5 min. read

Sheree Atcheson Talks Women In Tech With Xena

Includes what it’s like to be the “only”, the importance of intersectionality, the impact of COVID-19 on caring responsibilities and the security of financial privilege. 

Although tech companies are starting to show a commitment to increase the number of women in tech, gender diversity remains to be a global concern. This is a huge challenge for companies but having good intentions isn’t quite enough.

Multi award-winning Diversity & Inclusion Exec, Published Author of “Demanding More”, and Advisory Board Member at Women Who Code Sheree Atcheson weighs in on this topic.  

Listed as one of the UK’s Top Most Influential Women in Tech, we wanted to know how Sheree kick started her DE&I journey; 

Firstly, can you tell us how you became a Global Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

Yes, of course. I think that the context is super important. In that, I am Irish, and I was raised in Ireland. I was adopted when I was three weeks old from Sri Lanka by a white Irish family. My brother is also adopted from Sri Lanka. I’m from a part of Ireland that is relatively rural. There’s not a lot of diversity, certainly when I was growing up in the 90s in any aspect. Whether that was religion, ethnicity, and so on. Most people in the village that I’m from are from working class families. I’m from a working class family.

People talk very regularly about being “the only” when they talk about being in a boardroom, being in your office, and so on. But a lot of people don’t have the experience of being the only in your family, in your extended family, in your school, in the town that you live in.

It’s a very different experience whenever you are acutely aware of being different, regardless of whether everyone is treating you the same. You’re still different, you still stand out. I think from growing up with the experience of being a person of colour and a woman of colour in Ireland has given me an insight of always being that different person.

When I decided to do Computer Science at University and become a software engineer I was already doing quite a lot of work with my university. Helping them from a gender perspective around reaching young girls coming into STEM subjects, and then actually the support of women in STEM in university. When I became an engineer it was obviously even more apparent when you join a company and the representation is very skewed.

I wanted to do something, something and that was really just something about it. I don’t like reinventing the wheel, I don’t think it’s purposeful. I think it’s actually a lot of wasted effort. It’s usually fuelled by ego as well at times. Then I found Women Who Code. At that stage there were around 5000 Global members, with a HQ in San Francisco. We were running free monthly meet ups at all the locations for women in technology to learn the skills they needed to be able to get paid the money they deserved, and so on. But they didn’t have any presence in the UK. In short, I took that nonprofit and branched it all across the UK, starting in Belfast. I started building remote teams, creating partnerships with big companies, small companies, VCs and everything in between helping them with their inclusion strategies. 

I started doing the same across EMEA and globally. I’m now a Board Member at that organisation. I spent three years doing volunteer work as well as being a software engineer. I will never do a job if I feel like I’m not qualified. That’s really important in DE&I work because it’s not something you just pivot into and do. A skill set passion isn’t the same as a skill set. The decision making moment was when I felt like, I’m doing this a lot already, I’m doing this at a level that is at an expertise level after doing it for three to four years as a volunteer, and it made sense to make it my full time job. 

The other key part was there were engineers that were much better at being engineers than I was. There weren’t many people in my remit that I thought were doing this in a way that was really impactful. So I thought, why is this not my full time job? That was why I pivoted in because it felt like the approach I was taking was different. I would have had an insight that was slightly different from a very different background than a lot of people that are in this work. I felt like that made sense to align those differences into something that was not what I’ve been doing for almost a decade which is a really long time. 


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Why is having a diversity and inclusion strategy important, and how will companies benefit?

Because women make up a huge portion of the population. And it’s as simple as that. People create solutions and technology advances. Who is that supposed to benefit? The majority of people? Who is the majority of people? It’s not just those who identify as men. There are women, there are non binary folks, there are all different genders. 

But what’s really important here is that, how can you do that if you don’t actually have representation internally? The other flip side of it is that when you’re looking at problems and solutions, you need to have different perspectives. Women for the most part, and women of all different backgrounds will bring different perspectives. This is what I mean even when I talk about my own background, the background of being a woman of colour raised in a very white space, from a poor background, is a nuanced background. My perceptions on things will be very different to for example, even a white woman raised in a poor background in a similar situation to me. 

That’s why we need all of these different lenses. When you bring more women into these environments, we’re bringing in different lenses, different perspectives, different even frictions. That’s what we want those friction points before we make a decision. The key point here is that we don’t just fill and hire more women that are of the same background as a man that’s already in those roles. That’s where intersectionality is key here. We can’t just create exclusionary inclusion, which is putting in for example, lots of heterosexual, non disabled, financially privileged white women, we have to do more. 

That’s why the data is really important. We push that boundary to make sure that actually, we’re not just going to create the same problems in a different sphere, and a decade or so on from now, we’re starting to see that problem already. 

So it’s really important that we get ahead of that curve.

What challenges do you still experience as a woman of colour in a senior position?

I think when it comes to challenges that I face they are so wildly different to the challenges I faced at the start of my career as a woman of colour in a male dominated industry. I have the privilege of credibility, the privilege of senior leadership, the privilege of being financially stable, and that’s one of the biggest privileges. As someone who grew up on free school meals, my parents were on benefits. It hasn’t really been until maybe the last four or five years that I have been in a position where I don’t have any money worries anymore. That gives me the privilege of being able to say what I want. I sat with my partner and I talked to him about this not too long ago. It was an eye opening moment when you realise, am I worried if I need to say something at work? Am I worried about that repercussion? And if the answer is no, because you have savings, because you know you’ll get another job like that. That’s a huge amount of privilege. That’s the position I’m in. I don’t worry about that stuff because I know I’ll be okay. 

I guess when it comes to barriers I face now they are very unique. Or I guess nuanced because I just turned 30 and I’ve been a senior leader, I write for Forbes, and I’m a published author. So most of the things that I do are not associated with someone who’s 30 years old. But that also means I face some age bias when it comes to actually being credible enough. Again the privilege of me having all of the credibility I have pushes that away because I used to face that a lot when I was younger, because I didn’t have as much of the accolades that I have now. 

When it comes to being a woman of colour, there is always a different bias. When it comes to that intersection of women and women of colour, you know, the double bind that we talked about, not being confident enough, and then being too confident. Not showcasing your skill set enough and showcasing too much. Not saying I enough, but then not saying we enough either. That’s a line and a teeter that I have to walk across. Just in everything in life, in work, in everything that I do because of societal biases against people like me.

I think the other thing that I would have to acknowledge is the colourism piece. As a Sri Lankan woman, I’m dark skinned, but I am not very dark skinned. If you see certainly black women and dark skinned black women the bias and the issues they face are very, very different. For example, issues that someone like me faces. Thats a really key part in understanding and having that awareness of the privilege that gives me. But also the biases that I have to make sure are being challenged in organisations against people that aren’t like me. 

That’s why whenever we talk about women of colour, it’s such a broad spectrum of people. It’s so broad, and it’s so nuanced. And for me I don’t know if I feel like I have a lot of barriers at the moment because I’m a senior leader. I’ve accomplished a lot of stuff and the financial privilege I have is huge. Do I think that society puts a lot of barriers at my place? Yes, I do feel like that. But do I feel like for me they are something that I may be worried about as much? No, because I have the security of financial privilege. 

Want to read more? We asked Sheree what companies can do to attract and retain more women in tech. Not only that, we’ve put together two step by step guides on how companies can achieve this. 

Check out our first guide on how to attract more women in tech here. 

Oh, and if you haven’t already, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Sheree’s book “Demanding More’.