Profile: Sheree Atcheson, Global Director of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Peakon

Women in Tech: “Our cultural expectation of men and women needs to change”

Dominik Mohilo

Four years ago, 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 Sheree Atcheson, Global Director of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Peakon.

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?

Four years ago, 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 Sheree Atcheson, the Global Director of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Peakon.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Sheree Atcheson, the Global Director of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Peakon

Sheree is among the most influential women in UK Tech and is a multiple international award winner for her contributions to diversity and inclusion in the industry. She is currently a board-appointed Global Ambassador for the nonprofit Women Who Code, a writer for Forbes, and is writing a book for Kogan Page on diversity and inclusion, which is scheduled for release in the spring of 2021.

For many years, Sheree has worked with companies such as Monzo bank and the consulting company Deloitte in order to lead and train C-suite and executive teams to develop fully educated, purposeful strategies for diversity and inclusion.

A passionate advocate for women entering and staying in the tech industry, she created and led the award-winning UK expansion of Women Who Code. In 2019, Sheree was named Queen’s University Belfast’s Graduate of the Year and included in the Financial Times’ list of Top 100 BAME Leaders Impacting the Technology Sector.

When did you become interested in technology?

As a child of the nineties, I grew up with technological progress and saw how it changed our society more and more and became a part of us. I was privileged to have access to new technologies and to try them out.

Since there were no girls my age in my neighborhood, I spent a lot of time with my brother, who was of the same age, and his friends, sitting with them in front of game consoles like the Sega Mega Drive and the first Playstation. Technologies were so ubiquitous and learning to use them was learned through play. Then, at the age of 11, I created my first own website about my dogs’ lives, their favorite foods, and hobbies.

I then studied computer science for my A-levels, which was a prerequisite for my studies to become a software engineer. This time was a key moment for me. Because I had a very good and motivated teacher who made me continue on my IT path and eventually decide against studying English Literature. I then went to university and got a degree in Computer Science. I have always had a very analytical and technology-oriented approach, which is why I work at Peakon now.

How did you end up in your career path?

I first worked as a software engineer and was directly confronted with the prevailing gender inequality in the IT industry. For example, I was only one of two women in a team of 18 people. While conformity was pervasive for me as a woman from Northern Ireland, I still wanted to do better and improve the role of women in the IT industry. Therefore, I looked hard at inequality issues within the IT industry on a global scale and found “Women Who Code” in San Francisco. At the time, the relatively small non-profit organization had only 5000 members worldwide.

[…] nevertheless, I wanted to do something better and improve the role of women in the IT industry.

I then brought “Women Who Code” to the UK in my role as the Expansion Director, building five remote-working teams and partner- and sponsorships with tech giants, and also mid-market companies, and startups to grow this community.

Today, “Women Who Code” is the largest non-profit organization in the Women-in-Tech-space, with more than 230,000 members and representation in over 80 cities worldwide.

I did all this while working as a tech consultant, but quickly realized: many people can code, but few can do the work I do at “Women Who Code”. So six years ago, I decided to make it my full-time job. Since then, I’ve worked with a wide variety of companies and put my calling into practice.

Are there people who have supported you on your way? Do you have role models?

I was adopted at the age of only three weeks as a girl from a poor background in Sri Lanka by an Irish couple. Due to my background, I had to struggle with many obstacles. There were simply many people who didn’t trust me with things and constantly questioned me. And when I didn’t manage something or didn’t get tasks, I was just told not to get angry.

Also, when I came to Deloitte, as a young Woman of Color, I had a very difficult time fulfilling my senior leadership role. That’s because I was exposed to a wide variety of biases from people who had worked in the industry for up to 50 years. Fortunately, I worked with Jacky Henry, who was my supervisor during that time.

Jacky is also from Northern Ireland and understood exactly what I wanted and took every opportunity to help me move forward. She used her influence and made various roles at Deloitte possible for me in the first place. Jacky and I are very similar in our behaviors and views. Today, she is the boss of thousands of employees. The beauty is that she has still kept true to herself and retained her empathic skills. We are still in close contact and I am lucky to have her as my mentor.

What obstacles did you have to overcome?

People are very afraid because of prejudices and the way they are perceived and treated by their environment and society. For example, there is an automatic prejudice that you are not up to a position when only a few people like you have held such a position. This is a big problem because an assumption is automatically made about your abilities. Previous experiences are transferred to you and an image is formed of you without even verifying it. We see this in the UK right now, especially, where many people simply don’t achieve A-levels because they’re not thought to be able to do so on the basis of their background.

[…]an assumption is automatically made about your abilities.

In my case, the prejudices were very different, depending on where I worked. It was often my young age that prevented me from being heard, even though I had the relevant expertise. I had to constantly justify myself and present what I had already achieved in order to be heard. It is important to be on equal footing so that the matter can be discussed. Of course, there are always disagreements. However, it must be acknowledged that I can be the smartest person in a particular subject area. I know what I’m doing because I’ve been doing it for years. And situations like this also arise because of the prejudice against a young Woman of Color like me.

