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Inspiring the Next Generation of Women in Leadership in Tech

  • Publish Date: Posted about 1 month ago
  • Author:by Julie Mordue

As we celebrate International Girls in ICT Day, which this year falls on the 25th of April and revolves around the theme of ‘Leadership’, we are reminded of the remarkable strides women have made in the technology sector, shattering glass ceilings and serving as beacons for the next generation. The journey, however, is far from over; there remains an urgent need to amplify diverse voices, break down enduring barriers, and foster an inclusive environment where women can thrive as visionary tech leaders.

We’ve had the privilege of speaking with Joanne Todd, Chief Information Officer atSt John Ambulance, and Manila McLean, former CIO of Newcastle Building Society and Board Advisor for Dynamo North East who share their thoughts on the importance of female leadership in tech. But first, some important context and statistics.

The Historical Landscape: Women in Tech

The journey of women in technology has been a tale of resilience and gradual progress. Historically underrepresented, women have steadily carved their space within this dynamic sector. From the enigmatic Ada Lovelace to the pioneering Grace Hopper, the evolution of gender roles within the tech industry has seen significant shifts, yet the echo of historical imbalances persists.

Current State: Women in Tech by the Numbers

Despite concerted efforts to promote gender diversity in the technology sector, the gender gap persists. According to recent statistics, women remain underrepresented in STEM fields, including computer science and engineering. Women currently make up approximately 24%* of the technology workforce in the UK, mirroring the global urgency to amplify female participation in tech roles. Another source reports that women account for around 26%* of those working in IT roles, indicating a slight improvement from previous years but still underlining the need for ongoing initiatives to close the gender gap.

This disparity not only limits the talent pool but also hinders innovation and creativity, as diverse perspectives are crucial in driving technological advancements.

Women remain significantly underrepresented in software development, engineering, technology research, and academia, as well as in top-tier policy-making roles. Additionally, they exit science and technology jobs at a higher rate than their male counterparts. The STEM fields in particular reveal pronounced leadership gender gaps, with many women in ICT relegated to junior or support positions and facing limited advancement opportunities. They are less likely to ascend to executive roles, launch ICT ventures, or influence science and technology policy.

Nurturing the Pipeline: Increasing Girls' Participation in STEM Education

Girls' participation in STEM subjects in the UK has seen positive growth over recent years. Between 2010 and 2019, there was a 31%*increase in the number of girls taking STEM subjects at A-level. This trend continued with a significant 5.79% increase in female students taking STEM subjects reported in 2021*. Additionally, the number of women accepted onto full-time STEM undergraduate courses rose by 50% from 2011 to 2020, reflecting broader educational initiatives and changing societal norms that encourage girls to pursue these fields*. Despite this, girls are still less likely than boys to consider STEM subjects at A-level, which highlights the ongoing need for cultural and educational strategies to further reduce gender disparities*.

Breaking Ceilings: Women on Tech Boards

In the UK, women currently hold 40.2% of board positions across the FTSE 350 companies, exceeding the target set for 2025 three years ahead of schedule*. This significant achievement reflects the UK's strong position globally in terms of female representation on corporate boards*.

Despite these advances, the pace of change remains slow, suggesting a need for ongoing efforts and strategic initiatives to close the gender gap in corporate boardrooms globally.

Trailblazers' Perspectives: Fortunate Experiences, Nuanced Realities

We’re delighted to share our conversation with Joanne Todd, Chief Information Officer at St John Ambulance, and Manila McLean, former CIO of Newcastle Building Society and Board Advisor for Dynamo North East.

​Celebrating Women in Leadership

It's vital to spotlight the journeys of those who have navigated and excelled in the technology sector—particularly women who have reached the boardroom and shattered the proverbial glass ceiling.

We wanted to highlight the experiences, challenges, and insights from Joanne Todd and Manila McLean: their stories are not just personal triumphs but are instrumental in paving the way for the next generation of female tech leaders.

Blazing a Trail to the Boardroom: Joanne Todd's Inspiring Tech Leadership Journey

Joanne Todd

Joanne Todd, Chief Information Officer at St John Ambulance and non-executive director for North Star Housing, epitomises resilience and determination. Choosing to study computer engineering at Teesside University for its proximity to home rather than an inherent passion for computing, Joanne’s path was unconventional from the start.

