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Diversity and Inclusion interview with CTO Meri Williams

We caught up with legendary CTO Meri Williams to get her perspective on Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in the workplace:

Can you tell us a little bit about your career so far?

I’m a CTO as well as a VC Advisor and conference chair. I’ve been CTO of a number of organizations including Moo, Monzo, and HealX in recent years. I started my career at Procter and Gamble, and spent 10 years there in a range of different roles. I’m a computer scientist by background, with a specialism in AI. I’m South African originally, but came over to the UK to study and basically never left.

 

It’s more unusual than it should be to find a female CTO. Thinking back on your own career, what obstacles have you faced in terms of your career progression?

I think there’re a lot of people that assume that I’m not as technical because I’m a woman, which is kind of hilarious because I have a hardware hacking background. As a teenager I built part of South Africa’s first satellite which was pretty technical as you can imagine! Pretty much anywhere new I join, there’s a period where people assume I’m not that technical because I’m a woman – but I usually ask a few deep questions and that goes away pretty quickly.

I think there is a common prejudice in the technology industry with women that assumes – “Are they here because of their soft skills rather than technical acumen?”. In my experience, it is proven to be wrong. Most of the women who I know who are in technology leadership positions are very technical.

The other thing is about the fact that I’m South African and autistic and that I’m very direct. I had to adapt to the British culture which is very indirect. I try to come across as a very polite South African!

 

Hopefully things are moving in a positive direction with regard to diversity and inclusion, but what do you think companies can do to help encourage more underrepresented groups into their workforce?

I think a big challenge is that companies are doing all the work externally and not enough internally. In order to bring people who are different to your current team, you need to do a lot of hard work to make your organization more inclusive before they arrive. I think there’s a mistake where people bring somebody into the group and assume they’ll magically change the entire environment.

You can’t push all of your responsibilities to those are already different and underrepresented to then change everything around them. I think there’s more for organizations to do, in order to make themselves really inclusive places to be, ahead of them joining the team.

That includes looking at policies, procedures, how to reward people, career progression, even down to fairly simple things. For example, if you have an after work drinking culture, maybe those with families, or those with some religious backgrounds, may not be keen to be a part of it. You need to get that balance right for your existing team, as well as make yourself attractive for a new set of people.

 

I would imagine there must be a very wide number of reasons why an underrepresented group might feel uncomfortable in a particular environment. This could be related to culture, or not having right facilities to cope with a particular disability for example. How can organizations educate themselves about diversity and therefore develop a greater understanding of the challenges that underrepresented groups face?

Something I have done for quite a few organizations is that I have a mini-framework that says people are asking three questions about whether to join a particular company, or to say yes to a promotion or leave their current employer. They’re asking themselves, “Am I expected here?”. If you are a devout Muslim it might mean that you’re looking for a prayer room, or maybe that you can swap out public holidays for ones that mean more to you.

The second question people ask is “Am I respected here?”. That’s about how people interact with you and it is about training people’s unconscious bias, making them realize that people can be very unaware of their own biases. It is about trying to avoid the kind of accidental discrimination that can happen.

The third question is “Can I be myself and be successful here?” People tend to spend a lot of energy and time pretending to be like everyone around them, to fit in. Research shows that people can be 40% more productive when they can be themselves. You can have a huge benefit by allowing people to be themselves. But we still have the reality that some people cannot even share the gender of their partners, which means they spend mental energy to hiding themselves within a business.

It is also about role modelling. I have a physical disability, I’m an atheist, I’m queer and work in tech, so I don’t find a direct role model like myself very often but I don’t think it is about every single individual seeing someone exactly like them in the leadership. It is more about seeing a range of people in leadership, and a culture that respects and encourages diversity.

 

Regarding role models, I think you are one of those role models for underrepresented groups in the technology industry. Has that influenced you? How do you help people in that sense?

Quite a few of my mentors asked me why I haven’t become a CPTO [Chief Product and Technology Officer]. One of the reasons is that people will assume I came from a product management background rather than a software engineering one. I think it’s important for me to be a very technical female leader, visibly doing the work and performing well.

