Interview: Jaki Taylor, Nikki Turner and Alexis Farrow on women in technology and digital leadership

Following on from our HTN Festival, which explored different topics across the world of digital healthcare, we were joined by Jaki Taylor (Director of Nottinghamshire Health Informatics Service), Nikki Turner (Interim Director for Digital Services at Nottinghamshire University Hospitals NHS Trust) and Alexis Farrow (Digital Programme Director for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire ICS) for a discussion on women in technology and digital leadership.

Jaki, Nikki and Alexis shared their thoughts and opinions on the gender gap in technology and discussed the significance of women holding digital and digital leadership roles, how they support women to do so, and some of the challenges that women in particular tend to face.

To start, our interviewees introduced themselves and their roles.

Jaki began: “I’m the Director of Nottinghamshire Health Informatics Service (NHIS), a shared service which is hosted by Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. I’ve been Director for five years now. At NHIS we work with a number of different partner organisations; for example, we provide IT services for all the GPs in Nottinghamshire, as well as the ICB, Sherwood Forest Hospitals, CityCare, PICS, Nottingham Emergency Medical Service and more. A lot of the work focuses on IT support but we also have a number of different digital projects that we deliver.”

Alexis picked up here: “I’m the Digital Programme Director for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire ICS. I’m responsible for developing the system-wide strategy, looking at system-wide programmes of work and deployment where it touches multiple organisations and identifying the direction of travel. A lot of my work is focused on the link between national, regional and local teams.”

Finally, Nikki introduced herself: “I’m currently the Interim Director for Digital Services at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust (NUH). I look after everything digital, which at NUH includes the Health Records, around 250 digital staff.”

When considering the topics they might like to discuss, the team highlighted a particular point of interest from their respective workplaces.

“The majority of the people holding senior roles in digital and informatics across the ICS are women,” shared Alexis, “which feels like a real shift away from what has previously been considered, traditionally, a male-dominated environment. So we wanted to talk about that, about how we can support women in going for these roles.”

The gender gap in technology

So what is the gender gap in technology, as of 2022?

According to Tech Nation, a government funded growth network, nearly three million people or nine percent of the UK workforce are employed in the UK tech industry, but of those three million, only 26 percent are women.

To start the discussion a question was posed: “Why do you think that gender gap exists?”

“I think a lot of it is to do with the way in which women can perceive ourselves,” said Jaki. “From my experience, I think women have a tendency to look at a job description and think, ‘oh, I don’t meet 100 percent of the requirements so I’m not going to apply’, whereas I think men are generally more likely to look and think, ‘I meet quite a lot of that criteria so yeah, I can do that’. It’s a confidence thing. Talking from personal experience, I’ve definitely done that, and I think all of us here have probably done the same. It’s the people around us, including each other, who have said: ‘Absolutely, you can do that job.’”

Alexis agreed that belief in your own skillset is key to entering digital roles. “From a personal perspective, I don’t have a digital background,” she said. “I’m not a techie. Actually, I think that is often better. If you’re very technical and specialist by background, you tend to think in that very specific way. But a lot of the work we do is around digital transformation, which is about people as well as technology. The technical aspect can frighten some people and they think that because they aren’t a technical person, they can’t do that job. But the reality is that you don’t have to have that in-depth technical knowledge to be able to deliver change.”

This comes back to the out-dated idea of jobs for men versus jobs for women, Alexis continued: “I think the gender gap has a lot to do with stereotypes, still – the idea that digital is a career path for a man.  There’s a bias towards that.” Alexis encourages everyone to consider that digital roles are open to all, and even if you have previously been put off by a lack of confidence or uncertainty in whether or not you have the right skills, you may still be a good match. “Once something is labelled digital, people tend to think that they don’t have the skills to be able to do it,” she said. “But there are powerful, softer skills that you might possess that make you a really good person to do that role.”

The gap can be sourced right back to early childhood, Jaki pointed out. “People still often want to buy a little girl a doll, and a little boy a car that he can fix.” The little girl can then see her role as the care-giver, whilst the little boy develops confidence in problem-solving and working on a practical task. Jaki noted that this divide often follows people through life. “I did an electrical engineering degree. Of the 70 plus people on the course, there were three women,” she said. “I think you can see things changing now, you can see women pushing past that stereotype barrier and coming into digital and technical roles. But we’ve still got a long way to go.”

“If you were to ask a classroom full of children who wrote the first computer programme, I imagine they would probably guess a man,” Nikki commented. In reality, Ada Lovelace is widely considered to be the first programmer.

Women as digital leaders

Nikki commented that the debate around women in technology roles ties closely to women in leadership, and added her thoughts on the issue of perception.

​​“I remember, a long time ago, I was at a meeting and I was given some feedback afterwards that I was too emotional,” she shared. In comparison, others at the same meeting praised her for passion and leadership. “It’s two different sides of the coin of how women can be perceived. I’m pleased to say that I do believe that has started to change. But unfortunately I know that I won’t be the only one who has experienced that.”

Bringing the conversation back to recruitment barriers, Nikki added that in her experience, people tend to believe that leadership roles don’t come with a good work-life balance, which can be a sticking point for women who are planning a family, or perhaps still take on the bulk of childcare duties.

“There’s a lot more equality now, but I think it can still be somewhat embedded in people’s brains that women are the housekeepers, the ones that bring up the children, whilst the men prioritise work,” commented Alexis. “I think women can put additional pressure on ourselves to be everything to everybody, and that can be a barrier when it comes to progressing in our career or putting ourselves forwards. If you are a mother and you are looking at promotions, you might think: ‘how can I take this if it means I can’t pick the kids up from school?’ Or if we are working late into the evening, we feel guilty for not giving kids as much time.”

