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February 18, 2015updated 19 Aug 2016 4:00pm

Sexism in IT: Dispelling urban myths with Dell’s Aisling Keegan

Aisling Keegan advises women in tech to be authentic, know their brand and leverage the power of networking.

By Ellie Burns

Aisling Keegan is a woman who has succeeded in the tech industry. Joining Dell in 1999, Keegan has held a number of roles and is now General Manager and Executive Director of Private, Large, Commercial Corporations at Dell UK.

Having been a woman working in tech for over 15 years, Keegan sat down with CBR’s Eleanor Burns to discuss urban myths, diversity and the importance of being authentic.

EB: How did you start in tech?

AK: By accident. I started my career in New York City, working in the telecoms industry. Learning my craft and surviving in the city of New York was good training ground and I lived there for around 6 years.

I knew I wanted to get into the technology market just before I left the states, expand from ICT into IT, and I targeted Dell as a potential employer. I targeted Dell based on its culture back then, which is very similar to what it is now; a culture of empowerment, engagement and employee centred.

EB: Why do you think there is a lack of women choosing IT and technology as a profession?

AK: There are what I call ‘urban myths’ that need to be dispelled when it comes to technology careers, with the biggest urban myth being that the industry is just for men, a myth stemming from the legacy state of affairs.

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It is incumbent on organisations to dispel those myths and the only way to do that is to engage with university graduates before decisions are made, particularly those in the STEM subjects.

Organisations like Dell have a responsibility to ensure that they are educating at the forefront, not after the fact. This is why we have the ‘IT is not for Geeks’ programme, which has visited over 500 schools. We try to facilitate having women leaders talk and educate those individuals doing STEM subjects to show them that it is not actually for geeks – it is an urban myth, the opportunities are endless and you can be as good as you want to be.

We also have a grad recruitment program where we make sure that, when recruiting individuals, we are addressing the diversity of population. It is to encourage them at that time in their lives that there are massive opportunities in the technology industry and it’s not what they think it is – because there is a huge disconnect between the percentage of females exiting university versus those who end up in tech.

EB: Do you think the responsibility only lies with organisations? What about government?

AK: Absolutely. I think what we find is that public education and government funded initiatives are one in the same as private enterprise initiatives. I do not think one is not mutually exclusive from the other and both entities need to work together.

For example, we partner with publically funded institutions like the British Chamber of Commerce and with local chambers to ensure that we are educating smaller start-ups.

EB: What would you say is one of the main challenges facing women working in the tech industry?

AK: I think the challenge is being able to position yourself with your own point of view in an environment which is pre-dominated by males. The challenge is learning how to adapt your communications style in an environment where by default you don’t see your own kind in prevalence.

I think that’s the challenge but I also see it as an opportunity.

We come to the table, offer different experiences of life because we are females and I think we bring a difference to business thinking. There have been lots of surveys done over the past couple of years where companies with diverse boards yield greater results because they have that diversity of thinking, those diverse viewpoints. As a result they make better business decisions. It’s not just important to provide diversity for the sake of it, it’s critical in providing better business outcomes.

EB: There is a noticeable absence of women at the board level, with many pointing to women starting families as the disruptor to career progression. What are your thoughts on this and how does Dell support women going on/coming back from maternity?

AK: : I think women, certainly in my experience, around that time of deciding to have a family, are concerned with how they will be perceived. I was really concerned with how I would be perceived [by going on maternity] as I was very career focused, very committed to the company, the organisation, to my teams and customers. Coming back from maternity, and I took year break for both my children, I was concerned about coming back into the environment – would it be deemed as a negative thing that I had taken time off and had children?

I am not saying this because I’ve been with Dell 15 years, because we work in an economy where there is choice every day, but Dell values business contribution and people. If you are committed, engaged, good at what you do, then Dell ensures that the environment in which you work facilitates that.

This is why we have our WISE networks, which stands for Women In Search of Excellence. WISE is an employee group in nearly every region across the globe where both women and men are invited to join and share experiences, based on experiences like going on maternity and having children.

We also have a Chief Diversity Officer who is responsible for driving the diversity programmes, which is further supported by a diversity board. On that board there are 10 employee resource groups representing all non — majority groups in the market. We also have Pride, flexible working policies, connected workplace programs and recently put all managers through unconscious bias screening.

EB: What advice would you share with women who are thinking of, or have just entered, the tech industry?

AK: Be authentic. Be yourself. As an aside, when I mentor a lot of females in and outside the company one of the things they always ask me is ‘how do I adapt my style to accommodate the environment that I work in’. My retort will always be, be yourself. Be authentic and that, in my opinion, is one of the most important attributes, to just come to the table being you.

The second thing I would say is don’t underestimate the power of your network and the importance of networking. Now I don’t mean in the literal sense, I mean it in the figurative sense. You could be talking to someone who makes the coffee in the canteen in your organisation – that network and that engagement, the power of engagement, really is as important as talking to the CEO of the company. This is because an important part of working in any business and any environment is building your brand, and your brand is all about engaging and being seen as you want to be seen, being perceived how you want to be perceived. It’s not about upwardly managing, it’s about influencing and engaging in the same way no matter who you interact with – and you shouldn’t lose sight of that even as you start to move up the organisation.

For me no matter who you engage with, you be yourself. You are present and correct with that individual at that moment in time and nobody else matters so to speak.

The third thing I would say is enjoy it. Humour and having a sense of fun is a critical part of enjoying your work and exercising that balance. And because we spend most of our time working with our work colleagues, I think you have to encourage, promote, partake, participate in that sense of enjoyment.

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