Jeni Brown has been IT Training Manager for the London School of Economics and Political Science since 2006 and a member of the Digital Capabilities (formerly User Skills) group, with a couple breaks for maternity leave, since 2008.



As I write this, it’s International Women’s Day, and I’m reflecting with optimism on the ways that I, my team, my division and institution have made a #pressforprogress in the past 12 months. A month ago, I was honoured to receive the Academic Award for my work in digital capabilities at LSE, and share the stage with some amazing and inspiring women at the FDM Everywoman in Technology awards. The awards recognise the most inspirational women in technology, with the goal of promoting female role models within the STEM industries. It was truly humbling to hear about the amazing achievements of the assembled finalists, often in spite of casual sexism and unconscious bias in their organisations or schools. This year I have also been lucky enough to take part in the Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme, and meet more incredible women taking on leadership positions within HE and pushing through some of the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers in the way of greater gender equality. Here again, female role models were important, with past participants acting as role models and facilitators for the sessions.
So I’ve been reflecting on the importance of role models. Seeing ourselves represented in our field of expertise and in our institutions is powerful. I felt a surge of hope when LSE hired Dame Minouche Shafik as Director, and discovered a renewed interest in my role when Laura Dawson joined as the new Director of Information Management and Technology. And I want to play my part in inspiring women as well. I’ve signed up for the Modern Muse network and joined the mentoring programme at LSE. I’m thrilled to have the chance to be a role model, as well as benefit from the female role models in my organisation.
But as optimistic as I am, there is a lot more to do, and even ardent feminists like myself will get it wrong sometimes.
My division recently took the decision to name our meeting rooms, in addition to their number designations. I was heartened and excited when the suggestion to celebrate technology pioneers was refined to celebrate female tech pioneers. My division was being so progressive! A female colleague and I quickly set out to create a shortlist for our colleagues to vote on and presented it to our engagement group. And then another colleague pointed out that all our picks were white women. And I was ashamed, but so very grateful, to be called out for our unconscious bias. Because representation isn’t only about gender, or sexuality, or even race – we need to be actively seeking to highlight the range of contributions made by all people and keeping each other honest about the process. It wasn’t hard to find further contributions by a more diverse range of women, but I hadn’t actively thought to do it. We can all do better, be more aware, and work harder to address our unconscious biases. Those of us with the most privilege (and higher education has quite a lot of privilege), need to do the most work.
LSE, like a lot of other HE institutions, is working on this issue. And in the IT Training team, we’re doing what we can to ensure we’re meeting the needs of our students. A couple years ago, we were dismayed at the lack of female candidates for our Student Training Advisor position, so we started examining our processes to see if we could improve representation at the application stage. We reviewed our job description and realised we had a strong focus on technical skills, and not as much focus on the communication and teaching or tutoring skills. But our actual experience with student trainers was that the most technical candidates weren’t necessarily the best. Some of the most amazing student staff came to us with low technical skills but an excellent understanding of how to communicate clearly and structure learning for different skill levels. Evidence shows that not only do women suffer from a confidence gap, especially in tech, but it is easier to teach someone technical skills than to teach a technical person about the industry they are entering. We revised the job description to de-emphasize technical skills (after all, what kind of training department can’t teach their staff the required technical skills?!) and focus on practical experience in communicating complex information. We ran the job description and advert through a gendered language online tool, to ensure we weren’t using masculine-coded language that puts off female candidates.
And it worked – in the next recruitment round, 40% of our applications were from women compared to no female candidates the year before, and we saw some stellar candidates. We got a higher calibre of male talent as well. Our interview processes have always relied heavily of giving students a chance to show us what they can do, with at least half of the time spent on practical tasks or a teaching audition – one of several ways recommended to reduce bias in your interviewing process. We also advertised heavily amongst the current programme participants, where over 60% of participants are female. We still have some way to go, but we’re committed to having more women in the role of technical expert. Even the way we’ve designed our training programme reflects our commitment to a wider range of people successfully leveraging technology. Our focus on digital literacy, self-sufficiency, transferrable knowledge, and confidence in solving technical problems – not just learning a set of specific technical skills – helps everyone engage confidently with technology.
We’d love to talk to you about what we’ve been doing, and hear about what works (and doesn’t) at your institutions. The Digital Capabilities Group is running a webinar about events that recognise women’s achievements in technology on 6 June (see the website nearer the time for details), or you can hear about our engagement with our student trainers at the Change Agent Network conference in Winchester in April. Finally, I’ll be presenting about how our training programme develops digital capabilities and confidence at the Spotlight on Digital Capabilities event in May. You can also get in touch with me at j.l.brown@lse.ac.uk.


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