I try very hard to be inclusive wherever I work. For example, during pay reviews I make sure there is no inequity in pay among genders and races and so on. I make sure that all of my team have proper career paths and a structure for their career progression.

I also like to have a calibration session where you talk about each and every individual, about their performances and potentials. One of the things I have found is that underrepresented groups benefit disproportionally from those sessions. For better or worse they are much less likely to make lots of noise and promote themselves internally. When you do a factual assessment of who is a high performer, you notice that you should often give the opportunities to those who aren’t necessarily asking for them. You want to prioritize somebody who is high-performing and has a lot of potential, however what is often happening is that person who shouts the loudest gets the project, not necessarily a quieter but higher performing employee.

 

With regard to diversity and inclusion, how much progress do you feel has been made in the last few years?

I think a fair amount. Where we are so struggling right now is at university level. Computer Science is a real challenge. If you look back in the past, computing used to be a woman’s job. Especially in America, it was a job for women of colour. It’s in the most recent decades that we see a stereotype that it is only men working in engineering, that perception of the loner working away in their basement.

Successful engineering needs collaboration and great communication skills. Up to primary school age, you tend to see just as many young girls involved in coding, however in high school science and maths teachers basically push girls out of their classes and don’t encourage them to stay. There are a lot of university courses involving software and technology that require maths qualifications to get in, which can become an issue for a lot of women.

I think employers are increasingly realising that to be a brilliant engineer you don’t necessarily need to have studied Computer Science at university. Some of the best engineers I know have never been to university at all.

 

People from underprivileged backgrounds may not be able to afford to go to university. How can you practically unearth the talent that hasn’t had that opportunity?

There is a coding boot camp approach, however some of them are quite expensive or require time off from your regular jobs. You also have organizations like Code First Girls, where people can study how to code in their spare time, for free. The organization partners with lots of employers to develop engineering talent for them.

Being self-taught is also a perfectly valid way. Some of the online courses from MIT and some of the virtual boot camps can be very good. Sometimes people who are new to software engineering and who have worked in other roles previously can bring the strong soft skills that recent Computer Science graduates often lack.

In particular with Code First Girls, I have seen a number of companies have really fruitful relationships and great results by investing in the program.

 

What do you think are the business benefits of a more diverse workplace?

There are a number of studies that have shown that diverse teams are more innovative, more profitable and significantly higher performing than teams that lack diversity. Companies who aren’t diverse in their approach will simply struggle to compete with those that do as they won’t have access to the same depth and quality of talent.

 

How can you influence the culture of a business? For example, if a company has an after-work drinks culture that alienates some staff, how could you change that?

I think drawing attention to issues is effective. People don’t usually intend to exclude others – it’s often just something they hadn’t considered. If a company usually socializes with drinks after work, perhaps having some more frequent lunch-time sessions might work better for some team members.

It is often such a small adjustment to be more inclusive. I am not saying that we should stop all the drinking. I am saying it is bad if that is the only way to socialise each other. I think it is about broadening the number of ways that people show their humanity at work and moving some of them to the working hours.

 

Do you think that a belief in the importance of diversity and inclusion has to be championed across the senior management of a company?

If your leadership team is just one gender, statistically something is wrong. In the same way, if you have a team of ten and they are all straight then something is wrong. You are not representing the general population. If you have any reasonable size of team and if you don’t have that representation, you are doing something that tells underrepresented group that they are not welcomed.

Figuring out what that is and stopping it is very important. There are important business as well as moral reasons to do that.

 

I would imagine that if you’re a member of an underrepresented group, you’re looking for evidence of diversity when you consider a new employer. What can companies do to improve their attractiveness to diverse candidates?

I think it’s important to spend time thinking about the needs of different groups. For example, people who are deaf, or blind, or in wheelchairs might need certain facilities or equipment to help them in their jobs. There is complexity in solving these kinds of challenges but there is such a reward for making your environment more inclusive.

Even a small thing can make a significant difference. I recently found out that autistic job finders do much better at interview when they are given clear instructions as to how to find the office. Just by updating one web page with more information, you can radically change how diverse candidates perform at interview and in the workplace. Even a small change can make a huge difference.

 

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