Profile: Joanna Hodgson, Red Hat

Breaking the mold: “Women are not solely responsible for solving the diversity challenge”

Gabriela Motroc
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Last year, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Red Hat’s Joanna Hodgson.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Joanna Hodgson, director of presales at Red Hat.

Joanna Hodgson, director of presales at Red Hat

Joanna is a technologist at heart and is fascinated by how technology can be applied to business and social challenges. She has worked in the IT industry for 24 years, mainly in technical presales and professional services, including senior business and technical leadership roles. At Red Hat, Joanna leads a team of solution architects helping clients solve business problems with open source software.

Joanna is passionate about the importance of good design in IT projects and promotes the use of design thinking to create user-centric solutions. She is a busy coach and mentor to many technical professionals and loves this part of her role.

Joanna believes the IT industry must attract a more diverse workforce to deliver its full potential and actively encourages women to enter and remain in technical careers.

Joanna is mother to a lively daughter who keeps her and her husband on their toes.

What got you interested in technology?

There was no one moment when I became interested in technology, rather it was a general interest in making things and learning how things worked that meant it was a natural progression for me. I wanted to try everything from lego to sewing to making crystals in my mini chemistry lab to baking. I wasn’t always good at it. I had some terrible cooking disasters and as a kid, I once took the mechanism of our kettle apart to fix the fact it no longer automatically stopped. I got it all back together again, with a spare part and hadn’t fixed it! But I was always curious and encouraged to be so.

In hindsight, probably the biggest influence in how I ended up in my career was in choosing to study computing science in the first place. From there it’s been relatively straight forward. (Ignoring the fact that, having qualified as a teacher following my degree, if I’d got a teaching position rather than one in industry, this might be a very different story.)

My school didn’t offer computing as a subject but I studied (in Scotland) a wide range of subjects: science, humanities and arts, and had a particular affinity for maths and music. But it was the university open days that made me feel like the Computing department was a perfect fit for me. They did not care that I hadn’t studied computing at school, (in fact they preferred it as there were no bad habits for them to unteach first) and were most interested that I’d studied music. They told me musicians made excellent computer scientists. I don’t know if there’s any evidence for this assertion, but they made me feel that I had the perfect background and this was the subject I should study. They made me feel welcome.

I got my first role at IBM in presales supporting partners. While at IBM I was able to change roles every three years or so always gaining new experiences and skills and growing my career. I’ve had very few obstacles to overcome. There have been challenges as there would be in any walk of life, but I was never facing them on my own, there were always people, managers and mentors to help, and I learned along the way.

Now at Red Hat, I am still learning and growing and having a lot of fun.

Having done a degree in computing a lot of friends ended up in the tech industry too. My family are very proud of my career. I’ve had many role models along the way, mentors and managers who have inspired and challenged me.

Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

Not at all. I’ve always felt very well supported in my career. But there was a moment when my career made a significant leap forward. For the first few years, my managers looked after me. They nudged me when it was time to make a move or take on additional responsibility and I was progressing well. It was a comfortable and positive experience. But after a few years, I got a mentor who took a personal interest in my professional development and challenged me to be the best I could be. Challenge is the right word but in a good way and it accelerated my career and put me on a path of self-determination; rather than waiting for my manager to say something I was taking control of my career.

I’ve since had managers who also act in that challenging mentor role so those two roles are not necessarily separate. Being conscious of how I want to develop professionally, and of the career opportunities I aspire to, has given me a much more dynamic career than if I’d left it in the hands of others.

A day in Joanna’s life

I work at Red Hat as director of Presales, a team of solution architects helping our clients solve business problems with open source software. Every day is different depending on the programmes and clients or partners I’m working with. Right now I am working on developing our team’s graduate programme which we launch in September and something I’ve very excited about.

As I’m relatively new to Red Hat, I am learning more about our products and culture every day. Red Hat invests a lot in its people and continuous development is thoroughly embraced.

The joys of being a manager

There have been many great moments in my career. I’ve loved all my jobs, for different reasons, but the moments that stand out are when people have thanked me for some advice or support I’ve given them that have helped them achieve something. Being able to help others develop and grow was why I became a manager and what I still love about it.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

This is a complex problem. I look at my 19-month-old daughter and her friends and they’re natural engineers. Exploring the world and figuring out how it works, making mistakes and learning (and laughing) from them. Our role as parents is to nurture that innate interest. Limiting or selecting choices at this age based on gender has a profound effect on developing minds and starts the process of girls and women not seeing themselves in tech and science roles. I see a lot being done to reverse the gender stereotyping of clothes and toys for very young children and this has to be a good thing, but it’s just a start.

