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September 25, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:56am

Cisco UK&I CTO: Breaking the ‘boy’s network’ with role models, training & self-promotion

Exclusive CTO Q&A: Alison Vincent believes the industry is truly changing for the better when it comes to diversity and women in tech.

By Ellie Burns

Boasting 25 years’ experience in international leadership of software projects, women in business is a topic championed by Vincent. She is an Ambassador for Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) and Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEMnet) ensuring on-going technical talent in the workforce.

Continuing CBR’s Women in Tech series, Ellie Burns sat down with Vincent to hear her thoughts on working in a male-centric environment and how the industry does appear to be really changing when it comes to women working in tech.

EB: What attracted you to a career in technology?

AV: I was attracted to a career in technology for a number of reasons. When I began at University, computers were just beginning to arrive on the scene. Early on, I understood the importance of computing and the impact it could have on the industry, I recognised its potential to transform the world and I knew then that I wanted to be a part of it.

Fundamentally, I saw that it would be a key trend and I wanted to catch it early and be involved in something I knew would change the way we operate on a social, professional and even economical level.

EB: What were your biggest challenges with being a woman working in technology?

AV: There are three challenges that I found being a women working in the technology industry, these are:

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– Being taken seriously
– Struggling to have my voice heard
– A lack of female role models when I started in the business

EB: How did you overcome these challenges?

AV: I used a number of techniques to overcome these challenges and position myself as one of the leading women in technology.

To ensure I was being taken seriously in the business role, I adopted a specific dress code that denoted power and professionalism. I believe that this is something that the younger generation has to be aware of. It is a delicate balance between fashion, business and femininity, which is by no means easy, but can make a real difference in a women’s perception in the workplace.

Making sure that your voice was heard in a large organisation or busy team for me is all about being persistent without being aggressive. Whether it is cultural or tone of voice, men sometimes have a reputation for talking over women. In this instance, women must be persistent, assertive and tenacious in their approach.

When I first started in the technology business nearly 25 years ago, there weren’t many female role models; however this is not the case now. There are some strong and inspirational women leading the technology sector and providing a variety of role models for a new generation to aspire to become.


EB: Despite many diversity programmes and employee workplace initiatives, the gender ratio in technology is still skewed – why?

AV: While the gender ratio may still be skewed, there is no denying that it is improving.
Although there has been an emphasis placed on women’s networks and organised support groups for women to share experience, I believe there needs to be stricter guidelines on hiring, not just in relation to gender, but across the board in terms of ensuring diversity in business. An example of this is making sure that the interview panel has the right mix of experience and diversity from across the company.

At Cisco, we are encouraging this approach at the early stages of interview, in order to make sure that we employ the most talented people and bring together diverse groups that can drive the creativity and innovation that we are proud of. This is a tactic that other organisations must follow in order to achieve that gender diversity.

EB: How do you think we should tackle this disparity?

AV: I truly believe that the industry is changing and that there are now strong female role models for women to emulate. I am not just referring to role models for the C-suite and big organisations such as, Sheila Jordon, CIO of Symantec and Eudie Thompson, CEO of Bright Futures. Startups are providing women with a different type of role model – an example of which is Jenny Griffiths, founder and CEO of SnapFashion, recently awarded an MBE and former winner of the Cisco BIG Awards.


EB: How do women become part of a team in a male-centric workplace? How do you deal with being a minority?

AV: I personally have enjoyed being part of a male-centric team and understood the importance of male company in a tech environment. I like the challenge of making male colleagues reveal their softer side in discussions and testing their assumptions. While sometimes it can be intimidating to be the lone female voice, it is important to enjoy that, be strong in your opinions and get the most out of the colleagues you are working with.


EB: After getting women into the workplace, the next challenge is getting them to stay – as evidenced by the lack of senior/board level female execs. What issues do you think exist which are stopping women from reaching more senior/board positions?

AV: Technology has improved to allow the remote working and the time shifting of roles, which has enabled women greater control over their work life balance and career progression. However, this has benefitted both sides of the partnership, with technology providing flexibility and advantages to men and women in the workplace.

In addition, some women feel that they aren’t ready for the challenge of a higher level position or being on an executive board. To combat this, there are a wealth of support groups and ‘women on boards’ networks to provide that foundation, not just good role models, but giving vital direction and advice in any stage of the process.

An example of these organisations is the 30% Club, which is focused on diversity, addressing the gender balance and championing women at board level. I have started speaking with this initiative and I am planning to get involved with the technology specific sub-group in the next few months.


EB: Would you agree that the path to senior/board level is harder for women than it is men? Why?

AV: I don’t agree that it is harder, but it certainly hasn’t been an obvious path for women in previous years, as a majority of the boards were largely male dominated. This, I believe, is due to an element of the ‘boy’s network’ type culture that may have inhibited women and impeded that path to the boardroom.

However, I do think that this has changed as technology has improved social networks and particularly business social networks such as LinkedIn. It has allowed women to connect with other executives, feed into that male dominated network and understand where there are opportunities to make introductions and break down those barriers.


EB: Are there different challenges for women at a senior level? Or do the same ones still exist?

AV: I think that the challenges can be perceived as the same, but there are subtle differences. At a senior level, the job requirements are vastly different from junior and managerial levels, which must be taken into account and can lead to some women developing seeds of doubt and a hesitance in their skill set.

Nonetheless, companies like Cisco provide incredible support in terms of training when employees move through those higher levels. I truly believe that investing in training is vital, especially in relation to the softer skills such as, demeanour at work, how you are interacting with colleagues and controlling your inner self. By ensuring that training is continual, women will be kept up to date with the latest techniques and processes and keep developing the skills that will combat any doubts.


EB: The need for women to have mentors, have someone to look up to, is a recurring piece of advice offered by women in tech. Did you have a mentor and how did it change your perception of working in tech?

AV: I have had a mentor in the past, especially in my early career, and found it incredibly valuable. In my experience, it is an eye opener and it meant that I was able to see the reality of the workplace from both a business and technology perspective.

My mentor was very balanced and made me see that a rational approach is critical to succeed as a woman in business. Fundamentally, it helped me to understand the organisations reality, its goals and the part I play in it.

It is an important role for me to now mentor other women. I enjoy championing their development, but also reverse mentoring has given me a different outlook and allowed us to incorporate a fresh way of thinking into our practices.


EB: What advice would you offer to women working in tech, with ambitions to get to the top?

AV: The advice I would give to women starting a career in technology is to aim high and not limit yourself.

As a mentor, I strongly recommend that you go out of your way to form a broad network and utilise the opportunities available to build those relationships and supporters that will champion your career and advocate you to colleagues and peers alike.

Finally, spend time making sure people know how good you are – a little self-promotion never hurt anyone!

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