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Breaking gender bias: Q&A with Andrea Herbert

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, gender parity in the workplace has seen some signs of improvement, according to the 2021 Women in the Workplace report. While this is encouraging, the ‘broken rung’ of the talent pipeline is still holding back women’s representation in senior roles. Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias continues to make it difficult for women to move ahead in their careers. 

To discuss this and more, we sat down with Andrea Herbert, Marketing Director at Gamma. Andrea boasts an impressive career in marketing, starting her journey in the institutional investment management industry before moving to banking and finance technology. 

In this thoughtful interview, she reveals some tips that have helped her overcome gender parity challenges in her career; the importance of removing gender biases from formal and informal business processes; and how women in the tech industry can break, or at least crack, the glass ceiling.  

Q: Several studies show that women find it hard to strike the right balance without being seen as too meek or too harsh in the workplace – struggling with double standards. Is this something you have experienced in your career? How have you overcome this challenge?

Those points you make are sad but true.  

Women are criticised for speaking up and criticised for being too quiet. Women are seen as more emotional rather than passionate. Women tend to get vaguer, rather than structured, feedback. Women are often overlooked for promotions. Even more worryingly, women don’t tend to be given the same amount of resources or backing as their male peers. 

Luckily, I haven’t seen too much of that in my career. I’ve worked for very forward-thinking companies, but even then, there have been moments.  

How have I overcome them? Firstly, working really hard to prove the value I bring to the company. That way, even if I didn’t feel like I had the voice or the courage to speak out for myself, I could always point at data and that speaks for itself. That’s how I’ve managed to progress my career the most. 

The second point comes with the privilege of leading teams. As soon as you get a chance to lead a team, it becomes less about you and how confident you feel, and more about the people you’re managing. As a leader, I feel that I have to protect them; I have to raise them up. While I might not shout about how good my work is and what I’m doing, I will always be proud to shout about what my team is working on and how brilliantly they’re doing. 

Lastly, I’ve been very lucky in my career to have had some really strong and supportive male advocates. I’ve had male bosses who have promoted me and put trust in me. 

More practically, and this may sound silly, as a woman in tech, there are simple things you can do to build credibility. Voice exercises before presenting; working on your presentation skills; and most importantly, calling out behaviour you don’t appreciate or, if you lack confidence, ask a colleague for help. 

Q: With the 2022 IWD’s theme being #BreakTheBias, what advice would you give to businesses hoping to ensure gender equality in the workplace?

It’s going to be tough for businesses over the next couple of years as we try to get back to some kind of normality after COVID. [Management consulting firm] McKinsey has shown in recent studies that the impact of COVID has been three times greater on women who had increased responsibilities with homeschooling and housework, along with the pressure of wanting to do more at work. 

How companies deal with that, and how hybrid working culture develops, is going to be tough. 

I’d say bias, more than just gender bias, is quite systemic and it’s just part of a web of systemic challenges that women face. 

There’s a lot to do, but some simple things companies could do – and a lot of them are doing – include removing the stigmatisation of flexible working and opening it up to more people; taking bias out of the recruitment process, as well as the review and promotion process; taking bias out of how you allocate resources and budget. 

Ultimately, it’s about developing an inclusive culture that takes into account the formal processes I’ve just mentioned, as well as any informal process.

What about things that could indirectly discriminate against an employee? Social events, for example, and whether they’re catering for all employees – think of parents, carers, those with religious commitments, or disabilities. 

Making sure you foster an inclusive culture will naturally combat any female bias in the workplace. 

Lastly, it’s to make sure that companies actually do something, not just pay lip service to this issue. I have seen in the past lots of talk around ‘what we’re doing and why’, but no real action. 

Q: The ‘Women in the Workplace’ report has been talking about a ‘broken rung’ in women’s career journey for several years. What advice would you give to young women hoping to develop a career in tech?

I looked at the most recent Women in the Workplace report just this morning to see how that gender balance is going between management level and C-level. 

On the entry-level jobs, you get around a 50/50 gender balance. When you get to C-level, it’s around 20% female and 80% male. 

In tech, there’s even more imbalance. Only 17% of jobs in tech are taken by women. It’s such a small number and it shows that the process needs to start at school age – when girls start to think that those types of jobs aren’t traditionally female jobs and therefore overlook them. 

Unfortunately, only 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women, so encouraging young girls to go into these topics is key to improving gender balance in the workplace.  

From a practical point of view, if you are a woman in tech and you’re striving to reach those higher rungs of the ladder, I’d suggest finding strong female and male advocates in the business who can help you rise. 

Try and prove your results with data and facts. It might feel frustrating, but you will eventually push through that glass ceiling. 

Most importantly, what I’ve learned over the last 20 years of my career is that you can try and be something you’re not to try and fit in and to get promoted, but being true to yourself and being comfortable in who you are and your unique skill set is probably one of the most powerful things you can do. 

Helping fellow women while in a senior position doesn’t have to be complicated either. Start simple: call out when your female colleague gets interrupted; give them a platform to speak up; bolster them. Lastly, always check your own unconscious bias – make sure you’re talking to your female colleagues in the same way you do to male colleagues.  

Q: Unfortunately, there are also many examples of ‘gender-blind’ technology that reinforces bias and amplifies gender inequality. How can tech organisations build more inclusive products?

We’re now in a world where these gender biases in the data have been pointed out. UX teams, CX teams and product designers have lots of tools at their fingertips to help them remove bias in how they’re creating products. 

One of the scariest books I’ve read is Invisible Women [by Caroline Criado-Perez] highlighting many of these gender-blind product development issues. As an example, women are 47% more likely than men to die in a car crash because crash-test dummies are based on a man’s body weight and data points 

It all starts with having a broader and more inclusive data set. 

Q: Those are very valid points, thank you Andrea. Before we go, do you want to add anything else?

It’s important to remember that on days like these, we shouldn’t just celebrate women in this country nor just women in business. Women around the world are going through a lot of terrible things and it’s everyone’s responsibility to create a world where all women have the same safety and opportunities. 

Today there are about 130 million girls worldwide with no access to education. 980 million women in the world with no access to banking. 500 million women and girls are living with period poverty. One in three women has been subjected to violence, sexual violence or violence in their lifetimes. 

How can we help them? What can we do to ensure the same security and safety for all women around the world? We should all be asking ourselves ‘what else can we do for our fellow women?’.