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Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the world of work is vital if all employees are to realize their full potential. For candidates looking to progress in their current workplace or find a new role elsewhere, an organization’s commitment to these pillars will affect their experiences and opportunities.
Today we welcome Sheree Atcheson, an award-winning leader in Equity, Diversity & Inclusion whose career has included spells at Deloitte, Monzo, Peakon and now Valtech. She is also a board member at Women Who Code and Neurodiversity in Business. Last year she released her first book, titled ‘Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Don’t Happen and What You Can Do About It’.
1. To begin with, perhaps you could introduce yourself in your own words and tell our listeners a little bit about what you do.
(0:59) Yeah, of course. I guess like you just said I work in Diversity and Inclusion, and I’ve been doing senior leadership roles in that field for almost 10 years, or actually just over 10 years now. My work, the best way to describe it, is putting friction into decision-making. My job is really to help people recognize bias by slowing down, putting measures of accountability in place, so as we don’t just make snap decisions like we tend to do, but actually take time to recognize that we do things in ways that are short-circuiting, that are biased, and so on, and that we can actually change that if we really are meaningful about being inclusive.
I’ve held lots of different roles in this space. I write for Forbes, Thompson Reuters, and a whole host of other publications. For me, especially as someone who used to be a software engineer a really long time ago, taking a technical approach and a very clear data-driven approach to both diversity and inclusion, separately, is really important to me. Again, that’s a lot of what my book, Demanding More, is about, and really how I hold organizations to account with this work.
2. Your career and education, or training, if you will, has been in technology, which is a sector that has a reputation of being male-oriented. Can you tell us about your experiences of starting out in this in this world?
(2:28) I started my career as a software engineer. I studied computer science at University and then went to work in a local software house in Belfast, in the North of Ireland, where I’m from, as you can maybe tell by my accent. A lot of people seem to somehow think I’m either Scottish or from America, as well, which are two very different places!
But anyway, I’ve been an engineer for quite a few years and my work was really focused on creating inclusive technologies, so actually, how do people from all backgrounds with accessibility and so on use the solutions that we need to provide to everybody? For example, I was a lead engineer on the Register to Vote platform in the UK. If you’ve registered to vote online, you’ve used some code that I’ve written a really long time ago, and I’m sure people have made it much better since then.
I think for me, when I moved into that industry, I did a fair amount of work with my University when I was there because in the 100 people within my course at the time, only 10 of us were women, including myself. I’ve always been very aware, I guess, of the lack of diversity within technology, but certainly when you move into having that as an actual job, it becomes much more prevalent and much more, I guess, “in your face”, is the best way to describe it. When I graduated in, I think 2013, I wanted to change something. I wanted to do something better and figure out what was going on.
Now, like I said, this was in Belfast. That’s where I was living. What I wanted to do was not reinvent the wheel, but what I did want was to find some way to bring together the women in tech that were within Northern Ireland, that were able to come together, regardless of whether they were in jobs, out of jobs, interested in tech, wanted to pivot into it, wanted to learn a new skill. Something that was really important to me is socio-economic background, as someone who comes from a poor background who was raised on free school meals. I never wanted to create something that put another element of exclusion into the process, for example, charging people for events, and so on, whenever that would mean we were leaving people behind.
That’s when I find Women Who Code. Now, at that stage, Women Who Code, before it became a non-profit, a global meet-up dedicated to women in technology based in San Francisco. It had around 3,000 global members, but we didn’t have anything like it in the UK, specifically, and certainly not in Belfast. I guess I took it on myself to bring it across the water. I launched it in Belfast. I then launched it in London, Bristol, Edinburgh, Dublin, different parts of Europe, and so on, but I built that structure in the UK from zero to over ten thousand and counting members. I built remote teams to own it, creating partnerships with big companies, small companies, and everything in between, because the real purpose of that organization is to change the face of tech.
We know there is a gender disparity. The great thing about Women Who Code now, where I sit as a board member, is it is the world’s largest non-profit globally dedicated to women in technology, with over 300,000 global members and a presence in over 80 cities. What’s really fantastic about it is that it provides free monthly meetups in all of its locations.
Now, why that’s important is that we can’t just focus our efforts, for example, on the main and big cities, the London, the San Francisco, for example, but actually, all of the other places that we see technology growing in, coming out of the woodwork, being prioritized in cities, and so on, it’s really key that we provide inclusive ways and networks for, in this case, women in technology to come together. I think that’s a really important point when we think about the gender disparity that we have. Women Who Code is providing an equitable measure in that. I very much hope that there’s a day that we don’t need Women Who Code, but we’re not there just yet.
3. It’s fantastic to hear about how Women Who Code has grown so much. What advice would you offer our listeners who are embarking on a career path where perhaps, they don’t fit the typical demographic?
I think what’s really important is, firstly: sit and recognize that your voice is very much needed. There’s a really important point to that because we cannot create solutions, designs, applications, apps and so on for society without all of society being involved in that creation. Whether that’s through design development, testing, and so on, different voices are really important here because otherwise, we create teams of people that are homogeneous and do not reflect, actually, the people that are using it.
