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Building Solutions and Services That Represent Society’s Needs

An interview with Helen Mott, Principal at Netcompany

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day (IWD), which celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, Helen Mott, principal at international IT services business, Netcompany, shares her views.

This year’s theme for IWD is DigitAll: Innovation and technology for gender equality aligning with the priority theme for the upcoming 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW-67), which promotes innovation, technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

Here, Helen talks about why she is passionate about delivering human-centred, user-centric policy design; the shift in culture required to get more young women into technology; her previous role as Head of Digital at the Ministry of Justice and how diversity and inclusion are critical for the future of software development in order to create the space for curious and talented teams to do their best work.


Working in a male-dominated environment

A digital and design leader with over 15 years of experience delivering digital services and leading multi-disciplinary teams in both the commercial and public sectors, Helen started her career working in a retail design agency focused on customer experience in physical spaces. However, Helen quickly recognised that the internet would move design online. And, while she firmly believes it is critically important to understand the psychology of the customer, most digital agencies were simply converting existing processes and requirements to digital formats. So, Helen transitioned into an agency at the forefront of applying user-centred design in digital delivery where she progressed her career for several years. During that time Helen admits her work colleagues were mostly men and that, culturally, it was ‘a bit of a lads club’ but she goes on to say how she held her own in this male-dominated world and quickly earned the respect and support of her colleagues.

When asked whether there are any women who inspire her, Helen immediately chose Martha Lane Fox, who founded during the dotcom boom of the early 2000s and has subsequently served on several public service digital projects. What struck Helen most is how such a leading light, and incredibly influential woman in Britain’s digital sector, has been treated by some men in the industry. In interviews Martha talks about having a male business partner and that, when they entered into new funding rounds, the majority of the conversation was directed towards her partner, rather than her.


The need for more women role models in government

Helen moved into the technology space, working in government where she became Head of Digital at the Ministry of Justice. During this time, Helen worked with two high-profile female policy directors in a job share. This was a highly visible and extremely powerful job. Indeed, the two women went on to undertake a shared Director General role and Helen was inspired by how seamlessly they made this approach work, particularly as this was a very time-pressured role. She adds: “We need more women mentors like these two who can be role models for transforming government and the working world, shaking off any antiquated views and ensuring that, where women are concerned, there is a modern all-encompassing diversity agenda.”

Aside from these two women, Helen admits that she has had very few female mentors and that the majority of her mentors have been men. However, Helen adds; “In my late twenties, I did have one female mentor who helped me speak up even when I wasn’t clear on my thoughts. But sometimes those early formative thoughts and ideas can be shaped by another’s input, and I was prepared to show my vulnerability, which enabled me to build trust, gain buy-in and secure joint ownership of initiatives.  Men rarely share early formative thoughts that others can start to buy into, often viewing this as a sign of weakness.”


Building open transparent relationships

In terms of the challenges or obstacles that Helen has overcome she admits that, even though her career started in quite a male-dominated culture, she has rarely felt at a disadvantage because of her gender. In fact, Helen has been at the forefront of government department organisational change, delivering a number of new government digital services, establishing new teams and practices and bringing together five digital teams aligning cultures, standards, strategies and professions across 1000 people. Helen believes that her early experience and learning to build open, transparent relationships, working through layers of hierarchy helped, rather than having entrenched views of what women or men can do. Helen adds: “I also went to a school that taught me confidence that my opinion is worth listening to. From teacher friends I believe this is more and more the norm in schools, but definitely wasn’t at the time.”

Helen admits there have been times, when she has been leading a discussion or facilitating a meeting in a room full of IT guys and there has been an element of frostiness about being directed by a woman, but she quickly adds that throughout her career this has only happened a handful of times and comments: “moments like this really help you to build resilience.”


Females only represent 20% of students studying computer science degrees

When it comes down to the biggest issue facing the industry in 2023, without a doubt, Helen says there are not enough women coming into the profession and that in general there are very lax attitudes from people who are hiring. Helen adds: “Females only represent about 20% of those doing a computer science degree and this is not good enough. The problem will only be properly addressed if we move beyond 20% and get that split nearer to 50%. The industry needs to be doing more to build that pipeline. The reason the pipeline doesn’t exist is the brand image. I was one of only five girls out of 120 studying a Maths degree.”

“We also need to do much more to promote technology as a career and that it is not just about writing code.  The image of coding doesn’t always inspire. In reality the role is more about problem-solving and experimenting; I believe this would inspire more women to work in tech. And we should focus on evangelising all the other roles and skills – such as design and research – required to deliver a project that not only works but meets user needs and is successful.”

Helen talks about the future and how more and more of our services, processes, decision-making and the information we use to make decisions are driven by technology, algorithms, AI, and machine learning. This influences the way people operate and think without society even realising it. Helen concludes: “Think about it – 80% of developers writing code algorithms are men. So, you have male thinking embedded into the code we utilise. As society becomes even more reliant on technology, it is really critical that we get more balance and I’m not just talking about gender balance, but social, economic, cultural and life experience. Going forward we must ensure the teams that are building society-critical services are representative of the society that we live in and serve.”