means looking through the eyes of the business not IT. Communication is crucial – we strip out the jargon, put ourselves in other people’s shoes and use the technology to make their job easier. We know there can be resistance to change, but we aim for early engagement to build trust, and ownership.

Ruby: Councils are large, highly accountable organisations with professional and political complexities. What are the motivations that get you up for work each day?

Amma: It’s the day to day challenge of problem solving, and finding solutions for a better user-experience

Katherine: Having the freedom, trust and legitimacy to act on those problems. This means listening to be clear on what we are trying to achieve, and review if the technology can reduce their headache in an efficient and effective way. In the current environment, this means it must also save them time and money too.

Ruby: The mantra of the council is “Responsive, Innovative, Collaborative, Enterprising”, how have you seen this in practice?

Amma: Human Resources is a fantastic department – it’s very adventurous with IT. It was a volunteer early adopter of SharePoint, and unlike some other councils, it doesn’t view itself as a support service but a more strategic service so it can influence corporate application and roll out.

Katherine: The council is very forward thinking and this sets the tone of its conversations internally and externally. Before I joined, at TfL it was well thought of and had a high reputation for partnerships innovation, born from pragmatism.

Ruby: ‘Collaboration’ is in there, what complexities arise from being in a shared services arrangement across three high profile councils each with different cultures?

Amma: The cultures are different, and this means we have to adapt our ways of working and language with each council and the workforce. We nearly always say yes, but if there aren’t enough hours in the day then we’ll let people know when we can do it.

Katherine: We had to justify our existence, but wanted to keep and continue our centralised role so collaboration is crucial, but we must also manage expectations. That’s why we take time to build trust relationships

Ruby: As the new generation of Women in IT have you experienced any issues around gender inclusion in the workplace as some other women have?

Amma: No, there have been no real issues with gender inclusion; we have female manager and there is a good representation of women in Digital Collaboration Team

Katherine: That’s true – because the council has a high reputation, officers have longer service by and low churn so as younger employees, we’ve must prove themselves.

Ruby: What are the key challenges of your role moving forward?

Amma: There is so much to do that’s becoming increasingly difficult to take a strategic overview – which requires thinking space. We have to make our workforce more agile across the Tri-boroughs, so we are rolling out Office 360 as a consistent platform that fits our own direction and strategy across the tri boroughs.

Katherine: The pressures and workload are increasing across the local government. I’m slightly fearful this may lead to loss of creativity. We’ll need to be equipping colleagues with the skills and technology to stay at the forefront, and exploring the potential of other technologies such as machine learning; and we’ll play a role in helping colleagues and residents in adapting to self-service.

Ruby: One of the findings of our WiT networking events has been the importance of work-life balance. How do you practice this?

Amma: I do this by spending time with my family – I have two children who keep me on my toes. I’ve also joined a running group, and we’ve use apps to organise short runs in the woods. We are all different ages, and it’s culminated in us doing a Cancer Walk, which meant we had a good cause goal to work towards. I feel fitter and more energised inside and outside of work.

Katherine: It’s interesting you’ve mentioned this as I’ve recently reflected on work-life balance. My day job is about creative problem solving, and outside of work I am a DJ and project manager for music festivals – this is also highly creative.

Ruby: You entered the LG IT sector through different front doors. What are your aspirations for the future?

Amma: Continuing to be at the heart of the corporate centre of the councils to deliver agility and a showcase for collaboration.

Katherine: Career-wise it’s hard to see what’s next. Currently, resources are tight and it is hard to get extra support unless they are contractors – that can provide an opportunity for learning. For me it’s about continued training and development, and experiencing new things.

To support this, Ruby Dixon and Martin Ferguson, Director of Policy and Research at Socitm have published a draft policy briefing ‘Leading Edge Women Leading Digital’ which is available on Socitms Women in IT Knowledge Hub group. Please visit the group to add your comments.

An alphabet for empowering Women in IT: Taking Collaboration to the Next level

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