Her university projects, including programming systems to manage radioactive waste and enhancing industrial processes, showcased her early ability to blend technical skills with practical applications, and the vital skill of explaining complex technology strategies in everyday language that the whole business can understand.

Joanne’s early career saw her embarking on a graduate scheme with British Airways before joining Syntegra, part of the BT Group, where she spent 19 years. She subsequently worked for the DWP playing a crucial role in the implementation of the Universal Credit System. Joanne’s work with the NHS and subsequently the Department of Health where she played a pivotal role in the launch of the Test & Trace technology showcased her ability to manage significant national projects from her North East base, challenging traditional expectations that such roles had to be London-centric.

Her journey underlines the significance of self-belief and mentorship in overcoming obstacles. Joanne reflects, "One of my biggest barriers was my own self-doubt. It was the support from role models and leaders who believed in my abilities more than I did myself that helped me overcome this." Her subsequent appointment as CIO of St John Ambulance post-pandemic further exemplified the evolving landscape of remote leadership capabilities, affirming a significant shift in how leadership roles are perceived and executed.

From C-suite to Board Advisory: Manila McLean's Expansion of Influence

After graduating from university, Manila McLean faced a significant career decision, choosing between continuing academia with a PhD and various promising industry roles. Opting against positions at JP Morgan and RBS for a more suitable fit at Standard Life, she focused on honing her management skills in the graduate training programme. Her role involved various responsibilities, including team leadership, marketing, and an international placement in Frankfurt, which eventually led her to manage a corporate pensions administration team. This role sparked her interest in technology, leading her to develop a 'group pension zone’, Standard Life’s first digital product for corporate pension clients.

Her career progression continued as she transitioned to working with Halifax Bank of Scotland, where she was involved in significant digital management, including speech recognition and voice biometrics technologies. The financial crisis shifted her career trajectory, leading to her role in digital transformation at Tesco Bank, where she was instrumental in setting up their digital practice. She was at Tesco Bank for nine and a half years, which included two years out for maternity leave.

Manila reflected that while she has found herself to often be the only woman in the room, she was rarely conscious of it at the time. While the organisations Manila has worked with have been inclusive, she commented that “diversity in tech still has a long way to go”.

In her most recent role as Chief Information Officer at Newcastle Building Society, Manila has steered the company through a significant modernisation phase and the introduction of digital competencies. Significant developments included the establishment of a full cybersecurity team and a shift towards specialised roles within the technology function.

She is actively broadening her influence by building a portfolio of non-executive director roles, the first being with a London-based fintech business called docSribute, advising on tech strategies and market penetration. She is also an advisory board member of Dynamo North East. As she takes on more roles, she anticipates a rich blend of responsibilities that utilise her expertise to drive innovation and growth in the tech and financial sectors.

In her role at Dynamo, she emphasises the importance of retaining local talent in the North East by providing opportunities that negate the need for relocation to larger commercial hubs like London. By promoting the local tech community and its benefits through advisory board initiatives, she highlights Dynamo's strategic focus on creating pathways for individuals to find fulfilling tech roles within their own community. This approach not only helps keep the talent pool vibrant and locally engaged but also demonstrates the viability of achieving one's career aspirations without leaving home.

Girls in ICT

As we strive to cultivate a more inclusive tech landscape, the significance of nurturing the pipeline from an early age cannot be overstated.

Manila McLean

Manila states, "It is crucial to enhance STEM education for young girls by introducing them to relatable role models early in their educational journey." She emphasises, "Young learners are particularly inspired by seeing peers—such as 18-year-old female apprentices—speak about their experiences in technology. These are the figures they can envision themselves becoming, not just the high-ranking leaders. Engaging girls with technology at an early age lays a foundational excitement and curiosity about the sector.

Once we have them in the sector, it is then over to women in leadership positions to spark inspiration, self-belief, and mentorship."

