With just a third of women working for the big tech companies globally (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter), it is refreshing to see that a lot of the women I talk to in the industry in Britain seem to have positive experiences.
For example, one of the UK’s leading experts in the PC industry is executive director and general manager for Dell Sarah Shields. Her success has been based on a solid background of both sales and marketing and a hands-on approach to working with some of Europe’s biggest names in the consumer electronics channel. Sarah has been a pivotal player in bringing new brands, technology and new ways of selling computer-based products to the European market.
Sarah has played an instrumental role in Dell’s launch into the retail world and now runs one of Dell’s most successful consumer, SME and channel markets globally. Prior to joining Dell in 2008, Sarah worked with big brands, such as AMD, Packard Bell, and Acer. Sarah is a big supporter of Women in Technology and is an active member of various women-focused government and industry groups as well as being a working mum with two small children.
I chatted to Sarah about her inspirations, her career, and women in leadership.
Sarah, who inspired you when you were growing up?
Well, it may sound corny but probably my maternal grandmother. She taught me sheer determination and that, if you think you want to do it, go do it. Dot was amazing. She was a gifted seamstress and would make the most incredible clothes, for me and my mum. And she loved couture. Someone told her she wasn’t good enough to make bespoke couture, so she gave up on her ambitions. And that was the driving force behind her advice as she always regretted listening to the negativity. She taught me to never take no for an answer. She also taught me how to negotiate, as she could spot a deal at one hundred paces.
How did you become so successful?
I always say; where there’s a will, there’s a way. I also built up a network of really good people. I kept my ambition but retained my authenticity by still being nice and not treading on toes. I have never had success at the expense of someone else.
I joined Dell as an individual contributor, launching them into retail. I was given more influence that increased to the core business. I’m also the general manager for UK sales. And I have built up a great team: Aisling Keegan is our GM for private and large companies, while Richard Rawcliffe manages the public sector. The support I’ve had from Dell has helped me tremendously.
You are keen on promoting women.Tell me about your women-focused initiatives
For my role with Women In Technology, I work with schools. I tell pupils that they shouldn’t feel they have to follow specific routes because they’re female; they can do anything, and choose the most amazing future, if they put the right steps in place. For instance, maths, English, and languages are all useful in tech. I also participate in Tech London Associates. And Dell does a lot for women leaders. For example, Women In Search of Excellence has 30 global chapters for men and women. We also have a mentoring programme. I mentor a number of women, to encourage and guide them in an informal, safe setting.
Do you have any anecdotes about your rise to the top? Any sexist attitudes?
The glass ceiling has never been gender related for me, it’s been more skills related. In one particular role I loved, I wanted to move more into sales but needed an engineering degree. So I left for Acer to gain the sales experience.However, I have encountered sexism frequently. In my most recent experience, a man asked me if I was going to be doing pink servers now. But I believe to differentiate someone’s skills because of their gender shows a lack of intellect. It’s often passed off as a joke. I think you just have to brush it off. But the fine line is discrimination. That is wholly unacceptable.
Tell me your views about women in tech and the gender imbalance
Being female has never worked against me. We need to get more women in to the industry. It can be the most fulfilling area to work in as it’s so fast moving. The challenge is to get girls to make that choice at school. If you ask most people in their 30s and 40s whether they are doing the job the careers advisor talked to them about, the answer is usually no. For instance, I was given a sheet of paper with a list of cashier jobs at Tesco. When I said I saw myself managing the company rather than the till, I was put in detention for answering back. My reasons for choosing the tech industry were shallow. I was doing a marketing-based degree and, when I saw a list of jobs on the noticeboard, I chose the one with the highest salary!
How do you balance being a working mum with your career?
I have brilliant support at home: a very understanding husband and excellent childcare. Our nanny loves the kids like her own.I have being a working mum nailed as I set myself very clear rules. I will never miss a birthday, sports day, or nativity for a meeting. And I never miss an opportunity to kiss my kids goodnight and say hello in the morning. I won’t do calls before 9am or after 5pm. If I have to take work home, I’ll do it after the kids go to bed. I don’t let my career impact me as a mum. And, if I need to travel, I am free to do so with peace of mind because of my husband and nanny. I believe the opportunity to work from home offers women the opportunity of a more connected workplace. I’ve worked from home since my eldest son was born. You can have staff working from home, while retaining an office vibe, and still network, with tools like Microsoft Lync. I have a large number of staff and I video conference weekly with each person individually.It means I still have the interaction. But it’s up to you to balance work and home.
• Dell has a number of initiatives to develop their staff, and women especially. For example, Dell Wise is an Employee Resource Group (ERG) aimed at encouraging Dell’s female team members to reach their full potential. The group encourages women to thrive by providing expertise and leadership to support those around them.
If you want to find out more about the Dell Women's Entrepreneur network then visit www.dell.com/learn/uk/en/ukcorp1/women-powering-business