Ensuring that flexible working options are available in digital leadership roles can therefore support women with work-life balance concerns. 

“It’s about everyone, of course,” said Nikki. Noting that the changes in working styles brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have helped in this area, she said, “Being able to work in a much more inclusive and digital way gives us more opportunities to make sure that we can get that work-life balance for women and men alike.”

Alexis agreed: “I think remote working has enabled the culture of the mother as the housekeeper to shift, so in families where women were automatically taking the bulk of childcare, there is perhaps the opportunity for things to become a bit more equal.”

It’s not about work-life balance or family concerns for everyone, Nikki added; for some women, it is simply a case of biology. “We should also consider the menopause, as it does impact women at a certain stage of life,” she pointed out. “You can have memory problems and emotional problems which can affect your confidence in applying for leadership roles or in doing your day-to-day job.”

But whatever the barriers standing in the way of women applying for digital or leadership roles, Jaki stressed that having a supportive team around you makes all the difference.

“We’ve got each other,” she said. “It can be quite lonely sometimes, in leadership. But if I’ve had a bad day, I can pick the phone up to talk to the three other senior leaders and I know that they will support me and be there for me. It’s very much about empathy, understanding, and support. We share experiences and challenges, we talk through problems.”

Alexis agreed: “The way that we operate as leaders, and particularly as female leaders, has a particular style,” she said. “I think it’s different to the way that groups of male leaders tend to operate. It’s collaborative, it’s open, there’s no competition in how we work together. I think it’s interesting to consider this approach in the context of the traits that women tend to be associated with – nurturing, caring, supportive.

“For anyone, I think having those kinds of skills in leadership and digital is very important. You definitely need those skills in a role like mine, focusing on transformation. It’s about bringing people on a journey rather than making it very tech-focused. If you don’t bring people along, that technology is never going to be utilised in the way that you want it to be.”

Alexis and Nikki agreed that the attitude of men in existing leadership roles is pivotal in stopping the continuation of the gender gap, and in opening the door to more women. “I’ve had a few male line managers and mentors supporting me and believing in me in my career,” Nikki said.

Alexis added “It’s important to have that culture shift, away from the old boys’ club that’s hard to get into. And it’s important that organisations have the right culture in themselves – one that allows people to grow as individuals.”

“I introduced a programme about a year ago called Digital Diamonds at NUH,” Nikki said. “We have loads of nominations – particularly from men nominating their female colleagues, which is nice, and perhaps signifies that shifting culture.”

Jaki raised an important point to consider in the debate as a whole. “I’m very conscious that we are all white females here,” she said. “More diversity is needed. A good balanced team is absolutely diverse, so that’s another factor that has to be considered. How do we encourage more people of different ethnicities and backgrounds to apply for digital roles and leadership roles, and make sure that our teams are diverse and represent everyone?”

The future of women in digital transformation

Looking to the future, Alexis said, “What we’re trying to do is to keep that culture shift going. We are female leaders in digital roles – how do we make sure that we harness future female pipeline talent coming through? That’s something that I’m particularly passionate about, giving people opportunities and developing them to help them with skills, confidence and knowledge so that they can be better than us in the future, and drive change forward.”

The discussion moved on to development opportunities for staff, with a focus on women.

“I like to grow people,” Alexis said. “In the ICS we like to bring in talent – whatever their initial role is, if you can see that they’ve got passion and a certain skillset, it’s about looking for a way to harness that to move them up in the organisation.

“A couple of years ago, we were successful in getting a European Skills Fund (ESF) bid,” she continued. “That covered lots of things including training around digital. Something we were really keen to look into was how we could get some specific training to support women and train them to become future leaders – that was one of the delivery requirements of the bid. It’s about giving opportunities, providing training and development, and not just appointing somebody because they fit the criteria – appointing someone because you can see something in them that you can develop and grow. What they could be, as well as what they are.”

“The work that Alexis has been doing has stretched across the collaboration,” Jaki added. “There are lots of opportunities for coaching and mentoring and we encourage lots of staff to develop what they already have. Personal development for staff is important and then it’s up to us as leaders to harness the skills it brings out and make sure that career paths are available, and that they are supported.”

Nikki highlighted how development circles back to the original topic of women having the confidence to apply for the roles that have traditionally and stereotypically been ‘for men’.

Having a wider support network is useful, she said, in other organisations as well as your own. There are a number of emerging support networks led by the NHS Transformation Team,” Nikki said. “Hearing that challenges and experiences are similar to ours and talking through those problems is really helpful.”

Visibility helps, she added, so that women who are considering applying to work in digital can see a role model higher up in the organisation and know that the door is open. “Setting a good example and leading the way is key; having ourselves, as women, be visible digital leaders and we are extremely proud to also have women in our lead technical roles too.”

As a final note, our interviewees shared a call to action. “We want to encourage women out there who feel that leadership or digital roles are outside their reach to go for it,” said Alexis. “Find a good mentor, an advocate who can support and promote you. Finally, I would say to everyone: there is a role to play for us all in developing female pipeline talent within your organisation or department.”

Many thanks to Jaki, Nikki and Alexis for sharing their time and thoughts. We will be posting a second interview with them soon, in which they discuss the digital work happening collaboratively across their organisations, so keep an eye out for that.