Envisioning a Balanced Future

As we look towards the horizon, the collective vision shared by Joanne, Manila, and countless other women leaders in tech is one of balanced representation and empowerment. A future where discussions about women in tech transcend the boundaries of gender, focusing instead on the invaluable contributions and innovative thinking they bring to the table.

The Stark Reality: Gender Disparities in Tech Education and Careers

Reflecting on her university days, Manila recalls, "When I started my computer science degree at Strathclyde University in 1994, I walked into the lecture hall filled with about 200 students. It felt like stepping back in time—190 of them were boys. It was a joint degree programme in computer science and management science, yet the gender imbalance was stark. I always knew I wanted to study computer science, but standing in that hall made me realise just how much of an outlier I was."

Reflecting on gender imbalances throughout their careers, both leaders acknowledge their fortunate experiences of not encountering overt bias in their workplaces. However, they recognise that perceiving such environments as bias-free might be seen as naive. Their experiences highlight how the visibility and impact of gender biases can significantly vary across different environments and stages of a career, marking the complex nature of these challenges.

Empowering Career Re-launchers: Supporting Women Returning to Tech After Career Breaks

In a reflective discussion with Manila about women returning to work after a significant break, a notable example was shared about a team member who rejoined the workforce after five to six years. Despite being out of the professional environment, she quickly became one of the strongest members of the team, bringing afresh enthusiasm and a strong work ethic that contrasted with the possible fatigue seen in continuous, long-term employees. Her initial interaction with the company's recruitment team made the difference - she applied for the role as they made her feel so welcome.

This scenario demonstrates how important it is for employers to create supportive and engaging recruitment processes that recognise the potential and value of return-to-work mothers, challenging the conventional preference for continuous employment histories.

Empowering Career Re-launchers: Supporting Women Returning to Tech After Career Breaks

In a reflective discussion with Manila about women returning to work after a significant break, a notable example was shared about a team member who rejoined the workforce after five to six years. Despite being out of the professional environment, she quickly became one of the strongest members of the team, bringing a fresh enthusiasm and a strong work ethic that contrasted with the possible fatigue seen in continuous, long-term employees. Her initial interaction with the company's recruitment team made the difference - she applied for the role as they made her feel so welcome.

This scenario demonstrates how important it is for employers to create supportive and engaging recruitment processes that recognise the potential and value of return-to-work mothers, challenging the conventional preference for continuous employment histories.

Reflections on Leadership and Gender Dynamics

Both leaders reflect on the evolving landscape of gender dynamics within the tech industry. Joanne hopes for a future where discussions about women in tech focus more on contributions and less on gender. "I hope for a day when we no longer need to have conversations about women in tech," Joanne states. "A future where female leaders are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the industry, driving progress and inspiring the next generation to follow in their footsteps."

Manila echoes this sentiment, focusing on strategic efforts to bridge gender gaps, similar to how women's football has gained acceptance through sponsorship and support. "If similar strategies could be applied to the tech industry, it might propel a similar shift in perceptions and opportunities for women," Manila suggests.

Joanne’s early experiences at British Airways and BT provided a solid foundation in both commercial and technical realms, preparing her for leadership roles that defy traditional geographical and gender constraints. Her story not only demonstrates the power of mentorship and authentic leadership but also serves as a compelling example to the next generation of female tech pioneers, emphasizing the importance of resilience, mentorship, and staying true to one's self in overcoming professional barriers.

Advice to Future Leaders

Manila emphasises the crucial role of solidarity and mentorship among women in business. She advocates strongly for women to support each other: "It’s vital to lift up your female colleagues, advocate for them, and sponsor them, especially in spaces where they might not have a voice. Such support is essential; we must have each other's backs and collectively break through any perceived glass ceilings."

Conclusion: A Vision for Equitable Tech Leadership

The stories of Joanne Todd and Manila McLean are beacons for the tech industry, inspiring not just young women but also businesses looking to attract and nurture female talent in tech roles. Their leadership exemplifies how barriers can be broken and how the tech industry can move towards a more equitable future. As we celebrate Girls in ICT Day, let us draw inspiration from their journeys and continue to advocate for a diverse, inclusive, and innovative technological landscape.