• WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: How can we inspire more women to work in edtech?

    960 640 Stuart O'Brien

    A Q&A with Rachel Maxwell (pictured, right), Principal Advisor (Academic, Research and Consultancy), Solutionpath, about the career paths edtech can offer to women, advice for those just starting out, tips on how to remain competitive in a role, and how the sector as a whole can inspire more women to join the industry…

    Why is edtech a great industry for women?

    I came into it by virtue of being made redundant from the university I was working at, but in my current role, I can continue to use my domain expertise in conversations with clients to help them make better use of technologies. Technologies are used in every industry there is. Being a woman in technology doesn’t necessarily mean coding or programming, hardware or software. My role in particular does none of those things. What I am concerned with is how technology can help us to accomplish things in new ways. So there is some substitution e.g. today’s students type essays rather than hand write them, but it’s still an essay at the end of the day. We read digital books now rather than hard, paper copies, but we are still reading books.
But the power for me is finding out what new things technology can enable us to achieve – by doing things differently.

    It’s never just about the technology either. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. And I think that women are good at considering those moral and ethical questions alongside the pure technical considerations.

    Are there specific achievements or milestones in your career that you are particularly proud of, and how have these experiences shaped your perspective on gender and professional success?

    I think it is important to realise your own potential. I’m not one for seeing limitations and being bound or constrained by them. I’m a great believer in hard work too. I remember when I was awarded my PhD, I had the privilege of being funded to do it, full-time, when I was of an age where I had no additional responsibilities. And I achieved it in three years, with no corrections. I received a lot of praise for that. But actually, its dedication and commitment to learning, being structured, being organised that got me through. A PhD isn’t for everyone, but there is something about the way in which you approach these things that helps you get there – hard work, dedication, commitment.
I also remember someone talking to me about career journeys and having a sense of where you were heading. While you may know where you are going, your journey won’t be the same as anyone else’s, and it may take some deviations along the way. There are choices that you can make to deviate from the plan and that can be OK.

    Women are also good at managing multiple strands of work at one time. I’ve learned that working with student engagement data and connecting systems is trickier than you might initially think, so being able to kickstart multiple strands of work and stay on top of them simultaneously is essential.

    As a female professional, what does the role of mentorship in supporting and guiding other women in their careers mean to you, and have you had any influential mentors in your own journey?

    I would say that mentorship can be really important in helping women to see their potential and to realise it, but to do so on an individual, personal level. I was mentored by a colleague at City University in London. She helped me to explore what I wanted from the options before me and to decide whether I wished to pursue particular goals. She was also very inspirational in terms of what she had achieved in her own professional career, and indeed, in what she continues to achieve. Balancing all those competing factors – including maintaining a healthy work-life-home balance is where having someone to talk to can be really useful in determining the underlying reason why you are pursuing a particular qualification or job role.

    There are also two male mentors that I can identify in my career to date. They’ve been equally influential in helping me to take the next step in my career. But they’ve also supported me when I’ve undertaken activities that are particularly female – motherhood being a great example.

    What role do you think men play in supporting and promoting gender equality in the sector? 

    I’m a firm believer in meritocracy – I think that people should be recruited to a role not based on gender (whether male or female), but on capability. Who is the right person for the job. I think that there is a responsibility on people seeking to recruit for a role to ensure that they are making decisions based on capability and not on gender, or indeed race or any other personal characteristic. But I also get that there is a historical deficit to be addressed and that therefore there is a place for positive discrimination as a means of addressing that historical deficit. There’s a challenge there – you can’t just take today’s cultural norms and retrospectively fit them to how life was 20, 30, 40 years ago. And there’s a danger of devaluing the many other tasks that women do, that are unique to women and which are not celebrated and valued as much as they should be – parenting being the most obvious example. I’ve had the blessing of being incredibly well supported by my husband to achieve all that I’ve achieved in my career, but there’s been a contextual framework to that achievement. I fulfil multiple roles all the time – employee, woman in edtech, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend etc. All of those aspects of my life matter and all of them define who I am. I don’t stop being a wife and a mother when I am an employee. There are times when I haven’t worked as there were other, non-work related things that I wanted to prioritise, namely my children.