What I would suggest is that as hard as it may sound, is to recognize that you are very much a needed person in the industry. Yes, it means that you might be underrepresented for the time being, for now, but what you bring is an entirely new perspective. That new perspective has an ability to change the trajectory of the things that we create. I think that’s a wonderful thing to be able to be a part of.
4. Building on that, it’s important that employees or candidates show what they can bring to organizations. Reflecting on your experience and learnings, what steps can people take so they’re able to understand and recognize their potential, and also make sure that their voice is heard?
(8:18) I think that there’s two parts to that. I coach quite a few people, I sponsor quite a few people in the industry because I think that’s important, but what I always get people to do is spend time writing down their perception of their strengths and growth areas. It’s very easy if I was to ask you right now, “What are your strengths? What are your growth areas?” You might rattle off a few different bullet points, but actually it’s usually very on the surface.
What I want people to know, especially underrepresented people, is to really dig deep and recognize, “What am I really good at? What is it that sets me apart from everybody else? What do I need to get better at?”, because ultimately, if you can know what it is that you need to get better at before somebody else tells you, you have an opportunity to fill that gap with growth opportunities, trainings, and so on. That self-awareness is really key in getting ahead. I think, for me, personally, as someone who’s 30, a vice president in a global company, a multi-award winning leader, and a published author, that’s largely being down to the self-awareness that I really spent with my career, going through that.
When it comes to getting your voice heard, what I think is really important here, actually, before we even talk about people that are underrepresented getting their voice heard, is I want people to recognize that people that sit in leadership or sit in the rooms that need to listen, that you do need to listen. What’s really key here is that we have leaders that recognize that purposeful listening is much more important than they think. All too often, we tend to facetiously listen.
Now, the difference in that is, if I give you an example, if you think of when somebody’s talking to you, have you already made your response up in your head? Are you just waiting for your turn to speak? Or are you actually sitting back, listening to what they’re saying, then you’ll take a few seconds to digest it, and then you provide an answer? Because actually, for the person that’s speaking, it’s two very different experiences. Firstly, we need people to change there. We need leaders to recognize that you need to listen properly, not facetiously, and then when it comes to people sharing their ideas and having their voices heard, sometimes, I know that confidence can be a huge barrier for people, for obvious reasons. When I bring it back to that self-awareness piece, when you are acutely aware of what you’re good at or maybe need to grow on, I think that really helps with confidence, and then feeling comfortable, sharing ideas.
The other thing that I think is useful from a practical sense is sharing ideas in a safe space. You don’t have to start out in huge, big events or huge, big meetings that maybe feel slightly daunting, but actually, look at what you can do in, let’s say, smaller team meetings, even in one-to-ones, and building up your confidence from there, taking it in a sea of space.
That was, again, one of the reasons why I launched Women Who Code, was because we held lightning talks across all of our region that give women opportunities to share for 10 or 15 minutes or less, and an idea that they had in a really safe, open, welcoming space that they could still receive feedback on. Have a think about the different ways that you can do that, as well. You don’t have to jump headfirst into everything. Pace yourself, and I think that will really help your confidence grow.
5. Unfortunately, I’m sure that there’ll be people that are listening who might feel uncomfortable in speaking out when their employers aren’t taking the right steps towards diversity and inclusion. In this instance, how can an individual not only gather the confidence to raise their views, but also, how do they decide who is the best person to approach?
(12:06) I think that the first piece is recognizing that psychological safety has to be a core part of your business/inclusion strategy. Both of those things are relatively the same. What that means is that you have avenues for people to share things in a way that may be anonymous, regardless of whether they are an intern, VP or CEO – that they have an avenue to share. That means they aren’t worried about potential repercussions and so on, so they have that safe space.
There’s a lot of great tools for that. Peakon is one of them, where I used to work at and that I use regularly, because it allows people to share, at any time, when you survey, anonymously. You can have conversations. When it comes to people, for example, maybe if that avenue doesn’t exist, what I would suggest is that if you are potentially, let’s say, quite junior or maybe mid-tier, is that you find someone in senior leadership, potentially, that you trust to talk to them about this first. If that means that you have someone, then, who can help voice those concerns on your behalf if you are worried about doing it yourself, then use that avenue.
I always say in any company that I work, if anybody wants to raise things, for example, and they maybe don’t want to do so anonymously but want to talk to someone confidentially, they can come to me or they can come to their People & Culture lead, and so on. You can always use someone else, who potentially is more senior, to help raise those issues for you.
The other thing is that there’s power in numbers, as well. If we’re talking about, let’s say, a conversation that a group wants to have, keep in mind that you don’t always have to be the only person fighting a battle or raising an issue, but actually coming together and sharing collective conversation points of discussions can be really useful, and also, potentially feel safer, psychologically, for you, too. The real thing that changes a dial on people’s sharing is companies creating safe spaces for people to do so, and that absolutely should be the priority.
6. Some of our listeners will be more privileged, not always necessarily, in terms of their position in an organization, but also within society, as well. What can they do to make a positive difference?
I think privilege is such an important conversation. All of my work is rooted in privilege, awareness from unearthing privilege in processes, in policy, implementations to hiring, and everything in between.
