The newest series by CBR sees the spotlight put on those championing diversity in tech, positioning themselves as role models for minorities embarking on a career in STEM. In this latest installment, CBR’s Ellie Burns caught up with Sheila Flavell, Chief Operating Officer at FDM Group, who revealed her achievements, motivations and top tips for businesses on how diversity and inclusion should be approached.
EB: Why did you choose a career in tech?
SF: When I started out IT wasn’t a thing that was on my horizon so I started my career in the police force and then spent several years working for an airline. When I returned to the UK and started looking for a new role, I realised that technology was the future. I am passionate about technology and people and this is what drives me. At FDM I am able to bring these two elements together.
EB: What were the main challenges you faced at the start of your career and how did you overcome them?
SF: In a nutshell, discrimination was the biggest challenge; men simply didn’t recognise or believe in women’s abilities. My early experiences in both the police force and in the Middle East opened my eyes to this.
I certainly learned a lot from these experiences and made my mind up that discrimination didn’t have to be the norm or the future for women in work; this is why I’m passionate about equality and diversity.
EB: Tell us about your current role. What motivates you? What has been the driving force behind your career strategy?
SF: I lead the delivery of FDM’s expansion which involves a lot of travel. I also champion a career in tech for all. I directly oversee our global marketing and operations teams based in Europe, North America and APAC.
I’m motivated by the people we work with and especially those whose careers we start. We employ around 2000 graduates a year worldwide and I love the enthusiasm they bring with them, it makes for a vibrant and dynamic environment. This combined with the fast moving nature of IT means that you never stop learning and need to adapt quickly.
I am passionate about our aim to bring people and technology together and am constantly learning. Over the last 26 years I have had a key role in the Group’s flotation on AIM in 2005, the management buy-out of the Group in 2010 and the subsequent listing onto the main FTSE Market in 2014 and 2017.
My passion for diversity and desire to encourage more women come into this great profession led me to set up FDM’s Global Women in Tech campaign and more recently FDM’s Getting Back to Business programme aimed at providing opportunities for returners to work.
I also try to give something back to the industry and sit on the main Board of techUK and the Women in Tech Council and take every opportunity to advise government committees on various issues, around diversity, the digital skills gap and more recently gender pay gap reporting.
EB: What have been your most significant achievements in the IT industry in the past year?
SF: A number of things jump to mind; earlier this year, FDM Group was listed on the FTSE 250 which was a great achievement and something we’ve been working towards as an Executive Board for some time. We were the 6th company in the UK to publish our gender pay gap report. It was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made and had full support of the Board. Our average gap is 6% and our median gap is 0% against the UK median average of 18%. We were also listed as one of the top 50 employers in the first UK Social mobility employer listing and the first Employee Race list.
EB: What is your proudest achievement to date?
I have daughters who all work in IT – I hope that I’ve been a role model to them and demonstrated that a career in tech is a place where everyone can succeed, especially today, when new roles are opening up at every turn that do not necessarily need coding. Technology has the potential to be so diverse; we really need to ensure that all young people open their eyes to the possibility of a career in a future where we don’t know yet what the job roles will be! Recently, I was also recognised with a lifetime achievement award by Scotland Women in Technology in my home city of Glasgow – it was a very special moment in my career.
EB: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
SF: Never stop learning. Knowledge equals confidence. The more knowledgeable you are the more confident you become. Don’t worry about mistakes. I have made mistakes but I wouldn’t have had the successes without the mistakes.
EB: What would be your top tip for women looking to start a career in IT?
SF: Follow your interest and develop and use your network to support you. Attend networking events, there are lots of inspirational role models out there, many of whom “fell” into a career in IT so don’t think that because you don’t have a degree in computer science you can’t succeed – you can. In a recent survey we ran with our female Consultants, over 50% didn’t have a STEM degree, but they now all have successful tech roles.
EB: How would you encourage more women into the IT sector?
SF: Part of the issue is that many young women and their influencers such as parents and teachers do not understand what a career in IT means. They may not know anyone who works in the tech sector. So one thing we’re doing is bringing young school students into our Academies and showing them just what’s involved in the world of work in the tech sector. We teach them professional skills alongside coding, giving them the opportunity to experience work in a real environment. We’re also supporting their teachers. I think this is key; we need to show people what’s involved and inspire them.
EB: How do you think businesses should approach diversity and inclusion?
SF: Today you cannot ignore the need for diversity and inclusion in the workforce. Research shows that having a diverse workforce creates greater business success, improves creativity, problem solving and innovation. Millennials, in particular, want to work for organisations who share their values, so it’s vital if you want to continue attracting young talent.
However, it mustn’t be a tick box exercise. Experience shows that it has to be lead from the top, be authentic and be embedded in the culture of the organisation. When Rod founded FDM he wanted to hire talented people with the aptitude, passion and ability to learn regardless of their background. This has become formalised over the years with policies and things like unconscious bias training, blind CVs, etc so that our recruiters know how to hire people based on talent, regardless of background, ethnicity, or gender.
It has worked for us because it is embedded in our culture, it’s what people expect of FDM; when they walk through our doors, we want them to see people like themselves and know that they can succeed.