DEI: Naked Conversations - Podcast episode four
This is the fourth episode of our podcast, DEI: Naked Conversations, and here Technology Consultant Eleni, and Information Security Consultant Rhianne chat to DEI consultant Janet Houlis about their experiences as women in technology, and why DEI is so important.
Please note: transcript has been edited for ease of reading.
Janet: It’s great to be joined today by E and R, and I’d like to give a big welcome to you both. We first met on 24th March at the Women in Tech recruitment panel at the Waterstons London office – you were super passionate so I thought ‘we’ve got to have them on the podcast’.
Eleni: Thank you for having us.
Rhianne: Thank you for having us.
J: Let’s, tell everyone a bit about yourselves, how you got to where you are now, and also share something that we don’t know about you.
E: I am originally from Cyprus and I moved to the UK nearly 7 years ago now for uni, and then as soon as I finished I joined Waterstons to start my career in technology. And something that we don’t know about me? To be honest, I think a few people might know this already, but I have practically a small colony of cats back home in Cyprus that we rescue, and my mum looks after them year-round and I help out when I go back. But there is probably about 20 of them altogether that we look after and rescue.
R: I’ve worked at Waterstons for just under a year. I studied Criminology and Sociology at uni, and then I did a Masters in International Security and Terrorism as I was interested more in human security, but then I thought that cyber-security might be a good route to go down and I found it really interesting from looking at it a bit at uni. I got a graduate role as a cyber consultant with my previous company, I worked there for two years and I loved it, and then moved to Waterstons and have loved it, it’s been so great working here. A fun fact about me is that in 2015 I got to go to Number 10 Downing Street for International Women’s Day, so it’s very apt actually talking about it on the podcast. But I represented my local area, it was about getting more women into politics, and it was great, it was a really overwhelming day, very intense, but it was really, really cool.
J: To you both; why Waterstons?
E: For me, I applied to Waterstons straight out of uni, so I was looking for a graduate role and my first step into the real world - and it was the values that really stood out to me. I was first introduced to Waterstons by meeting people that were working here who had delivered a talk at my uni - so I think I could tell that it was a kind environment with like-minded people, and that made me want to join the company.
R: I had a slightly different entry into Waterstons. I worked at a different consultancy before and when I was looking for another job, I wasn’t too sure whether I wanted to stay in consultancy or not because I kind of struggled with the traditional consultancy values. I was looking at different roles in different organisations and someone I knew had joined Waterstons and loved it, and they said that they thought it would be a really good fit for me. Around that time, I was applying to a few different companies, and something that has always been important to me is women in tech and women talking up space in tech and making sure that there is room for them. I think I was interviewing for three different organisations, and I asked all of them in my interviews what they were doing about women in tech and about diversity, if it was something on their agenda, and what the gender-ratio is within their organisations and if they want to improve it. Because that’s so important to me, that was a really big contributing factor in deciding. I was fortunate enough to have two offers, and that is what made me choose Waterstons because they answered that really well. They said that it’s something that they are working on, they know that there’s work to do, but also if I’m passionate about it I can be involved in that as well, which I definitely wanted. So, it was a similar thing that really drew me to Waterstons, in that it’s the values and you could see that throughout the whole interview experience from beginning to end, and that’s really great that they do live and breathe their values.
J: Back in the day when you went on the interview process, you had your little stock questions but you were scared to ask anything that was really meaty - I certainly never used to ask very many questions. But now what we are finding is that there is a social awakening, and a lot more people are coming forward now when they’re coming to interviews, that they want to know what are your credentials in the areas of corporate social responsibility, in diversity, inclusion and equity, and also about belonging.
E: It’s exactly what you’ve just said, what are we looking for, it’s going even further than just the credentials and actually seeing what are companies doing to show that they have a commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion, and what are the initiatives that we have in place. I think that’s what’s quite nice about Waterstons recently is that we are making quite a solid effort to put that into practice and walk the walk basically.
