Rebecca Fitzgerald: “We don’t bring girls up to be brave”
As part of our Women in Tech series, we caught up with Yorkshire Building Society’s Senior Manager of Technology Delivery, Rebecca Fitzgerald, to talk females in tech, leadership and what kind of support women need to bridge the gender gap.
“I heard somebody say on a TED Talk recently, we teach boys to jump from trees and see how far they can land. We teach girls not to climb trees.”
Rebecca Fitzgerald, Senior Manager of Technology Delivery at Yorkshire Building Society, is talking about the persistent gender inequality that makes women very much a minority in senior tech roles.
“Boys are brave because we bring them up to be brave, and stereotypically girls are not brought up to be brave,” she says. “I am keen to understand the social reasons and personal reasons why women fall off the charts in organisations?” Perhaps being a red head, and stereotyped to be fiery and outspoken, gender was never a conscious barrier for me however as I have moved through my senior level career and more recently in a higher populated male tech environment, I can certainly see the facts and challenges we need to tackle. This has switched on my awareness and many of the reasons I am keen to talk more and support the shift.
Rebecca says that the motto as lived by throughout her 20-year career at YBS is “be brave”. Yet despite her can-do attitude, she also acknowledges there have been times when she has been cautious about trying to push her claims for climbing the ladder.
“I think it is just a natural trait [for a lot of women] that you don't necessarily jump for the next job until you feel you're ready,” she says. “Whereas those who practiced leaping from trees might think, yeah, of course I’ll give it a go. If you’re competing for a new role or even in your job day-to-day, the way I’ve always gone about making sure I’m not outshouted is making sure I'm fully competent and even exceeding what is expected of me, before I would consider the next stage.
“For me, it's about authenticity and credibility. I’m very aware of the danger of jumping into something and not being credible in that field. There’s a positive side to that but a negative side also. When you approach opportunities from the perspective of having a reputation to protect, it can hinder you.”
Tech leaders don’t have to be tech experts
Rebecca’s path to the position of Senior Manager of Technology Delivery she took on in 2018 was not conventional, not least because of her lack of formal training in technology. But she also believes this is another good example to young girls and women that the ‘normal’ career paths are not set in stone.
“I naturally fell into project management, which I think is my Dad’s entrepreneurial influence,” she said. “From that, I guess taking all of the experience of using technology and designing processes in business areas, I moved into delivering bigger, more tech-focused programmes.
“In fact, I delivered (alongside a great team) one of our biggest technology programmes, which was to merge the building society core systems to a new multi-brand platform where we brought our systems together. I think that's where I started to see my leadership in technology come through.”
Rebecca suggests her non-technical background and deep understanding of YBS as a business has actually been an asset in her current role.
“I think in terms of my leadership, being able to talk to people who are technical, but who are not necessarily seeing the business impacts of what they do in their day job, I think that's the sweet spot that I've brought to the organisation. I've worked with developers and IT specialists throughout all of my career, building technology for the changes that I was wanting to deliver in the different business areas I worked in, from front end customer interactions through to Risk and Compliance, behind the scenes processes. Known as sponge, I learnt from some great BA’s, Designers and Test Managers through my years, building up my capabilities to write requirements, creating process maps and logical drawings to innovate with specialists, producing test cases to show the user journeys, blueprints and so on. I love logic and analytics which supports my passion for engineering and the ability to create solutions to solve real problems. My colleagues will tell you most meetings end up with a diagram or random scribble in my notebook to make sense of situations.
“I think knowing what the teller system is like when the cashiers can't balance their tills at the end of the day and what it's like to see data flow through one system to another, I have all of that experience. Taking that through programme management, it was then an opportunity, I guess, to support the next generation of YBS and how our future to Digital was exciting but equally challenging in a complex environment spanning generations of technology.
“We were doing a lot of work with big external suppliers to deliver really big chunky pieces of work, but actually then when you throw it back into IT, [employees] can't catch it because they were never on the journey from the start.”
Rebecca says the challenge of trying to take IT development out of its silo and embed it back into the day-to-day operational culture of YBS also made her realise that a lot of talent in the workforce was being overlooked.
“There were conversations like, ‘did you know the guy who built this technology 10-15 years ago is still here?’ For me there was something about pulling these people, absolutely committed to YBS, living and breathing our values and who had perhaps been left on the shelf, and putting them front and centre of the next generation of that technology again. I am a big fan of complimenting skills and gaining knowledge from those who have wider experience, but it has to be driven from within, taking Werner Vogels (Amazon CTO) famous statement: “You build it, you run it”.. I badged it as #MadeInYorkshire and over 2 years on I feel we have our balanced approach which is making our IT environment a really exciting place to be. And that naturally led me onto diversity and inclusion.”
YBS outperforms many rivals when it comes to gender equality, certainly in tech roles - Rebecca’s 12-strong IT and transformation management team is evenly split between males and females. “At YBS, we have a real focus on Diversity & Inclusion and speaking for my own area we have a great breath of cultures, genders and generations with a real family feel, I love it ,” she says. “We have some great nurturing and inclusive leaders creating flexibility for work/life balances with teams made up of both male and female, who have real loyalty and passion to deliver at YBS.
But Rebecca recognises this is far from the universal experience for women in tech. With her own daughters, one of whom is at university and the other who is nearing GCSE choices, she says she has seen how even the lack of female role models teaching STEM subjects pushes girls down other routes.
However, Rebecca also cites her own career story as evidence that technical expertise doesn’t need to be a barrier to women becoming leaders in tech. Here she returns to the theme of bravery and trusting the people around you.
“I think the thing with leadership is, you have to accept not being the expert,” she says. “You are the generalist who needs to be able to connect the dots and understand the personalities within the teams to build a successful network around you.
“Never, ever am I going to be a senior leader that can talk the talk around everything. But I do know which of my own team look after which technologies, in which business services, who I can turn to when I need the expert insight.
“You’ve got to be confident. Accept not knowing everything but have a logical, repeatable way of dealing with things so that you feel confident.”
Rebecca is a shining light for women in the tech industry and has proven time and time again that with hard work, persistence and a little bit of bravery, women can climb the ladder in the tech industry.
In our next article, Rebecca will be talking about how mentors and role models, both personally and professionally helped shape her career.