An Exclusive Interview with Jaqueline de Rojas, president of Tech UK and one of the most influential women in tech in the UK.
What is it like to be a woman in technology? It’s still a male-dominated world, after all, with just 17% of the workforce being women. In addition to gender balance, technology lacks ethnic diversity as well, showing very little black, Asian, or Indian representation.
We can do better.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
- How advances in AI emphasize the need for diversity in technology.
- The importance of transparency with new algorithms.
- The need for AI to have larger data sets.
- Examples of problematic behaviors in the tech workplace and practical tips for solving them.
FIONA: Welcome back to Inclusion Works. I’m your host, Fiona Young, and I run the diversity, inclusion and belonging practice at Hive Learning, the peer learning app for enterprises. Our guest today is Jacqueline de Rojas, the titan of tech who is president of techUK – the body or association as Americans would say which represents 900 companies in the digital sector in the UK.
Jacqueline is also chair of the board of digital leaders and serves as a non-exec on the board of several businesses like Rightmove, the Costian Group and FDM group and has decades of experience working in tech through the ’80s – 90’s.
Jacqueline has been described as one of the most influential women in tech in the UK and her work earned her a CBE in 2018. For listeners outside of the UK a CBE is a commander of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire and huge honor bestowed by the Queen herself. So welcome Jacqueline. It is a pleasure to have you here and chat with you today.
JACQUELINE: Thank you for having me.
FIONA: So just to kick-off, I’d love it if you could expand a bit on the work that you’re currently doing and what you’re trying to achieve?
JACQUELINE: Gosh! In technology, in our sector, we have so much opportunity to be more diverse, be more inclusive. We are facing a skills gap in this country, probably globally actually and by 2022 90% of all jobs will have a digital element to them. So on top of the skills gap, technology is becoming more prevalent in our lives and so we need more skills. Not only do we need more skills, but we also need more diversity in tech and we need to be more open about who we employ. So that’s what keeps me up in the morning and keeps me awake at night and…
FIONA: Well thanks, I know diversity and inclusion is a huge passion point for you as it is for our listeners, of course, and I wondered if you could start off by telling us, this is a question we ask actually all guests on the show. What personal experiences first made you aware of diversity and inclusion issues and led to your passion in this space?
JACQUELINE: Well for anybody who’s been in technology for as long as I have, I think they would know that it’s a very male-dominated world, certainly was then and actually, certainly is now. We still only have 17% of Women in Technology, 10% in cyber, 6% in engineering. I mean the numbers are very low and then when you overlay the BAME filter on top of that we have very little ethnicity and black and Asian and Indian representation, especially in leadership and so we have to do much better and I think that’s where I spend most my time advocating for diversity and inclusion.
For me, technology has always been as I said very male-dominated. I certainly have grown up in a world where I think once it was in 1999 actually when I was up for a promotion in a computer software company and I was up against someone who was you know was very accomplished, but I had 30 times more experience, the business was much much bigger that I was running. The teams were much bigger. I didn’t get the job and I asked for feedback and the feedback was, Jacqueline we simply don’t put women on the leadership team. That was a tough thing to hear.
Feedback is a gift; I get that but actually that was tough to hear. So I spent quite a lot of time figuring out where the miracle was in that one and I went off to get a job somewhere else as a managing director, so I found my own leadership role. I think the miracle that I found in that particular case was at least he told me. If he hadn’t have said that out loud, I think I might have been banging my head against the glass ceiling for another five years. So it’s interesting and tragic at the same time, isn’t it?
FIONA: Absolutely. I mean that story I think is probably the clearest depiction of a glass ceiling I’ve ever heard it is literally. You are not being promoted because we don’t have women on the leadership team.
JACQUELINE: Yes, it was pretty shocking. I mean you could maybe imagine that being said in 1929 but like in 1999, that’s incredible.
Yeah, 20 years ago and it’s so interesting because years later over a decade later the same company asked me to come back and troubleshoot their business, which I did because it was unfinished business. So the circle and the karma is all in a good place and culture has now evolved and changed and I’m super delighted that I could make a difference.
FIONA: I am always amazed by the stories we hear on the show from this question and so often the great work that’s come from real change-makers in this space comes from that painful experience like yours, right and so there is good that comes of it because it just builds your passion and drive to really make a change in diversity.
JACQUELINE: I think it does. Also, what you realize is that the cavalry is not coming. So there isn’t anyone else going to do it for you. You actually have to say I’m going to make a stand and I’m going to make this change and it’s the smallest of differences that make the biggest of impacts.