J: Definitely. And they are up-front to say that “we are on a journey, we’ve not got everything right, we’ve got a way to go, we recognise that what’s happened in the past, where we are, how we’ve evolved, but now we’re here now, and we are starting from where we’re at, and we recognise it’s a journey that we’re going on”. I think that’s fantastic when you recognise that and then you back that up with the actions then that go with it.
R: I think people are so aware of organisations and their commitment to DEI, that if an organisation tried to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, they would see right through it. Especially in tech because it’s such an in-demand area, there’s so many roles and there’s a skill shortage within the area, so companies have to be even more competitive with each other to attract the right talent. So, I think it’s even more important for tech companies - all companies, but especially tech companies - to have a strong commitment to DEI because that’s what’s going to get them the pool of people that they want ultimately.
J: Absolutely - it is about walking the talk. So then, staying on that theme then of DEI, what’s your understanding of DEI, and how important is diversity, equity and inclusion to you?
E: I think it’s one of the most important things that a company would practice, because something like diversity, equality and inclusion, it’s not just certain initiatives that you’re doing, it feeds directly into the culture of a company because any company that you join, you want them to have a nice culture, you want to feel like you’re fitting in, you want to feel like you belong, and that does all come from understanding DEI. It’s not just about particular aspects of DEI, it’s about the person you are and just being welcoming, and being inclusive, and just treating everyone equally. So, I think it’s not just something that companies should have as an addition to what they’re already doing, it should be the core, it should be the crux of what a company stands for.
R: Yeah, absolutely. If companies are just saying “oh yeah, we are committed”, almost as something on their CV of things that they do, that’s not enough.
E: Like how are they committed?
R: It’s got to be fundamental to the way that they operate, and more people are able to see the difference between the two. There’s been a social awakening and, because of social media, we’re able to access so much information and people are so much more aware. It’s been important over the past few years that people understand it and see more and more and more how inequalities can perpetuate through so many different spheres. It’s always been important to me; I remember when I was studying for my A-Levels that was the first time I was learning about theories like feminism, and looking at racial inequalities as well - because I studied sociology - and I remember my eyes all of a sudden just being open and I could see it everywhere and I just felt so angry. I talk to and debate with my family about it all the time. That’s how it started for me and why I decided to study Criminology and Sociology because a lot of that is fundamental to those studies; general society and why certain groups take up a bigger proportion of prison space than they do in society, and how they are related.
E: We used to have a lot of debates as part of our English classes at school and that’s where I was first introduced to a lot of inequalities, and opened my eyes to the realities of situations for a lot of minorities. Specifically for me, I remember I used to be quite vocal about advocating for LGBT rights, and I don’t know why but it was just the thing that I was so passionate about. We used to have debates in class about ‘should these groups of people be able to do such-and-such’, and I remember people would always look at me and go; “oh ok she’s off on one again” because I would just want to advocate for the voices that couldn’t for themselves. That’s definitely something I’ve carried for the last few years because it just feels like a right thing to do.
J: That is absolutely fantastic. Some of the conversations are difficult, but it’s holding space for each of us, we come from different backgrounds but we’re human beings, and it’s about treating people with dignity and respect. Having those conversations is so vital because we’re all shaped by our beliefs and things from when we were younger, how we’ve been brought up, our exposure to various different things; it is so important that we do have that conversation and debate. At college and uni we always used to debate on campus, so it helped us to learn new words and everything else, but we recognise that not many people have that privilege to go to university and to have that exposure, so that speaking up for people is so important, as well as trying to reach those, especially through recruitment, as women in tech.
R: Exactly, and I think that’s why the internet and social media is so great, because it provides a lens through which we can understand the experience of other people – in our own spheres, nine times out of ten, it’s people that are similar to us, so you’re never going to understand every single person’s experience. But social media enables us to understand their perspective a little bit more - it’s a really great tool and we should utilise it as much as we can to understand as much as we can.
J: And what about for our clients, how do you think it’s important? I can think back to over 20 years ago when I did HR, when it used to be very much about equality. As a HR manager I was responsible for induction and the whole recruitment process, making sure we’d talk about that equity piece; now, there is a much brighter lens on DEI, as well as belonging, and also about racism. But why do you think DEI is so important right now, and especially for our clients as well?