I think the key thing here, firstly, is the self-awareness of privilege. Certainly, as myself, I very much describe myself as underrepresented but privileged. I’m a senior woman of colour in the industry from a poor socio-economic background, first person in my family to go to university, and a whole host of other things, from being adopted from Sri Lanka and raised in Ireland, but I’m also very privileged now in that I now have no financial worries. I am a senior leader that is listened to, which is the biggest privilege of all, and I am able to comfortably exist in many ways that many other, for example, women of colour are not. What I think is key here is recognizing that allyship, which is the meaningful action of changing the trajectory and the environments of inclusion for other groups of people, whether you identify or don’t identify with them, is really key here, but recognizing the nuance of allyship. Allyship isn’t one or zero, and the same where the privilege isn’t one or zero.
All too often, we take a binary view of privilege and we break it down, let’s say, by gender or ethnicity, or disability, but we never overlap the conversation, recognizing that actually, we can also be underrepresented, potentially, and still be allies for other people. I can very much be working on my allyship for the Black community, for example, or for the LBGT+ community, for example, and I think it’s really key that we think about meaningful changes that we can do. At the top level, there should be how we listen more, how we make sure that we are actively listening regularly to different experiences other than our owns.
Secondly, that we are on a consistent journey of education so that we are seeking out to learn about those experiences globally, different regions, different nuances, and taking that on board.
One of the reasons I wrote ‘Demanding More’ was that all too often, people start an allyship journey from trying to make everything better, but they don’t spend time educating themselves on what has happened in the past to bring us to this point right now that we’re in, which really has been, people have made decisions based on exclusion deliberately. Education is key.
I want people to move into action, “What can I change? What decisions can I change? How can I hold myself on my peer group to account? How can I simply do things differently around my language, around who I deem important enough to listen to, to hire, to promote, and so on?”
I think that the combination of that listening, that awareness moving into education and action is really key when it’s about making a change. What I would suggest is that you recognize that this is a journey. We don’t just change everything overnight, but the first point of action here is recognizing that you play a role in making things better than you find them.
7. Many of our listeners might be job searching at present. What are the indicators that an organization is committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion, and isn’t just paying lip service?
(17:36) I think the first thing is transparency. What’s really important when it comes to businesses, showcasing and embracing diversity and inclusion in journeys is that they actively share the data that they have on where they’re at right now. If that data may not be good, it may not have good representation throughout various different areas, but they are still sharing it to be open and honest about that because they want to share where they’re trying to get to. Always look for that. Look for data that’s open and honest.
The second thing is look for appropriate dedication to diversity and inclusion internally. For example, I think it’s really important that, when you have D&I leaders, they have experience from doing that work, that it isn’t just a token role dedicated to passion versus skill set, because then, things don’t change. Look at the level that that person sits on. Are they in decision-making rooms? Do they feed into business strategy? Who do they report to? I think that’s really important to analyze and see what makes sense if that person does exist within the business.
The third thing is actually when you go into those interviews, ask about what’s important to you. If diversity and inclusion is one of those things, which I would hope it is, openly ask what they’re doing in that work. How are they trying to create environments that work for everyone? Are they on that journey at all? Use that as part of your reasoning as to whether you want to work there or not. I think it’s easy for organizations to potentially be performative in this space. If they only do things and they only share information around flagship events, for example, International Women’s Day, Black History Month, Pride, and so on, but actually what you want to see is transparency in those reportings and so on throughout the year, I think that’s what I always look for.
When I moved to Valtech and I had lots of different offers from different companies, the reason that I chose Valtech was that the honesty that they had was very open. They were very honest and said, “You know what? We know we need to do something. We don’t really know what the something is, but we know that’s where we would have you because you are the expert to help us do that.” That’s all I needed to know. I’d seen the data and I knew it wasn’t exactly where we needed to be, but I can help change that because I sat in those senior levels, as well. I think it’s key to analyze it in the way that you would analyze job opportunity or career growth, ticketing the same frame of mind.
8. If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners navigate their careers, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic and beyond, what would that be?
My best piece of advice for people navigating their careers throughout something like a global pandemic or just in general is: do not put so much pressure on yourself and create goals that have time limits on them. One of the things that I’ve noticed the most, especially with a lot of the folks that I mentor, is that we, as people, time box everything. “By 30, I want to have done this.” “By X, I want to have earned Y,” and so on, but actually, life happens.
The last two years have shown us that that you cannot plan for life. It pivots, it changes. It throws huge curveballs at you. What I try to suggest to people is instead of creating those huge goals that may be directly attached to a time limit, open it up. Think about what state of mind that you want to be in when you achieve that goal, or what’s happening around you when you achieve that goal, but also set goals that are much smaller. I think it’s very easy for all of us to only focus on the big goals without recognizing that actually, we have to accomplish so many small, tiny things along the way, and those small, tiny things are very much worth celebrating. The short version of that is celebrate the small wins. Embrace that. It’s a journey. Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves.
Sheree Atcheson is author of ‘Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Don’t Happen and What You Can Do About It’, which is available in hardback, paperback or as an ebook here. Use code HAYS20 for a 20% discount.
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