FIONA: I agree. So, you’ve said before that the monoculture of thought in tech is dangerous and diversity is a critical need, not a noble goal. Can you tell us more about that?
JACQUELINE: Well I would say it’s a noble goal as well. So I do think that diversity, gender equality, equal pay super important and is a noble cause and it’s right that everyone should have an equal opportunity. Secondly, though, it is statistically proven that diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time versus a team that is not diverse. I think that’s really important because diverse teams make better business outcomes. One woman on the board of a business can reduce the risk of bankruptcy by 20%. It’s a fact.
So that’s quite interesting, but I think the third thing that makes diversity and inclusion much more critical is that if an algorithm is now going to decide whether you get a place at university, a job interview or a mortgage. You better be sure that the person who’s building those algorithms is from a diverse background, otherwise, we’re going to be building a world that isn’t for everybody and that’s why it’s really critical.
I was told a story the other day where a doctor couldn’t access the locker room at the gym. The swipe card just wasn’t working, and they changed the swipe card a number of times. They called the techies in and they said, oh my goodness I don’t know what’s happened and they finally figured out that the job title doctor had been hard-coded as a male job title and that’s why she couldn’t get into the locker room, oh my God I mean it’s just so the bias that we live with is so inbuilt that we stopped seeing it but if you think about that it’s a small example.
If you think if the pilot had been hard-coded as a male job title and the software that the pilots use today could not be overridden by a female pilot because they didn’t recognize it as a pilot. Can you imagine what would happen in our skies if things like– no it hasn’t happened but my point is from the smallest of examples you can see how if we don’t have diverse people building our algorithms and our robotic and digital future, then we are really going to have some very big impacts going forward and not in a good way.
FIONA: I think it’s interesting the bias in algorithms, stuff that has been coming up in the media so often recently. I’d love to hear your view on this. So to start off with, how do you feel about AI? Are you feeling optimistic? Are you feeling pessimistic? Are you feeling neutral like kind of seeing both sides of the coin?
JACQUELINE: I am so excited. I’m a technology optimist. So I’m so excited about what we can do with AI. I mean look at what we’ve achieved already with efficiencies, life-saving technology and I’m so excited about that for our future selves. I do however think that we have to have explainable AI. So algorithms may not live in a black box. We have to be transparent about who it’s impacting? How it’s impacting? What it’s going to do as an algorithm? What it’s designed for? And capture the unintended consequences so that we can evolve and do the right thing, but it has to be explainable AI and without that, I think we will be in trouble.
There is a really good report that’s come out of the Turing Institute, which we should definitely have a link to for our listeners because explainable AI is going to matter. Its transparency is probably what’s going to save us in this world of algorithms and dependency on tech. We need to know how it’s made and therefore who is going to impact.
FIONA: Yes. I agree with you. I think as well that there is an interesting opportunity as well for algorithms to overcome human error and human bias, right. But I’m curious to know I’m sure you know a lot more about this than I do and have read a lot more about this than I have. So do you have a view on how we can possibly debias algorithms when we humans are so biased right? As we know as you said earlier in this show that you know the diversity of the teams working on this stuff as well is not great, is not the best out of you know whole of industry in the UK, right.
So I’m just concerned that from what I’ve read that in all the data that we’re feeding if these algorithms are so biased based on decades and centuries of systemic isms like racism and sexism and so forth. Do you have a view on that?
JACQUELINE: Well actually I think what’s really odd about the way some of the algorithms are being built and AI is being used. They’re actually being used on quite small data sets that are quite outdated. So of course, by nature, they are not really reflecting the real world. So we probably need to go to the much larger data lakes in order to ensure that we get a proper realistic real-world example of data.
I think you would be quite shocked and I’m very happy to supply some stats for this actually about the size of the datasets that are being used. Some of them are so small and so shocking that you would say, well, of course, that was a world when it was all men, it was all white. It was not reflective of the problems we’re trying to solve today.
So firstly, I think the size of the data set matters. Secondly, I do think the transparency of the algorithm, the explainable AI has to be a global standard. We all have to sign up for transparency. We probably, it won’t serve us I don’t think to have a world full of penalties. You know it’s a bit like wearing the seatbelt. There isn’t really any policing of whether you Fiona or I wear a seatbelt anymore, but it’s socially unacceptable not to wear one and I feel we need to go the same way with data, with algorithms, that we need to do the right thing and we need to make sure that we create a climate of doing the right thing because it’s socially unacceptable not to.