E: It’s a job-seekers market and because there’s so much out there, candidates want to know what is making companies stand out, so it’s about showing how committed companies are. Not just who can offer the highest salary or the most benefits, but actually the culture and understanding what sort of environment will you be working in day-in/day-out, what kind of people will you be surrounded by. With the rise of social media and younger people, it has a bigger focus at the moment, and it’s something not only important but vital when you’re looking for a job.
R: Organisations are understanding the benefits a diverse workforce can have, because you’re not just getting one perspective, you’ve got so many different perspectives, that bring so many different ideas, and why wouldn’t you want that? That’s going to benefit and enable your business even more, ultimately. People are understanding that, or gaining more understanding, probably for the first time; because once-upon-a-time it was a certain person, of a certain gender, of a certain sexuality, of a certain ethnicity, that was deemed professional, that was deemed hard-working. But we understand now that none of those things are directly correlated to being professional, and for working hard, and for bringing good ideas. I think now is the time where we’re able to have a more diverse workforce; to celebrate and get the most out of that.
J: Yes, most definitely. I can’t believe it’s about two years since the killing of George Floyd. It was a massive and raw time, but a much-needed event happened that placed a spotlight on racial and social injustice, and social consciousness rose to the fore which changed everything. During this time, what was your experience, what came up for you? And since then, have you seen any changes that have resonated with you?
E: It was definitely a social awakening as such when it was all happening, I don’t know if anyone expected it to become the thing that it did, but I would imagine most people are glad that it did, I mean I definitely am. Not that it happened but how much awareness it raised afterwards - because I don’t think a lot of people, including myself, actually realised the extent of some of these issues, and police brutality, and racial targeting. It was uncomfortable, but it was necessary because I don’t think I ever would have really realised it if it hadn’t been for all of the attention that it got on social media. And the fact that it travelled from America into the UK as well, where the UK we probably think that we’re very different and you know things like that don’t happen over here, but I think I - I read something where it was like we do have racism in the UK but it’s more covert, it’s not as obvious - and I think it was just an uncomfortable realisation to have to deal with because it just, it was just a difficult kind of something to see.
J: Do you think anything’s changed from then to now?
R: I think the fact that we’re having this conversation about it, that’s an example of how things have changed, and people are speaking about these issues more and more and more, which is so great. I think the hard thing is, when you want change and you know what that change could look like, but it takes a lot of time to get there, and it is really difficult when you want to get your hands dirty and make that change and be part of that change, but these systems of oppression have been built up over so many years and we can’t expect that to change overnight. It’s hard to be patient when you are so angry about it and you want the change so much, but making the small changes and knowing that we are making progress, that is a great thing and should be celebrated, but also being aware that there is still a lot of work to do and a long way to go, and keeping that in our vision and working towards that.
J: Yeah, most definitely. So, we talked about these conversations that we’re having are difficult, and the very fact that we’re having these conversations here is signalling the changes. What more can we do to keep the conversation going?
E: When it comes to workplaces, messages really do have to come from the top down. When we see senior leadership having these conversations and when we see initiatives being taken and efforts being made to talk about the issues that are happening in the world, it creates a more open and honest workplace, it makes people feel more comfortable to have the conversations. We’re not expecting everyone to get it right a hundred per cent of the time, but I think it’s just making that first step and just seeing that it’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to get involved, it’s okay to continue learning and understand the social issues that are happening, but I think it definitely feeds from all parts of the company.
J: Yeah, most definitely.