But I am also fortunate that I am currently in a very comfortable situation – with a partner on an equal footing, financial stability, and no health restrictions. But there were a number of hurdles I had to overcome to achieve this lifestyle. One example: you can’t tell I’m a Women of Color from my Irish accent until you meet me. Therefore, I never used my middle name “Nirushika” on my resumes when applying for jobs to avoid being rejected. Other people should be able to understand these limitations and pressures, even if they are not from underprivileged walks of life.

Which position do you hold now in which company?

I am the Global Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) at Peakon, a platform for actively shaping the Employee Experience, since September 2020. At Peakon, I get to combine all my interests, which means advising customers on the one hand and making the product better on the other, and most importantly, sharing my vision.

It’s my job to listen and use data to develop a strategy that creates more diversity and inclusion at Peakon. I also work closely with our product team to further develop Peakon Include, which helps companies visualize progress in DE&I through intelligent employee surveys. This makes it possible to track the effects and effectiveness of new initiatives.

What projects have you developed?

I honestly haven’t programmed in over seven years, so I don’t currently have any projects. They were rather small things I did in my youth and spent a lot of time on. Having done your own programming at a young age is a skill that needs to be valued and not necessarily just for your own pastime. Also, having programmed a small website like I did about my dogs is a start that you can build on and give you access to the IT industry. You can also earn money with your skill at some point and not just have fun anymore.

Why are there so few women in the tech industry?

The question of why there are so few women in my industry is very complex. The reasons begin with education, where children are shown “classic male professions” and “classic female professions. Boys are supposed to learn more technical professions, whereas women should pursue more social professions. Of course, this has a lasting influence on the minimum of children, creates basic gender stereotypes, suppresses career aspirations and, thus, also possibilities and opportunities for the future. We should fundamentally change the way we deal with young people, otherwise we will not be able to break down gender stereotypes. Our culture needs to change in terms of expectations of women and men, and we always need to consider how this can be done.

When we think about why people don’t want to enter the IT industry, we have to keep in mind that we are very prejudiced and unfair to people who don’t fit the average mold. As a result, more than half of the women who work in the IT industry leave it mid-career. We can’t ignore that.

How can we solve this? We have to analyze the data we collect. And that brings us to Peakon’s work. It is always about how people feel about their jobs. After all, we see that employees are primarily concerned with the challenge of balancing their careers and their own health. It is women from marginalized groups who struggle with this the most and are most likely to lose their jobs in the current crisis. And what consequences this will have for our society is obvious. We need to think about these processes and have fundamental and honest discussions.

What clichés have you come across regarding “Women in Tech”?

In particular, there are stereotypes when it comes to what a person does, how they do it, and why. There is often the stereotype that a person does the job because it is their passion. This is a completely unrealistic image. Because just as often, the reason is simply that you can make a lot of money in the IT industry. Passion doesn’t pay the bills, money does. So you shouldn’t judge anyone if they go into IT for that reason.

There is often talk of gifted children who have been cradled in knowledge and are now passionate about their job and are fantastic software engineers. But the problem then is that these people are forgiven for not having social skills and being poor leaders. And that doesn’t work, especially in our industry, because it creates bad corporate cultures. And that then also affects the fears of women when they are about to become part of the IT world, but the IT world has difficulty supporting these people. If the IT industry wants to hire more women, then we have to act accordingly and model diversity instead of conformity. And that simply doesn’t work yet the way it should.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?

It would help us a lot if very different groups in society worked on solutions to everyday issues. When it comes to the question of more women in the tech industry, that also means hiring women from a wide variety of backgrounds. Because in our society, there is not THE one woman. Every woman, every person is different and has different views on problems in society. Therefore, inequalities give us more and more perspectives on these problems and therefore opportunities to solve them. After all, almost everyone is familiar with IT problems and experiences them in everyday life. But this is also always about becoming aware of the prejudices we have and taking action against them.

The initiated process must be sustained so that we don’t remain in the current status quo.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum, can you see an end to that discussion?

No, not at all. Because the issues we’ve just been discussing – about inequalities, prejudices and discrimination – are so deeply rooted in our society that they can’t be dissolved overnight. It is important that people like me address these structures. Future generations will also have to do so. However, I think that considerable changes can be observed in the generation after next, because societies and the environment in which people grow up are undergoing fundamental changes right now. Overall, it is important that the process that has been initiated is maintained so that we do not remain in the current status quo, in which there are still numerous problems, stereotypes and discrimination.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?

I always like to give one tip: Always be your own biggest fan. At first glance, that seems like a very egocentric perspective. But we know that people are more critical of themselves than others, especially if they come from underrepresented groups. Women in particular have been brought up not to speak up, even though they might be experts on the issue. We shouldn’t be unfair to ourselves there, nor should we suppress what we can or have achieved. We must always push ourselves and be confident with our individual abilities.

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Dominik Mohilo
Dominik Mohilo studied German and sociology at the Frankfurt University, and works at S&S Media since 2015.

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