So I think there’s that and on top of that, we have to move as fast as we can to an inclusive and diverse workforce in the building of our digital future. That includes young people and old people by the way. People on the neurodiversity scale because they have superpowers that you know you and I don’t have. Asperger’s autism super exciting for the cyber world because they spot patterns that we mere mortals couldn’t spot and I think we probably need to look at instead of disability, we need to look at you know these things as superpowers and enabling because they’re amazing.
Also, I think when we’re building teams we often rush to hire exciting extroverts people like us and actually a lot of the time in tech we need thoughtful strategic introverted people. So we probably need to look at diversity and inclusion in all its forms and not just the obvious.
FIONA: Yes. Absolutely, and I’m curious to hear your point of view on how we can really make the most of diversity when you know when we have it, right. So, I think in practice diversity can feel really tough. I think it was research from Katherine Phillips at Columbia Business School which showed that it’s precise because diverse teams feel uncomfortable that they perform better. So what skills and mindset do we really need to make the most of diversity.
JACQUELINE: I saw a brilliant quote the other day which said great things don’t come from within your comfort zone and I think that’s actually really true here. I’m reminded of Harry and Megan’s royal wedding when preacher Michael went off-piste and he went twice the amount of his allotted time. He was definitely preaching at the senior royal family about love and commitment and what that means and it was extraordinary to see a black preacher with Charles walking Megan’s mother a black woman down the aisle.
Our royal family really embracing diversity and inclusion through that wedding but what was so interesting was as the preacher went off-piste, as he got more excited and fired up, the Royals so not used to this, definitely not used to anyone going off protocol. They were sitting on their hands under their big hats tittering and not really knowing where to look and I think that really does encapsulate the fact that diversity and inclusion is not always a comfortable journey.
What it speaks to is that we are all going to have to learn a new leadership skill which is tolerance and that when we have new situations of someone sitting next to me who in the office who doesn’t eat like me, doesn’t work the same hours, is chaotically different from my organized self turns up in different clothes, is a different age group, different ethnicity. We all have to just be a bit more self-reflective about what’s going on with me around that and also look at how we measure performance as we go forward because it may not always be the way it’s always been. And I think that’s fascinating.
FIONA: What do you mean by that? How we measure performance.
JACQUELINE: Well, so it won’t be measured by you know Jacqueline you’ve done your eight hours. It will be how have you contributed and also you know maybe companies are going to move to how satisfied are my staff in a world where we’ve got the war on talent. We are going to have to be much better at, you know what coffee we serve. What environment we create. Have we got flexible working? Are we clear that we need to choose leaders who are great on tolerance and inclusion versus you know command and control? So I think all of those things are going to change, which is exciting.
FIONA: I guess there must be just reflecting on your comment about how we’re measuring performance, I think to really make the most of diversity too. We need people who are willing to be contrary. Who is willing to put their hand up and kind of go against those kindergarten values we’ve been instilled with; to be nice and to agree with others and to kind of create some of that constructive conflict, creative abrasion you might call it. So I imagine that’s part of the mix here of building up leaders who can lead this great new digital world.
JACQUELINE: Yes. I mean we always use this word disruptive which is how do we shake things up a bit. Actually it’s only possible I believe when you’ve got some kind of connection and social capital with your fellow teammates or colleagues. Rugby players do this really well where they have their line of defense. They have their brother on the right shoulder or brother on the left-hand shoulder and in women’s game and sister on each other, but they know them so well. They’ve got so much social engagement and capital. I was a groomsman at their wedding or I was you know I’m godfather to their child and what happens then is that under pressure they know exactly what the right and left are going to do and they will crawl over broken glass for each other.
If you have a sole trader in the middle who doesn’t have any social capital, under pressure they become a sole trader and the line breaks down. The same happens in teams at work where if we don’t have social capital and companies that are building social capital, then we’re going to have people who are doing their own thing and in it for themselves and that never works when we’re building a business at speed. In tech terms with their growth mindset.
You have to have that social capital and that means you move away from questions like, well did you have a good weekend to you know a trusted question which might be, you know I noticed in that meeting when it wasn’t going the way that we thought it was going to go, you didn’t say anything. I mean that’s a really deep question and one that you could say to someone that you’ve got a lot of social capital invested with. You probably couldn’t say it to someone with any level of safety or hoping to move the dial unless you’d really built something, meaningful in terms of a relationship.
