C-level briefing: Jacqui Ferguson, SVP and General Manager for HPE Enterprise Services UK&I and MEMA, talks women in tech to CBR.
London Tech week always puts in focus the most important current issues and technologies. This year’s tech week from 20th to 26th June was no different, with a key issue being that of women, or should I say lack of women, working in the sector.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for a more diverse industry following research which found that one in 10 tech teams in the capital have no female employees. Worst still, was Tech London Advocates figures which found that 18% of London tech companies had no women at board level. Following the release of such research findings, the usual rhetoric of more STEM in schools, role models and a call for more formal initiatives was ramped up, culminating in Mayor Sadiq Khan saying: "Our current female tech pioneers are the role models for the next generation and as the father of two teenage girls, I want them to have the same opportunities and aspirations."
Research and the London Mayor’s comments aside, what do the women referred to as role models actually think about the current state of play for women in tech? Jacqui Ferguson, SVP and General Manager for HPE Enterprise Services UK&I and MEMA, says that the industry may be going backward, not forward, when it comes to women in tech.
Speaking to CBR, she said: "Evidence would suggest that we have taken a step back. The girls coming into the industry are less and less and it’s doing a downward curve not an upward curve."
Some might say that Ferguson is the archetype women in tech role model – a senior decision maker who has risen through the ranks, as well as a mother of three daughters. Although Ferguson was initially wary of the role model moniker, she has done a 360 in terms of the importance she places on such a label.
"I think the role model piece is really important. We need women role models. I think that is what will encourage younger women to aspire and believe that they can get there too. I am a massive supporter of both male and female role models, and I think it’s really important to see somebody in that role."
For Ferguson, confidence is key.
"I think it’s really important to be a cheerleader for women and encourage them to do more because naturally, in my experience, they do not put themselves out as much they would. And I would count myself in that boat actually. When you go back through the years, I spent years waiting for someone to notice what a great job I was doing, only to realise that actually you have to put yourself out there quite a bit and you have to take the risks and you have to ask. If you don’t ask the chances are that it won’t just come to you, so it’s important to be ambitious and assertive."
Of course, when you talk about role models, you can’t ignore the fact that the issue is two-fold when it comes to Ferguson – in one way being a role model, and the other having had one of the most high-profile role models the industry has to offer. I am, of course, talking about Ferguson’s stint as Meg Whitman’s Chief of Staff, a role she held for nearly three years stateside. Describing the experience as ‘unbelievably fantastic’, Ferguson had no experience of working with Whitman before she took up the Chief of Staff role – but she took away knowledge and experience which set her up for the tough UK job heading up Enterprise Services.
Talking about her time with Whitman, Ferguson said: "Meg was unbelievably brilliant to work for. She took the role that I had working for her very very seriously and she brought me in to absolutely everything. So I wasn’t in the back office doing stuff and just turning up, I was with her all the time and that included chairing the executive committee meetings for her; I attended the board meetings, I travelled with her and sometimes she had to stand up for me – they would be like ‘who is this person with you’ and she would say this is Jacqui she is my chief of staff, she is one of my top executives. She was a great teacher. A great teacher and there wasn’t anything that she didn’t share."
Talking about her move to the US, Ferguson touched upon a major contributing factor for her success in tech, that of her family and specifically her husband. She said:
"I was always very lucky and I think Cheryl Sandberg said this quite well, the biggest career choice as a woman is who you marry – and I think its true because my husband has always been a super sharing partner in the whole childcare. I mean he gave up his job when we moved to the US to look after the kids and I think having that balance at home is a very important factor. It’s not just being supported by your employer, by your workplace, but being supported by your partner.
"If you asked me, ‘Jacqui, so how was it you managed to progress to where you are now?’ I’d say a critical success factor was the support of my husband and my children."
That support at home was critical, as Ferguson told me that she worked every single weekend for the first year working with Whitman. But having a role model like Whitman and being her right hand woman was, as Ferguson states, "as close to being a CEO without actually being one" and like ‘doing 5 MBAs in one.’ And Ferguson has taken that experience and channelled it into tackling the hard job of reviving the HPE Services division. She said:
"The role [with Whitman] gave me so much exposure to managing investors, managing long term strategy, managing workforce, communicating – so for me that prepared me quite well in dealing with difficult situations, leading a team through change and developing a strategy and a transformation and really engaging with the market. Meg is one of the best communicators; it’s a real strength of hers how she manages the investors, the stakeholders, and the board – so I took everything I learnt over there into this job.
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the ‘sizeable’ job Ferguson is facing – redundancies in the division have dominated the headlines in recent times. However, the transformation of the workforce, according to Ferguson, is all about readying ‘the workforce of the future’.
"[We] still have quite a bit of transformation to do in our workforce and that’s really about getting to industrialised delivery centres where we can have our resources and our skills geared up for future technology needs as well as collocated. So really our centres in Erskine and Newcastle are going to be really, really key for us."
When it comes to future technology needs, talk always turns to the future workforce and it’s young people, specifically girls, which Ferguson believes we have to engage and grab the attention of early. Being the mother of 3 daughters, she knows based on their perceptions of tech that the industry holds certain stereotypes for girls – being that it’s for boys and not ‘cool’ for girls to learn. However, this is where industry has an important role to play in getting girls excited about tech and STEM, says Ferguson:
"I think girls in particular they want to know how they are going to help, how they are going to make things better for the world – there’s a little bit of higher purpose with girls in particular.
"I know from my girls that they are looking to make a difference, looking to contribute to the world – and I think if you can help them understand how they can do that with a STEM career and how they can change the world I think that gets them much more motivated and excited about what they can contribute."