R: Even speaking about specific issues that are happening and that are being spoken about in the media that do affect people, I think would be a really great thing. In various companies that I’ve worked for before, an issue will be happening in the media that might affect you and then you have to go into work and pretend that you’re not affected by it and get on with your job, and that’s really difficult to do, and we’re all human, so why are we all doing that? I think speaking about things like George Floyd, like the Sarah Everard case last year, when it’s happening and saying we understand that this is happening at the moment and it might affect this group of people, so if you want to talk about it, we’re here for you. And, also, this is why it might affect this group of people, so that we’re also educating other people that might not understand the impact of that. I think that would be a really great thing because it shows understanding of wider social issues, but it also means that for those people that are affected, they don’t have to pretend, they cannot hide the fact that they are impacted by it and they have got someone to talk to, but also making other people aware of that as well. That helps in understanding everyone is human at the end of the day and we’re not robots that come into work to perform a job, we’re all impacted by different things in different ways, and I think the less stigma there is about being affected by these things, but also understanding the issues that are behind the events that are happening just makes it a better place for everyone to work.
J: Yes, absolutely. When you put it in the sphere of when you’re recruiting and you’re trying to attract candidates and they’re able to see the story of Waterstons and hear of some of those great things that we’re doing, those are also the sorts of things that people can think “mmm this could be a place for me, this could be my place where I can thrive”. So really valid points on there. Moving the conversation to women in tech. As women in tech, what are your views around gender equality, equity and intersectionality?
E: We’ve definitely come a long way with women in the tech space but there’s definitely still a way to go. Probably where I find I would like to see more of a focus is around that recruitment aspect; I can only speak for Waterstons because that is my experience, but I know that we are definitely making strides. I’d like to keep seeing women being involved in the recruitment process, writing and updating job descriptions, being part of interview panels, even just making that effort to make sure that we have a diverse pool of people to recruit from. Because I think we, as Waterstons, are nice people, we want to attract nice people, and part of that has lead to us just saying “we’re going to pick the best person for the job” but you’re not when you don’t have a wide enough pool of people, we’ll keep getting the same type of people every time. I think tech is a space that women are still trying to break into, but there are lots of companies now that have of women in senior positions. At uni I went to an event called ‘IT’s not just for the boys’ and it was specifically for girls who wanted to break into tech to attend and get to speak to people that were working in senior positions in tech companies, ask about their journeys and how they can go about going down a similar path. Things like that are really nice to see happening, and knowing there is specific support for women wanting to get into tech, and not just having blanket days or conferences that you can attend, but actually something specific for women, is definitely nice to see, and nice to see the companies that are participating in those sorts of events as well.
R: And it’s about the tech companies doing the work and showing women that it can be a place for them. Whether that’s recruiting for a diverse range of skills and showing actually that skill and that experience that you have that isn’t in tech, that would be really great in tech in this role, and showing the links between the two, and that you don’t have to necessarily have a technical background. I don’t have a technical background, my degree wasn’t technical, but I was interested in security, so I went at it from that perspective. And I think there needs to be more pressure and responsibility for doing that work to attract a wider pool of people. I think part of that is breaking down the stigma of working in tech, even just saying ‘tech’ I automatically think of men, so we need to show that it’s not a male-dominated environment. When I’d worked in cyber security for about a year, one of my colleagues said to me “well, working in tech”, and I stopped and I was like, ‘what?’, and he was like ‘yeah, obviously we work in tech’, and I hadn’t even thought until that point, or considered that I worked in tech because I was like: oh no tech, that industry doesn’t involve me, I’m not part of that. I reflected on that after and wondered why I thought that, or why would I never say to my friends ‘I work in tech’. I think it is because of that stigma so I do try and say it more now because me saying it breaks down the stigma for myself, and the more people do that, and the more tech companies as well show that it is a diverse place and it is a place that anyone can be, then that stigma will be broken down.
J: I think that’s such a great point. It’s about the language and the barriers that are already there.
R: It makes me so annoyed at myself for immediately thinking ‘man’ when thinking ‘tech’ as a woman that works in tech. I should be thinking of myself or another woman, but yet my first thought is a man, and that’s because it’s been ingrained within people for so long. There is a lot of work to do so that there is a more diverse image of tech.
J: It’s also about the work that tech companies need to do in order to de-mystify the route, because some people might think to get into tech they need go down route ‘a’, when actually there could be so many other avenues that can feed into that. But breaking that down and de-mystifying it takes work and it takes time. But once that’s broken down so that people can see there’s more than one road to Sante Fe, there’s lots of different routes.