The lack of role models in tech for older children to aspire to is a problem, but collaborations between the tech industry and schools, through things like the Open Schools Coding Competition that Red Hat is involved in (and many other similar initiatives) is an important step to address this.

Even after a successful career in tech, many women struggle to remain in their career after having a family. There is too little imagination for how roles can be done successfully. I see companies being supportive if someone wants to work flexibly in their current role but very few companies make core roles available part-time from the outset. I wonder whether the current generation of graduates, who have different expectations of their career & home-life than previous generations, will effect a significant change in this. I think they probably will, I hope they do.

There are some really interesting programmes for returners, that attract people who have had a career break, back into a technical career. This is a way of bringing senior experienced women into an organisation, addressing the sharp fall off in women as the roles get more senior. It would seem to be a great way for an organisation to tap into that pool of experience that’s out there.

There are collaborations between business, universities and schools, a shift in how stereotyped our babies and young children are, programmes that help women continue their careers as long as they choose. But it will take more time. With only about 1% of the Computer Science A-Levels being taken by girls last year, there’s clearly still a lot to be done. We all need to keep going, it will make a difference and it will make things better for everyone when it does.

Women in STEM

I worry that as technology becomes ever more pervasive, if women are only consumers of that technologies, rather than designers of it, then they won’t have the same say in how we will live our lives as they would be if they were creating or programming it. With more women working in STEM we will have technology that addresses a more diverse set of needs. Technology that is in balance with society.

A comment about STEM though. Today’s IT and tech companies are looking for multi-disciplined teams. Not just the developers but the designers as well. Creative people and sociologists who understand how people use technology and can make it work better, more intuitively, for the user. I prefer the term STEAM for the tech industry. We need people passionate about arts as well – it’s the whole range of skills, the whole brain, that’s needed to make the biggest difference for society and business.


The two main obstacles I see are isolation and lack of flexibility.

As a woman in IT for over 25 years I’ve often been the only woman in the room or team or event. As a one-off, this isn’t a problem but over and over it’s exhausting. Without suggesting all women face the same challenges, working with other women does give us a chance to share experiences and get advice from someone who has more likely been in your position with similar doubts and hopes – or at least you’re more willing to ask if they have. It’s a form of support and it helps you feel included.

At workshops, in an attempt to encourage diversity I see women split up (shared around) the teams so each team has a woman. Whilst well-meaning, there is a burden to always being a minority of one, and women are not solely responsible for solving the diversity challenge. It’s another way women are isolated, unnecessarily. This also happens at some schools with low numbers of girls choosing, for example, physics. Rather than putting them in the same class so they feel core to the group, they’re split between the classes so there’s at least one girl in each class.

The second challenge is the lack of flexibility of roles, usually in the years following having a family. In particular part-time working. Most large companies these days will support you moving part-time in your current role. The problem comes when you want to continue your career while part-time. Very few internal roles are advertised as possible to do part-time so you end up stuck in a role getting bored. The other issues are where the organisation will create a role, often a non-core role, that they’re comfortable can be done part-time. The problem comes if there are any resource action/redundancy programmes. These roles are often the first to be cut therefore disproportionately affecting women. We need to be more creative about how we can do core business and client facing roles flexibly and part-time.

Tips & tricks

My advice for anyone who wants a career in the tech industry is:

  1. Be curious. Stay current, be open to change, explore the new thing.
  2. Share generously. It’s not who knows the most but who shares the most.
  3. Add breadth. Understand adjoining products, business, industries. It all adds relevance.
  4. Have fun. There’s a lot of it to be had!

For women specifically, support each other. Be a mentor or coach for others, get a mentor to help you.

The tech industry is very varied, it isn’t just one thing. It’s in every aspect of our lives from fashion to environment to medical advancements and space travel. So whatever impact you want to have in the world there’s a career in tech that will support you. And it never stands still. A career in tech allows you to continue learning and pursuing areas of interest. Tech companies want people who are willing to explore and create, that’s how they stay relevant, through you. It’s a fun place to be, and pays rather well too!

Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:

Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc was editor of and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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