Celebrating Women in STEM - in conversation with Ketty Lawrence

about 2 months ago by Gillian Williamson
Celebrating Women In Stem Ketty Lawrence Blog

As we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2021 we take the time to learn and grow from inspirational women in STEM who are all around us. We hope by engaging in these conversations we can promote positive change and make STEM careers accessible for more women.

We're delighted to welcome Ketty Lawrence, Digital Skills & Diversity Project Manager at SDS along to our 'Celebrating Women In STEM' series. Ketty chats to us about the positive role models she has encountered, the importance of diversity and flexibility within the workplace, plus so much more!

Q. Can you tell us a little about your background and career to date? What attracted you to the STEM sector and what do you think makes it a good place for women?

My early career was in marketing which quite quickly transformed into digital marketing. I found the digital stuff quite exciting, and I wanted to work for a more digitally focused agency. I found this super creative agency called Chunk, applied speculatively for a role and got one. Once I had seen all the cool stuff they could make like apps, games, and digital experiences, I was hooked. I loved the excitement of being part of a team, helping take something from an initial idea on paper to developing it into a fully-fledged product. Then actually seeing people use it at the end was an amazing feeling.

Finding people with the right technical skills to join the team was always a big challenge and when I discovered this was a worldwide problem, I wanted to help fix it. I now work as a project manager developing initiatives to support more people, particularly females, to study and work in tech. I love it because I feel like I’m making a difference in the world.

Working in tech is hugely rewarding. There are such a wide range of organisations and jobs. And now, more than ever, working in tech gives you the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives. Tech jobs are great for so many people, not just women, because they have this variety which opens so many different avenues and opportunities. You don't have to be techy to work in technology (I’m not) as there are lots of creative jobs and project-based roles too.

Q. Has there been anyone who has made a positive and lasting impression on your career? How can we learn from this person and their approach?

The team at Chunk were awesome. They taught me that we should never accept less than the best and always strive to make the very best digital products we can. That means really understanding who will use them and what they need from it. Then working together to ensure we deliver products and experiences that people will truly enjoy.

It’s really important to get that design and usability correct and it can only be done by the right team. Diverse teams comprising all genders and people from a wide range of backgrounds are proven to design and develop better products and services. This is because they all bring different viewpoints and ways of looking at things. We should all be striving to build diverse teams and in turn create brilliant products and services.

Q. Is there a clear difference in your experiences of being a female in the sector at the beginning of your career and now?

When I first worked in tech, I was aware that I was one of the few females in the organisation, but I didn't realise that the under-representation of women was an industry wide issue. Looking back, I did suffer from some challenges that I now know to be true of industry more widely, but at the time I didn't realise they were the result of unconscious bias and working in a male dominated sector.

Things changed for me once I had my first child and even more so on having my second. I needed greater flexibility in my job each time. Luckily, SDS is very flexible – we’ve always been allowed to work from home, and we have some flexibility to adapt our start and finish times. I’ve always made high use of these things, even before COVID. I think a lot of employers still feel they need rigid working practices to ensure “the job gets done” but it’s just not true. I am way more productive now, with the flexibility that I get, than I ever was previously.

Q. If you were with a group of peers this evening and talking openly about this topic, what would be the key issues discussed?

The lack of females studying technology at school, college and university is a key issue. Over the past few years, we have moved from just 18% of the tech workforce being women to around 24%, so we have seen some progress. What research has found however, is that this is a result of females transferring in from other careers and disciplines and that, despite all our efforts, there are still far too few females within the technology education pipeline. I believe gender stereotyping, bias, and societal perceptions of what is for girls and for boys, are real stubborn issues that we need to fix.

The other day my sister-in-law asked me if I felt she could buy her three-year-old daughter a blue jacket with paw patrol characters on it as someone had told her it was “too boyish”. It's a coat with her favourite cartoon characters on it - Why wouldn't you buy it for her?! I was so angry that the person had said it was boyish but then I realised I was even more upset that the society we live in is so gendered that my sister-in-law felt she needed to seek approval for the purchase in the first place!

If we're setting such extreme stereotypes at such a young age, what chance have we got at reversing those later? Proactively tackling the tech gender gap is crucial and gender inclusion projects play a huge role in that. Fundamentally though, society needs educating, and perceptions and behaviours must change otherwise we're always going to have to fight twice as hard against them.

Q. What role do you think other colleagues have in helping organisations achieve greater gender balance?

You've got to be the change that we all want to see. Everybody has a responsibility to get involved in diversity and inclusion. It is fundamental to all business and social activities. We must call out bias and poor practises, and we have to work towards greater inclusion across the board. Inclusion is good for everybody, not just females, and not just underrepresented groups. Research shows that inclusive practices benefit us all.

Diversity and inclusion is not only the socially and morally correct thing to pursue but it leads to better cultures, better workplaces, better teams, better businesses, better products and services, greater economic development and a better quality of life for everyone. We all have a part to play in achieving that!

Q. How do you think COVID-19 has impacted gender diversity in STEM and the capacity to fulfil potential?

COVID has been difficult for everybody and particularly for people with caring responsibilities. In many households, females still take on the greatest share of caring responsibilities and a man’s career can be seen as more important than a women's. As a result, COVID has dramatically increased the pressure on women to juggle work, caring and home schooling. Some women have had to reduce their working hours to support their families and sadly that can be detrimental to professional development and careers. I believe mental health has also played a large role in many people’s lives and it is very hard to fulfil your potential when trying to look after your own mental health and that of your family.

Q. Who do you think are the most inspiring women in STEM today?

Tech is full of inspiring people, men and women. Without these people working in tech, and wider STEM, we would not have weathered the pandemic. We would not have been able to keep contact with family and friends, and in many cases, work. We would not have found a vaccine, administered it, or saved so many lives.

Also inspiring are the many people who work tirelessly to tackle the gender imbalance, and support and encourage females into tech. Many of them do this in addition to their jobs and families, often in their own time and with their own resources. And always with passion and determination. Running clubs and events, acting as role models and mentors, supporting young girls, students, career changers and returners.

Tackling the gender imbalance in technology is a complex challenge and one that involves all organisations from early years and schools, colleges, universities, training providers, industry, employers, public sector, third sector and all. Everyone has a role to play, and we must all do our bit and take responsibility for gender inclusion. That’s how we’ll effect change.

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