R: Sometimes tech sounds really mysterious, and you don’t understand what it means or what the roles are, so simplifying it, showing what that means day-to-day and what skills you need to do it - because you don’t necessarily need a technical background. A lot of what I do is policies and awareness with cybersecurity, so understanding people and how they learn, how to engage with people, and writing policy - you don’t need technical skills to do that. So, it’s putting the skills needed first and matching them to experience -for example, people who have studied English will have really good analytical skills, or social sciences backgrounds will understand people really well.
J: And what would you say then would be the consequences if we ignore the gender imbalance of women in tech?
E: We’d continue seeing a dwindling number of women wanting to break into tech, because if there isn’t awareness that you don’t need to be the most technical person, or you can actually bring a lot of different skills to the table without the most technical background, then women are going to be discouraged from wanting to be part of that environment. It comes back to values and culture and why would a woman want to be involved with a company that is not making an effort to include them in their workforce, or have diverse language in their everyday work. It would create very siloed thinking, you wouldn’t have the ideas that you could potentially have brought to the table, you wouldn’t have certain ways of working. I think it would just make you very one-sided as a company, one-dimensional.
R: It’s similar to what we were saying earlier, that companies could miss out on such a great range of skills if there is a gender imbalance, because there are skills that they don’t currently have.
J: Most definitely.
E: I’ve always been of the mindset that you can learn technical skills but you can’t learn interpersonal skill. You can definitely work on things like your communication and your teamwork - but fundamentally that’s the person you are and that’s how you work, and if you’re automatically disregarding someone because they don’t have the exact experience or the exact skills that you’re looking for then you could potentially be missing out on a really great person.
R: Companies have to be prepared, that if they want to reap the rewards of a diverse range of people working for them, then they have to be ready to provide training and help people get a foot in the door. For women, and anyone that wants to get into tech, they shouldn’t feel like they are any less or they don’t deserve to be there because they don’t have the technical skills, when actually they might understand people really well, which is so necessary, because you could have all of the technical skills in the world, but if you’re not able to apply them, or work with people, or understand your clients and your customers, then you’re probably not going to be that great at your job, so, I think it’s about that balance. And, like we were saying earlier, I think tech can sound scary but actually it’s not that scary.
J: From the Women in Tech recruitment panel in March, one of the things that I found interesting was listening to your experiences of what I call office homework. Do you mind relaying your experience for our listeners around that please?
E: Obviously we work a lot in teams at Waterstons, we are very project and team-based and we have a lot of people in different disciplines that we work across, so you’re always going to get lots of different people. A part of any project is admin - things like writing up documentation or meeting notes. I’ve had a couple of experiences where people assume that responsibility will automatically fall to me. I feel a bit strange saying it because I don’t think it’s done in a malicious way, but it’s one of those subconscious things that we need to start becoming more conscious of, unpicking those learned habits and be more conscious of who you’re asking to do certain things: why are you asking them to do that certain thing? Could there be someone else that perhaps could do that instead? Or does it necessarily have to be the same person? And then, is that person even responsible for doing the thing that you’ve asked them to do, or would that sit better with someone else? That’s probably around the experiences that I have, but I guess to reiterate, I don’t think it’s done in a malicious way, but it’s just something that we need to become a bit more conscious of.
R: Even I’m guilty - being the only female in a meeting or on a project or piece of work – to automatically do it because I think that’s my role, and it’s only when I stop and I think ‘why do I think that’s my role?’ I realise it’s ingrained in me too. I think everyone suffers from that the bias, but breaking it down ourselves and actually questioning that behaviour, asking if I’m the right person to do it, could anyone else do it – plus other people noticing it - and sharing those jobs out.
