Women in Tech: Hilary Stephenson

Shamima Begum | August 2nd 2017

A few weeks ago the ladies here at PushON had a wonderful experience meeting Hilary Stephenson, Managing Director of Sigma. We had an empowering conversation with the UX agency leader. We were feeling rather inquisitive about her journey to the top and any barriers that she may have faced, and wanted an insight into how Hilary coped with gender inequalities within the industry and ways in which we can take inspiration to drive change.

Here’s a little background information before we dive into the Q&A. Hilary started the UK arm of Sigma, a Swedish company back in 2007 and has been MD ever since. She thrives in providing her staff with absolutely the best support and morale, and this is really reflected in the company policies in place, such as the parental schemes that support both partners in the relationship. For the most part, she is mother-hen! Although parenting can sometimes be the most difficult thing in the world, Hilary amazes us how she handles her work/life balance (although she thinks she’s doing a terrible job of it). Other than being an MD at Sigma, Hilary gets involved in social impact and inclusion initiatives, such as the recent Homeless Hack. Her work also  includes volunteering in schools with Diversity Role Models to raise awareness around preventing homophobia and bullying, which is where it helped boost her self-esteem and gain more confidence in speaking openly about her own sexuality.

Hilary expressed her frustration about the gender divide which is still prevalent in 2017. I’m sure everyone has taken a peek at the BBC pay gap. The pay gap ratio between men and women is currently looking at £1.00:0.81. Businesses create their rose-tinted diversity reports because it’s good for business, but this isn’t just about the gender gap. There are more than 300,000 jobs in tech across the North and just 17% of those are taken up by women. We’re still struggling to see women on panels at events, too – it’s no excuse to say there are not enough female applicants. Although progress can feel slow, there are some great initiatives underway, including Let Toys be Toys, which looks at gender stereotyping and the work of groups like Stemettes or Next Tech Girls.  We are also seeing greater transparency on things like the pay gap, the make-up of large organisations, a backlash against all male panels and important moves like the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA crack down on gender stereotypes: https://www.asa.org.uk/news/report-signals-tougher-standards-on-harmful-gender-stereotypes-in-ads.html

Here are the top questions that we asked her:

What difficulties have you come to face with working in a dominantly male area, and how have you kept your morale high and overcome them?

Morale only dips when I think people are unhappy at work, or where we have a slow month or disappointing client outcome. I think this is because I started the company and have assumed too much responsibility for the people in it. I’m not sure if that’s related to my gender! In the industry, some things can still be a bit laddish and although I can join in with that culture and banter, the need to fit in and toe the line can feel a little oppressive at times.

Have you ever felt/do you feel that there is still a gender divide in the workplace?

Yes, I see an annoying split in behaviours when it comes to the housekeeping or admin jobs, which are nearly always picked up by the women, from cleaning the kitchen to booking train tickets. We only have one woman in a purely technical role and have to actively seek out female talent in some areas. That’s fine and I believe in positive discrimination but you need to work at diversity and inclusion.

In your blog post, you describe yourself as a mix between introvert and extrovert. Do you think you’ve become more extrovert over the years, and can you think of any books/blogs that you’ve read that have helped you with this?

More confident, not more extrovert I would say. I am still socially awkward and terrible at meeting people for the first time, rubbish at networking, don’t do large speaking engagements etc. I’m trying to fix that!

In another part of your blog post you mention: ‘Invest in organisational development, coaching and an on-going understanding of team behaviours and motivators.’ Please can you give us some ideas about how to implement this? Especially the coaching

See above. I am also considering a personal coach for business advice. As well as the org development and MBTI stuff we have explored, we did run a monthly coaching session, where each of our line managers had a sounding board but we should probably revisit that support and I should get some of it as well

Blog: http://www.wearesigma.com/news/may-the-4th-be-with-you-from-macclesfield-to-malmoe-and-back-a-few-times/

Do you find that in your company, a lot of the developers are introverts?

We have a healthy mix for a relatively small team but I think when adding to it, we need to think about personalities and stress factors so we keep that balance. We have started to explore the language we use, for example, we recently ran some  job ads through the gender decoder to try to attract a more diverse set of candidates as typically, we rarely see female dev CVs.

Is there any sayings that have helped you in making good choices in life?

“our society is unequal, and bodily difference is used to justify that inequality.”

– Emer O’Toole, Girls Will Be Girls: Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently

“You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit”

– Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

– Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

“The raised male voices are increasingly those of men with strong anti-feminist views. The guys who just get on with it seem either unheard or unsure. ”

–  Suzanne Moore, Author and Guardian Writer

Takeaways from Hilary’s meeting

Speak up about gender bias and language use if you feel uncomfortable.

Don’t hold back where you have opinions and feel you need stand up for yourself.

Follow female influencers to raise awareness of the experiences, struggles and achievements of others, both in your own personal and professional life.

Encourage your male friends and colleagues to challenge their own language and behaviours and speak out against sexism with you.

Check out groups and events where women in tech, diversity and inclusion are on the agenda.

Be yourself, as authenticity is everything.