Since it is Women’s Month, we thought it fitting to continue the discussion about the struggles women face in industries like IT and how to overcome them. What better way to do this than to hear it from the horse’s mouth? We chatted to Shelley Brown, IS Client Manager for Wholesale, about her experiences in the IT industry.
Can you explain the purpose of the Women’s Forum, how it functions and your role in the organisation?
I founded the Women’s Forum in 2010 with two IS colleagues after attending a Women in Business Conference at GIBS. We realised there was a massive gap in the IT industry and that women were under-represented. Once we started to look into it, we found that IT wasn’t the only industry where women weren’t at the top – and we couldn’t understand why.
We started researching around the issues of where and why women weren’t reaching the top and why they were under-represented on boards and other entities. We discovered three areas of concern:
- Women – We subject ourselves to stereotypes, assumptions, judge ourselves harshly and also don’t put up our hands for positions because we don’t back ourselves like our male counterparts.
- People – We live in a society where women are still viewed as the ones who stay at home, look after the children and give up careers to look after families. When we put our careers first, we are judged harshly because a woman in a position of power is seen as bossy, vain and is generally disliked.
- The Organisation – Organisations in all industries worldwide need to have women on their list of CEO KPIs. They have to ensure that the progression of women in their business is a strategic objective because research shows that having more women on boards has a positive and direct impact on the bottom line.
So for seven years, The Women’s Forum have been building initiatives and programmes in Dimension Data to address these 3 areas.
I personally do this by being a moderator in the Dimension Data Chapter Network. The Chapter Network are groups of Women who meet monthly to address the challenges they face together, by discussing issues they face around self-awareness, stereotyping, networking and coaching and mentoring.
Every year, we try to have an event called True North in August where we celebrate Women in IT.
We also run a Tech Girl programme that brings high school girls into the organisation for a job-shadowing programme so they can be exposed to IT and learn that women can work in this industry and be successful.
Our vision is to support key enablers to meet our 2020 strategic aspirations – all our programmes contribute to the strategic objectives set out by Dimension Data. BBBEE is key to retaining staff and attracting them to the group.
What is it like to be a woman working for IS?
IS is a great place to work for. If you are smart, innovative and driven, you will do well here. But women have to work harder, smarter and tell people about our achievements a lot more than if we’re men. Like many organisations in our industry and outside of that there is a lack of female leadership at the top. This makes it difficult to envision yourself there, so having more women in leadership positions will create a path for others to move up and show that it is possible.
I have been lucky enough to work at IS for nearly eight years, this company has allowed me to find my identity and their innovative and ambitious culture rubs off on you so the sky is the limit. My personality and work ethic really flourishes at Internet Solutions, you can openly speak your mind, and offer your own point of view for the greater purpose of the organisation.
What made you want to work in the IT industry?
I fell into IT by mistake when I was working in the UK. I joined a small reseller, got the tech bug and have been in the industry for 15 years. When I moved back to SA, I only wanted to work for an ISP/voice provider and didn’t even consider another industry. I love the fact that it’s fast-paced, changes all the time, is innovative and challenging. I have a marketing degree, so IT was the last place I thought I would be, but the skills I learnt in my degree play out every day in my role as a Client Manager in IS Wholesale.
Can you share a few of the challenges and successes you’ve experienced?
From a success perspective, I have been lucky to move around in IS and experiment with different roles, each role I have been in has complimented the next and I am lucky to be exposed to all areas of the business which gives you perspective.
One of my biggest successes is the founding of the Women’s Forum and being an active participant in it. As a moderator of the Chapter Network (I have done it for four years now), there was at least one woman in our group who did something amazing each year. Whether it was applying for a job she would never have if it hadn’t been for the Women's Forum, or in the case of one woman who went home after one of our chapters, sat down her husband and spoke about the guilt she was feeling by being a working mom and being everything to everyone. They agreed to share some of the burden and the work, which meant that she had more to give to her career. She was excelling, her marriage was happier, her kids were happier and so was she.
From a challenges perspective, I think I have already expressed the lack of female representation in senior levels, so I personally find it difficult to visualize how I can get there myself. It’s so important to have role models in today’s day and age.
Another challenge is adapt or die, in order to stay relevant in your skill set and in your experience is to accept change and adapt to what the industry and the organization needs from you in order to remain relevant.
How do you feel Women’s Day is relevant to you in the IT industry and as an individual?
I think that Women’s Day reminds us that we have a long way to go as an industry. In South Africa, Women’s Day celebrates the women who fought for our right to vote, and to be first-class citizens. This legacy must live on, but must be used as a reminder that women are equal to men. It should shine a light on our industry. There aren’t enough women in our industry and the ones who are there must be celebrated for what they have achieved and what they want to continue to achieve.
The day should be used by IS/Dimension Data to celebrate the women we have because our clients are looking to us to be as equitable as they are. They are struggling with the same issues our industry face and they want to be seen to be working with companies that see the empowerment and advancement of women as a key strategic focus. This should be leveraged as a tool to engage our clients in conversation, we should be using it to celebrate the women we have in IT.
How will you encourage young women to become more involved?
Young women are looking to work for companies that have a place for them, they don’t want to join a company that doesn’t represent them.
I encourage all young women to join the Chapter Network. I also encourage them to become involved in the Tech Girl programme and bring the next generation into the world of work. I’ve noticed that young women aren’t afraid to speak their minds. I encourage them to point out any gender bias and be vocal about the awareness of the issues women face in a male-dominated environment.
I think the biggest insight I have had is that change is constant in our industry. Which is exciting because you are not stuck in an industry that doesn’t move, this in turn creates opportunity to move around in different roles and learn new skills. I have been a beneficiary of that change.
What does disappoint me is the lack of representation of Women in our industry, however there is an acknowledgement that we are underrepresented and we need to work to change it. I think Women should be better represented at conference and those that are making a difference and are at senior level should have a spotlight on them so that they can lead the way for other women who are looking up to them to enhance their career.
I do look forward to the day when the industry in South Africa has a Chapter Network with a variety of women from all areas and levels who come together to discuss the issues faced by Women and work towards making a real change.
Lastly, this industry is a great place to be in, IS is also a great place to be when your market is evolving, being a Client Manager in Wholesale has opened up a new sense of respect for operators, internet service providers and partners who operate in a world where there is massive pricing pressure but usage and capacities are growing exponentially. So the future is bright, we need to embrace it. All of us, men and women.