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Dr Sue Black OBE giving keynote speech at TARGETEvents' IT's not just for the boys

Professor Sue Black OBE: how women can succeed in IT

IT industry figurehead Professor Sue Black reveals her advice on how women can get hired and get ahead in tech sector careers.

Too often women think if they’re working hard and doing a good job they’ll automatically get promoted, which often isn’t the case.

‘Find yourself a mentor while you’re still at uni.’ ‘Ask for more than the going rate.’ ‘Promote yourself – and know what you must do to be promoted.’

Professor Sue Black, a professor at the University of Durham's computer science department and tech sector figurehead, is upfront about her natural shyness. In fact, many of the key steps in her career have involved doing things that terrified her – from attempting to network at unfriendly, male-dominated tech conferences to being interviewed on national TV. Yet her advice to female students looking to enter the IT industry certainly does not involve being a shrinking violet.

‘Too often women think if they’re working hard and doing a good job they’ll get promoted, which often isn’t the case,’ Sue states, instead encouraging them to put themselves forward and draw attention to their work. Sue also wants women to act in ways that will help close the pay gap. ‘Women in general earn 13% less than men in the same job,’ she highlights, adding: ‘I read recently that at the current rate it would take 100 years to close the gap. I wasn’t happy when I saw that. I’d like to see it in my lifetime.’

However, she’s at pains to stress that it is perfectly possible to work on yourself and become happier and more confident. Indeed, her keynote speech at the 'IT’s not just for the boys' networking day was entitled ‘If I can do it, so can you.’

Find a suitable candidate for mentor

Sue’s recipe for success starts at university. She recommends that students take into account ‘what your strengths are and what subjects you like most’ when choosing a career, then find at least one mentor. She stresses that this should be ‘someone who is in the kind of job you want to be in but who is further along the career path’ and, crucially, ‘someone who has a similar outlook on life and with whom you have shared values.’ You’ll then have someone you can turn to for careers advice from day one. ‘Having a mentor can make all the difference when you don’t know what to do,’ Sue highlights.

Sounds great, but how can a university student find such a person, let alone persuade them to be her mentor? ‘Go to events with people who have the same tech interests, such as those run by BCS or the IET,’ Sue advises. ‘Talk to people, and have your own business cards that you can give them. Also make sure that you have a good LinkedIn profile.’

For many students this might sound like quite a daunting prospect, but Sue encourages: ‘Don’t be shy about talking to people and exchanging business cards. You can open a conversation with something as simple as “Did you find the talk interesting?”. If this develops into an interesting chat, exchange business cards, then connect with them on LinkedIn and stay in contact. You don’t need an excuse to exchange business cards – it’s very common these days to do so.’ She expands: ‘Building up a network is very important. It will grow and grow, even if it starts off small, and it will help you keep up to date.’

No business cards? You can order yourself a set very easily – prices start at around £10.

Pop the mentor question

Surely it’s quite a leap from an interesting chat to a request for mentoring? Not so, according to Sue. ‘If you meet someone and you’d like them to be your mentor, ask,’ she urges. ‘I’ve asked people to be my mentor the first time I’ve met them. Don’t worry about asking – even if they can’t do it, they will still be flattered.’ And if they turn you down, it’s not necessarily the end of it. ‘One of my mentors initially said no when I asked her, saying she didn’t have the time,’ Sue reveals. ‘I came back and asked for an hour once a year, and she agreed. We go for lunch once a year, and she’s also very good about answering my emails.’

Sue recommends having more than one mentor – ‘five or six is ideal’ – and not feeling the need to stick to women. ‘Personality is more important than gender,’ she comments, ‘But I’d like a mixture of both.’

Top tips for confidence in job applications and interviews

Sue warns female students against underselling themselves in applications and interviews. ‘Women tend not to put themselves forwards,’ she comments, ‘But don’t be shy about saying what you’re good at, eg on your CV. It’s not showing off.’

Before a job interview, she recommends: ‘Find someone to give you a pep talk and tell you how great you are. It really does make a difference – it’s amazing! Find those people who will make you feel good about yourself.’ On a broader note, she adds: ‘It’s important in general to have people around you who make you feel good about yourself. If the people around you don’t, ask yourself whether you should really have them around.’

If you’re still struggling to feel gung-ho about interviews, Sue suggests: ‘Pretend to be someone you know who is confident! I’ve pretended to be one of my more confident friends in interviews – and it has worked!’

Getting ahead in the workplace

Once you’re in work, Sue emphasises the importance of promoting what you’re doing to colleagues and letting them do likewise. ‘It’s important to spend time talking to people to find out what they are doing and talk about your work,’ she advises. ‘If you are doing cool stuff, let people know about it – it’s not showing off.’

She also highlights: ‘Always know what the things are you need to do to get promoted, even when you first start a job. Working hard and doing a good job often aren’t enough – when it comes down to it, there are criteria for promotion.’

Despite the challenges, Sue is keen to stress what a good career choice she feels the IT industry is. ‘Computer science is the most exciting area to be in right now,’ she enthuses. ‘It will determine how successful we are as a country. The more we understand it, the more we can innovate.’

How Sue got to the top

Sue Black recounts how she succeeded in leaving behind a challenging early life to undertake a computer science degree and PhD as a single mother of three in her 20s. She’s now a professor in the computer science department at the University of Durham and a public figure, frequently appearing in the national media to promote technology causes close to her heart, including a successful campaign to save Bletchley Park.

Crucially, Sue’s story highlights how taking action on issues that inspired her led to her grow both in confidence and in reputation. Sue founded the female IT networking group BCS Women after attending a women in science networking event and finding her fellow attendees far more friendly and welcoming than those at male-dominated computer science conferences.

It was representing BCS Women at a meeting at Bletchley Park that led to her campaign to save the wartime codebreaking centre. Sue contacted journalists and senior academics to recruit them to her cause, raising her own profile as an unintended by-product. As a shy person she found her first TV interview – for BBC news – a terrifying experience, but reveals that by forcing herself to be interviewed by journalists she has now reached a point where she is no longer scared.

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