J: I feel as if we’ve been conditioned from young girls growing up, that girls didn’t play with boys’ toys; we always had tea sets or the cooker. When I think back of my own childhood, it was always about having to learn how to cook because when I got married one day I needed to know how to cook, my mum would say to me, and so I would assume household chores. My mind flashes back to the fifties and sixties when women were pretty much at home in most cases because it was deemed their role was in the home. All those domestic tasks and chores, they just spill over then into the work environment as well. I’ve found myself getting up as soon as somebody comes: ‘oh, would you like a cup of tea?’ jumping up and doing that. But you’re right, it is so important that we do not stereotype and pigeonhole, certainly from a gender perspective, and as women that we stand up for ourselves and ask those questions. It’s definitely not from a position of malice or anything, there’s no intent and it is totally unconscious, but we have to be conscious of what it’s doing and the message that it’s sending.
E: I definitely relate to your experience because growing up in Cyprus where - maybe we are a few years behind than maybe some other countries, like the UK - we have that stereotypical mindset of women should know how to cook, women should be the ones to clean, women should be hospitable and the hosts, and all of that stuff, and I think that’s definitely something that’s ingrained in me as well because, I mean to the point where even if I’m conscious that I’m doing little things like that, I want to offer people a cup of tea because I’ll feel rude otherwise, but, I guess it doesn’t always necessarily have to be the same person. But I think it’s just quite hard to even get ourselves out of those habits.
J: So, how important is it that Waterstons gets you as a woman in tech, how important is it that Waterstons gets you?
E: I don’t think I’d feel comfortable working at Waterstons if I didn’t feel like they got me, and I feel like they do. Especially in my experience, I’ve always felt like the team or manager that I get aligned to have always been people that I get on with. My manager at the moment is one of the more senior women in our team, and I get on with her so well, we’re extremely like-minded, and I genuinely feel so lucky that we have people like that at Waterstons, that take such an interest in the people that they’re managing and the people that they’re working with, and almost see their career as the same importance as their own career. And I think if I didn’t have that, and that support, and that investment in me, I don’t know if I’d feel as comfortable maybe coming into work every day.
R: If you don’t have that support then you don’t want to be yourself as much as you should. I feel comfortable one hundred per cent being myself, if I want to talk about Love Island to someone, I will talk about Love Island, and I think if I want to talk about an experience that I’ve had that other people might not relate to, I feel comfortable talking about that. And that’s the point; people need to feel comfortable enough to be able to celebrate all of their differences, and their backgrounds, and their cultures, and I think that means that people and the organisation gets them, and they don’t necessarily have to have the same backgrounds or beliefs, but they are understood and they are empowered to have the space and time to be able to celebrate that, and I think that’s really great. And I know that if there was anything at all that I wanted to talk about, I have the space and the opportunity to do that.
J: That’s fantastic, isn’t it? So, if there was only one thing you hope our listeners today do as a result of our conversation, what would it be?
E: Continuing to educate ourselves. If people wanted to reach out to us directly and we could have a chat, I think I’d be more than happy to talk further about certain topics, but just keeping that conversation going and making sure that we don’t lose the momentum. Keeping the pressure on companies as well, even if you’re already working for a company and you want to see them making more of an effort, speak up, make your voice heard. We’ve started to do that a bit more at Waterstons, and as a company they have been so receptive which is so nice to see. That’s another reason why it’s such a nice environment to work in because you do feel like your opinion is valued and is being heard.
J: Perfect, thank you.
R: One thing that I would like people to do is work on breaking down that stigma of tech and make it more accessible for everyone. And that does involve everyone: it involves people working in tech, people that are senior within tech companies, the tech companies themselves, but also other people as well, maybe not be as naive as I’ve been before and just think: ah, tech’s not a place for me; and just put it on the back burner, don’t really think about it. But actually, look into it a bit more and have a look at the companies that are out there like Waterstons that are a super-diverse place to be, but also are so welcoming to everyone, and you can be yourself. I think it’s really important that everyone has a part to play in breaking down that stigma.
J: Great, thank you so much. Wow. Well, the time has absolutely flown and the conversation has flowed which has been absolutely great. So, thank you so much again for being great guests and for sharing such great insights with us, it’s been an absolute pleasure. We know from our conversations that we’re on a journey, and as we said, that we need to be brave, and embrace diversity and equity in all its forms, and also inclusion to remain relevant and thrive in an ever-changing marketplace.
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