FIONA: Yes, and I guess that is one of the challenges of diverse teams like we were just talking about earlier, that sort of going beyond tolerance to actually building close connections and trust and psychological safety like layer beneath trust. That is so important so that if you don’t have naturally loads in common with the people around you, you can still build that sensitive teamship and also social capital.
JACQUELINE: Yes, and you need to because if you don’t, it’s a job, it’s not a mission. In tech you kind of need that mission because everything moves so fast that trust element enables that growth mindset and that safety net.
FIONA: So I know that you and I both passionately believe that to build a culture that’s really inclusive, you need to help people change their everyday behaviors. So we’ve spoken a little bit about this already, but I’m wondering if you can give us some more examples of kind of problematic behaviors in the workplace that get in the way of having a really diverse and inclusive space.
JACQUELINE: That’s a really interesting question. There are so many little things that we can do. I don’t think it’s the big things, by the way, I think it’s the little things. The first thing I would encourage anybody to do is to make sure that they understand their own unconscious bias because we all have it and it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. There are so many online opportunities to understand what your unconscious bias leans towards and it is really worth knowing that about yourself. Once you know that I think you can go headlong into okay, right. I didn’t know that about myself and it’s very helpful in building teams and team dynamics.
I think the other thing would be what we were talking about earlier which is being outside of your comfort zone. It is something to run towards versus something to run away from and that’s really helpful when you’ve got very different people inside your team’s.
Possibly the third thing would be when you’re hiring people, I do think there is an element of blind CVs work because we unconsciously choose people because they are like us. It means almost a human condition. I think there was this example where the same words used by a woman that was used by a man. She was considered to be hmmm tricky, he was considered to be strong; same words same CV, different headlines in terms of who they were from a gender perspective. I think that’s really interesting because we are programmed to make decisions every second of our lives and I understand that and we are preconditioned.
I mean I’m preconditioned to finish everything on my plate because my parents condition me that way and I really wish I could snap out of that one, but we are programmed and it takes quite a lot to change that. So noticing is the first thing and then doing some practical things around changing. How we go through the process of hiring is going to really matter.
FIONA: I want to finish off by just asking you one question. I’ve heard you speak before about how earlier on in your career you felt quite a bit like as a woman in tech that you had to fit into the molds of what was expected of people working in tech and obviously, being in the minority you know that isn’t being your whole self and bringing your whole self to the table really. Could you tell us a bit more about that and kind of how you managed to break free from it?
JACQUELINE: So, I would say there were a few people in my life who probably wish they hadn’t worked for me. I was tough, tough alpha-zilla. So a lot of alpha because I was working with male role models and I was aspiring to be a manager. So I thought I had to be like them and display all of the alpha characteristics of a leader that they were displaying. I realized actually that I got to a certain point in my career, so I wasn’t promoted at that time and you know it was because they didn’t want women on the leadership team but also if I actually reflect on that too. I’m wondering if it was because I wasn’t my real authentic self.
It was at that point that I thought I really needed to make the shift from management to leadership and what was that and what did that look like? And it looked like less alpha, a lot more compassion and tolerance and kindness as a leader which meant giving my team the space to be amazing, which they were. Empowering them to make mistakes as well as to create that growth mindset and build the business.
I realized as soon as I let go that I was getting more back. That it wasn’t easy but I did let go and I gave them a bigger and bigger sandpit in which to play and to be themselves and they got better and I got better. It was a journey, I did a lot of self-reflection and personal development learning at the same time to figure out who I was as a leader and I brought my authentic whole self to work instead of wearing a tie, being that alpha-zilla kind of manager.
And as soon as I made those shifts, life changed exponentially and that was such a joy. Realizing that I didn’t have all the answers. Now what I do have is I have a ton of questions because you can’t run out of those but answers you can run out of and that was a big life lesson.
FIONA: It’s really interesting to hear your journey and I feel like I personally have been on this journey and I’m sure a lot of listeners. This will resonate with a lot of listeners as well. So thank you so much for sharing all those insights with us and the stories. It’s been really fantastic to meet you and get to chat with you here today.
JACQUELINE: Thank you for having me.
FIONA: So if anyone listening today wants to stay in touch with you. What’s the best way for them to do that?
JACQUELINE: I’m always on Twitter @jdr_tech, so I’m there and of course, I’m on LinkedIn.
FIONA: Thank you so much, Jacqueline. It’s been really wonderful.
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An Exclusive Interview with Jaqueline de Rojas, president of Tech UK and one of the most influential women in tech in the UK.
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