    The support that our male colleagues can provide isn’t always visible or visibly recognised. Men can enable and support and facilitate without shouting from the rooftops about it. Most of the support I’ve seen in that regard would fall under that definition.

    What advice do you have for women aspiring to pursue careers in technology within the higher education sector?

    Recognise that working in technology, being a woman in technology in and of itself, doesn’t make you a, as some might say, ‘nerd’. I think that there are wider questions here about finding out how each person is intelligent and then pursuing that. It may not be a lifelong career. You may have multiple careers – I have. And I ended up working in edtech kind of by chance. But what I have been able to do is to take the skills and experience from my previous careers and bring them to bear in my current one. Recognising the transferability of your skills and experience is therefore key. And there are multiple uses of technology so find out what fascinates you and work there. If you are interested in technology and medicine, work in healthcare technology. If you are interested in technology and education, work in edtech – and that doesn’t just have to be higher education. Technology literally is, everywhere.

    I also think that it is important to be comfortable in who you are. Knowing who you are. There are many, many meetings I’ve been in since working in edtech, where I am considerably outnumbered by my male colleagues. Has that been a problem? Not really. I haven’t felt hampered because I’ve had a clear sense of what my role is and what is expected of me. I don’t need to have the same level of technical knowledge and understanding as they do if I’m not doing the same job as them. It’s why teamwork is so critical to overall success. But that means having a clear understanding of where you fit in the organisation and what you are there to bring. It’s also about working in a way that is true to who you are, that makes the most of the skills and expertise that you bring. The eye is not a hand and thank goodness for that – I like to be able to see. But I also like to pick things up and touch them. Both are required, to the benefit of all.

    Considering the rapid evolution of technology, how can women working in the higher education tech sector stay updated and ensure they remain competitive in their roles?

    One of my (male) mentors said to me once that I needed to be more selfish when it came to career development and progress. By that he meant that I needed to protect time to undertake and invest time in the things that mattered to me and which would help me to achieve those things that I wanted to achieve. That could be as simple as setting an hour a week aside for horizon scanning – to keep up with what’s going on in your sector. It could be upskilling – making use of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement to enrol on a new course, to retrain, to extend your qualifications. And there’s something in there about taking a step back from the minutiae of having to be up to speed on everything. That’s not realistically possible unless you do nothing else. But learning to learn – that’s the key – learn how to read, distil knowledge, explore avenues, be curious. I once read a statistic about job applications. Men apply for a job even if they don’t meet 80% of the job spec requirements. Women only apply if they can do at least 80%. It’s a powerful statistic. But maybe there’s a lesson for women in there too – about being selfish, applying for jobs, learning from the experiences, etc.

    What do you hope to see in terms of advancements and opportunities for women in technology within the higher education industry?

    A friend of mine has just started a new job in a new edtech company where the expectations on her are more about getting the job done, rather than bound by office hours. The expectation is that she should absolutely be at school concerts, nativity plays etc, and that they should be prioritised. I’d like to see that be more widespread. And it’s not just responsibilities for children that this relates to. It’s where we are caring for others. It’s about being present for those important events in life, not missing them because there’s an expectation of presenteeism or similar. I’d like to see that attitude become more prevalent across working environments more generally, not just edtech or HE.

    What could the edtech sector do to inspire more women to work in edtech roles?

    The way in which roles are advertised – the language used and even the location sometimes of where those adverts are placed, can have an impact on the number of women who apply for roles. While there are specialist job sites within HE for example, someone at the start of their career might not know those sites exist. So think about the language used, the location of adverts. But also when recruiting don’t be constrained by where experience comes from – unless of course something very specific is required in the job description. Consider the context of the experience as well as the content itself especially for those entry-level posts.


    Stuart O'Brien

    All stories by: Stuart O'Brien

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