Women at work: a study of women’s experiences across the tech and retail sectors … Working through the challenges
Almost four in ten businesses in G7 countries have no women in senior management positions. Across the world, the share of senior business roles held by women stands at just 24%.
The statistics are shocking. They seem almost too outlandish to be real – which can mean they’re too easily dismissed, or waved over as ‘just the way things are’.
Surely this is just a quirk of averaging? Surely this doesn’t reflect the actual experience of women in the workplace in the UK today?
We decided to find out.
So, we joined together with Women in Retail, the community for women seeking fulfilment and progression in board and senior leadership roles, to collect stories from three working women in order to see how their experiences measure up to the numbers.
We asked them about the challenges women face in the workplace, and what can be done to improve the situation.
Our interviewees are all at different stages in their careers – from a recent graduate to a head of department – and they work across two different industries: tech and retail.
Nerys Mutlow, Head of SaaS and CTO for SaaS solutions Fujitsu EMEIA
Nerys has been at Fujitsu since 2015, where she is now Head of SaaS and CTO for SaaS solutions. She actually started her career with Fujitsu in 1999 as an Analyst Developer, before leaving to join Thales, where she worked her way up to become Head of Applications Management and an Enterprise Architect. Nerys graduated from Bournemouth University in 1999 with a BSC in Information Systems Management.
Tejal Patel, Graduate Business Consultant, Fujitsu
Tejal has been at Fujitsu for just under a year, after graduating from Sheffield Hallam University with a degree in IT. Whilst at university, Tejal set up a Women in Tech Society and worked for a year on placement at IBM.
Amy Sinton, Commercial Manager, Pets at Home Vet Group
Amy is currently a Commercial Manager at the Pets at Home Vet Group, having previously worked as a Senior Marketing Manager. Before joining the Pets At Home Vet Group, Amy worked for Johnson & Johnson, and took a year out to travel through Asia. She graduated from the University of the West of England with a degree in Law & Biology in 2007.
Over the course of these conversations, we got to the heart of the issues affecting women’s experiences at work: a lack of confidence; an absence of role models; the pressures of family life.
One of the most interesting things to come out of our discussion was the comparison between the tech and retail industries.
Retail is a sector with a predominantly female workforce – around 60% of the 2.8m retail employees in the UK are women.
Tech, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly dominated by men: only 25% of IT jobs are held by women.
And yet both have an equally low rate of women in senior positions. Just 10% of executive retail teams are women and only 9% of senior leadership IT roles are filled by women.
Clearly, there are challenges which exist across both industries – and this was something that Tejal, Amy and Nerys touched on again and again.
Another big point that emerged was a generational one.
Our interviewees observed that women who came before them had a much harder time making their way up the career ladder – and in some respects this is positive news, as it might suggest that things are getting better for the women of today.
So, let’s take a closer look at what Tejal, Amy and Nerys had to say.
Both Tejal and Nerys were aware of tech’s uneven proportion of women to men before they started in the industry. For Nerys, it was even part of the appeal: “I never wanted to work in a female-dominated industry,” she said, “I was brought up with brothers, so I was always more interested in those types of things.”
For Amy, the opposite was the case. She describes the Pets At Home Group as “really special in that we’ve got a lot of women [working here].”
This may be a particular quirk of the veterinary care industry, which consists of a high percentage of women (vet graduates are 75% female), but for Amy, it makes a positive change from previous places she has worked.
“I feel that we are quite lucky here,” she said, “having worked in technology companies in the past with men in very senior positions and no women at that level, to come into the Pets At Home Vets Group, we have a board that is made up of five members, and three of them are women. That’s very inspiring.”
A point which came across in the experience of all three women was the importance of finding female role models.
Tejal notes that having female role models “is a key thing, especially for students and younger women to get into the industry.” She praised Fujitsu’s existing role models initiative.
Nerys has a slightly different take on things, observing that “there is a definite lack of female role models in senior positions.”
She suggests that while she has lots of peers that she respects at Fujitsu today, there are fewer senior females that she can look up to.
This difference can probably be ascribed to the progress that women in tech have made since Nerys’ cohort first entered the workplace; though they didn’t have many women to follow, they’ve become the trailblazers for Tejal’s generation.
Nerys also made an interesting point about creating role models: “Having a female role model at the top is great – but only if they are the right person for the job.”
Tejal agreed with this sentiment. “If you don’t have a role model,” she said, “then be a role model yourself!”
As for Amy, our interviewee from retail, it turns out her experience hasn’t been perhaps that common in her sector: “I realise that I’m very lucky in this business to have so many inspirational female role models around me in senior positions – I don’t feel that that is representative of the retail sector as a whole, though.”
She said she’s come to appreciate this after going to Women in Retail networking events and speaking to her peers –“I think they’re a bit jealous that I’m in such a great environment.”
Obstacles women face
One of the main issues that women in all industries appear to face is confidence – or a lack of it, to be specific.
Nerys spoke about overvaluing her male counterparts at her own expense: “I had almost a light bulb moment,” she said, “when I realised that a lot of people that I had met in my working career that I’ put on a pedestal – and they were always men – I realised that I was as good as them, if not better.”
Even Amy, who described herself as a typically confident person, says that she struggled in the early stages of her career with being assertive enough to voice her opinions when her seniors were talking.
“When they were networking,” she recalls, “they would always discuss stereotypically male things – football and cars – and I found it difficult to join in these conversations.”
Tejal had a similar experience whilst studying IT at university. “When you were the only girl stuck in a lecture in a theatre full of boys,” she recalled, “nobody would talk to you because you were female.”
She believes that the only way to move forward is to participate. “Don’t feel intimidated if you’re the only female in a group of men in a meeting,” she said, “speak up, because you do have a voice!”
Nerys highlighted family as another key factor influencing the decisions that women make in their careers.
In her experience, it tends to be the stage when women stop and have children that proves difficult: “a lot of women drop out there – or think they have to drop out.”
A major cause of this, Nerys believes, is that some companies just aren’t supportive enough of mothers.
Equally, she explained that it’s a societal problem that we view childcare solely as a woman’s responsibility.
“Something that I always tell my daughter,” she said, “is that ‘it’s not my job to bring up my kids, it is mine and my husband’s job.’ You can be a mother and have a career.”
It’s been wonderful hearing from three such inspirational women – a big thank you to Nerys, Amy and Tejal for taking part.
Another big thank you to Women in Retail for facilitating these discussions (what a great example of female collaboration across industries!).
The main lessons are clear: women face multiple problems in the workplace.
From a lack of role models to chronic lack of self-belief, plus the additional strain of family life: it’s not easy.
But women are still making enormous strides in both the retail and tech sectors.
This is something we’ll be examining in our next post, on the theme of progress.
We’ll be joining our interviewees again to ask them what organizations can do to build a more egalitarian workplace – and whether they have seen signs of improvement for women so far.
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