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Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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WISE Conference update: Let’s drive innovation in the economy by nurturing female talent – Helen Wollaston, Chief Executive of WISE

Helen Wollaston - WISE Campaign

WISE is a Leeds based non-profit community interest company, which enables and energises people in business, industry and education to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). All its revenue comes from membership fees and sponsorship. It has over 200 member organisations.

Helen Wollaston - WISE Campaign
Helen Wollaston

“…Our estimate that only 9% of patents in the UK involve women, compared to a global average of 30%, shocked many people…”

Helen, please can you tell us about your career to date and the journey that led you to WISE?

I’ve always been passionate about women’s equality, participation and recognition. I have worked on equality, diversity and inclusion since my days as an activist in the women’s movement in the 1980s.

I worked in a wide range of roles including seven years as Director of Campaigns for the Equal Opportunities Commission, after which I decided to start my own consultancy company, Equal to the Occasion. The great thing about WISE is that I get to work with decision makers from business, industry and education who are in a position to make a real difference.

What does your role at WISE involve on a day to day basis?

I do a lot of it is external facing work as CEO. My focus is on raising awareness and building relationships with organisations to grow the reach and impact of the campaign. There is of course also a critical element which is internal -working with the team and the board on a high impact, high growth strategy and monitoring our performance – it’s a constant learning process which I find hugely energising.

There is a growing momentum for change in 2018, driven by skills shortages in engineering and technology, awareness of the gender pay gap, #MeToo and other online campaigns in support of women. We are busier than ever before and in the fortunate position of being able to expand the team so that we can support a growing corporate membership. We will be advertising further vacancies on the WISE website over the summer, so do keep a look out.

It was the WISE conference last week. Please can you tell us about this and who attended?

WISE-ConferenceOur conference was attended by a rich mix of WISE members, academia, business leaders, students, graduates, as well as men and women at all stages of their careers. We had a great programme with industry leaders from Arm, Thales, Siemens, BAE systems, Network Rail and Amazon Web Services who came together to share best practice and inspire others to follow suit and get more women into their teams.

This year’s theme was female innovation. Why was this chosen?

We picked innovation as a theme for our conference because making the UK the world’s most innovative economy is also a core objective of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, and we want to ensure that women are part of this.

We know that innovation is what businesses are talking about and we know that businesses are talking about how they can get more women in STEM, but for some reason, these seem to be different conversations. We thought it would be interesting to bring the two conversations together at our conference. It looks like we hit on something because we had more people join us than at any WISE conference to date and we had to turn some away. If you missed it, you can watch the presentations on our website.

Is it sufficient to reposition STEM roles for women or is a more radical approach needed?

We need a classroom to boardroom approach, as one of the conference speakers said – led from the top of organisations. This is why one of the WISE Ten steps is ‘Educate your leaders and make them accountable for change’.

Companies can only have their logo on the Ten Steps if it is signed personally by the chair or managing director. But it goes more than signing; we benchmark progress each year and invite the Board level reps to an annual event to hold each other to account. This year’s event will focus on the gender pay gap within companies who are members of WISE.

Many organisations are aware of actions that could be taken to attract more women but are reluctant to do commit to these, leading to inertia. How do we break out of this cycle?

The simple fact is that they will find themselves losing out to their competitors. There is plenty of evidence linking the participation of women to improved business performance, for example, Mark Carne, Network Rail CEO, said that they found operational teams with 20% or more women had higher levels of employee engagement which in turn leads to higher productivity.

Public sector procurement is another powerful lever for change. Companies wanting contracts from Network Rail, Hs2, Highways England, Heathrow Airport, Transport for London (all of whom are WISE corporate members committed to getting more women into science, technology and engineering), have to demonstrate their own commitment to a diverse workforce and will be monitored on their progress.

What were the learning points from the conference?

WISE-ConferenceFirstly – we need more visible role models of women inventing, developing and making things. The overwhelming positive feedback from young women attending the conference was that they were inspired by hearing from the speakers and by meeting women from other organisations who face similar issues to themselves but share a passion for science, technology and engineering.

Secondly, support from managers and leaders is absolutely critical to changing organisational culture.

Thirdly – data is a powerful wake up call to get people to take action. Gender pay gap reporting is a good example. Our estimate that only 9% of patents in the UK involve women, compared to a global average of 30%, shocked many people at the conference. Yet the Intellectual Property Office currently does not monitor the gender of those applying for patents. The world of venture capital and angel investors is far from transparent.

It would be very interesting to see data on applications and investment broken down by the gender of those applying for venture capital support, particularly for science, tech and engineering businesses.

What is coming up next for you and WISE?

We will be unveiling two new research projects in the coming weeks; one in conjunction with Amazon on innovation and a second with Network Rail to investigate ways to review recruitment into STEM roles and make recommendations for improvements so that more women get through the process.

We are deep into our Awards programme for 2018 and are calling for nominations right now! If you are, or know of an inspiring role model and champion, take a look at our categories and enter them, please help us to celebrate the amazing work being done by so many women, and men, in this field.

WISE Campaign - People-Like-MeFinally, we’re launching our People Like Me Online. We’re currently looking for more volunteers to get involved; we need more women under 30 to register, go through People Like Me training and act as role models to help deliver outreach to 11-14-year-old girls. We need companies to offer work experience, open days, internships and also mentors who can support girls inspired by a People Like Me session to take the next step.

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