Becoming a female leader in a male-dominated sector

8th of March is traditionally known as International Women’s Day. It is a day to celebrate the outstanding achievements of women globally and a focal point for bringing attention to issues such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence against women.

Our IT & Digital recruitment team sat down with Rohini Emanuelsson, IT Transformation Director and a Leadership Coach within the world of technology, to discuss her journey from University days to where she is today.

| Rohini Emanuelsson has worked in the IT industry for over 20 years. In that time, she has succeeded at a number of household companies as well as helping shape Public Sector organisations. After facing rejections from many companies shortly after completing her first degree, she #ChosetoChallenge. Today, she is working at Head of, Lead, and Director level positions. She has undoubtedly transformed Public and Private companies and how they use their technology.

You have worked in Senior, Head, and Lead roles at multiple prestigious organisations. How would you say that you have achieved getting to these positions?

“A little bit of luck needs to come your way, but you need to make your own luck too. It’s about the mindset and having confidence in yourself. It was especially important early on in my career. In what was a male-dominated environment, whether that be in leadership positions and obviously in the depths of technology.”

“I had to build credibility, and have influence and a voice, I didn’t need a bit of luck to get in there. It was also the mindset, to have the confidence that I know that I had something to add. Have confidence that I was different. I was probably ticking a lot of the diversity boxes too, not just the standard labels, but also diversity of thinking.”

“Early on in my career, I did feel the need to blend in. But my confidence started to grow. You build your confidence by doing, by achieving, by focusing on the outcome, and by being really clear. Keep focused, don’t get distracted, and do the work. You’ve got to do the work.”

“You have to put in the hours, over exceed, set expectations, and push the bar even more. And in a way, because I was different, I had to do that even more to prove my value and prove that a different style can also be effective. The only way to do that is to show the KPIs and metrics. Prove to people that this can work. Slowly that’s how you build your track record and network.”

You work in a very male-dominated industry, have you faced many hurdles or challenges because of this?

“I have, but I’ve chosen not to focus on it because when you do, it gets magnified. And so, I guess perhaps compared to many, I’ve still been able to succeed and do very well within a male-dominated industry.”

“But there has been challenges for sure. You get stereotyped by the way you look and your background. That has been challenging. There’s been some fairly toxic experiences, but I think back to that self-belief and confidence. Also having that respect for yourself and for your voice.”

“So even though I was often physically half the size of all my peers. It’s important to not focus on that. Believing in your voice, and having a voice, having that confidence and inner belief in that thing, that’s what it really stems from. I’ve been in some toxic bullying situation that I’ve had to deal with. One of them actually made me quite ill. But even then, you draw the line and say, that is not acceptable.”

“Trying to keep a clear head and having the confidence that you are doing the right thing. You’re working hard. You’ve got the best interest of the company and the team there. That’s what you’re working towards. I’ve always been guided by what is the best for my stakeholders and the team.”

“So, when you have stumbling blocks, you have that certainty to overcome them and have the voice to stand up for yourself in an assertive and not aggressive, not defensive way.”

Would you say there is one achievement of yours which is above them all?

“I would say the start of my career when I was at Microsoft. I was a kid and I’d just done quite well with my university exams.”

“I guess I was perceived as being fairly smart, but I hadn’t got the air miles. I didn’t quite have the emotional intelligence to know what the best way to build a team is. For example, dealing with different styles of people. Because I work in a certain way, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best way for everyone else to work.”

“And actually, the worst thing would be to have a team made up of 10 Rohinas. It would be a complete nightmare. We want a diverse team: in terms of how they work, their styles, their strengths because then you have a well-rounded group. You want differences of opinion, that’s the whole point.”

“My boss was amazing, he didn’t see girl, boy, he didn’t see any differences. He was probably my best mentor and manager to start my career with. So, I’m very blessed to have worked with him. We were forming a whole new division within Microsoft. So, I was given massive opportunities with not much experience, frankly. I really didn’t know what to do, I was winging it. But I had the opportunity. So, I think the thing that I was most proud of, was that I built an absolutely incredible team.”

“Microsoft, they’re great and they empower. Their mantra is, to ask for forgiveness, not permission. And I took that on board.”

When you finished University, did you expect to go on this career path or end up where you are now?

“No, because back then, IT wasn’t so mainstream. It wasn’t the obvious career choice as it is for many today. I did a math degree because I could do it. I thought, okay, I can add up. To be honest, I came from quite restrictive upbringing, so I just wanted to get out there and express myself and just live. That was my goal for universities.”

“I picked math because I can do it and it was easy, I didn’t really think about my career. So, I did that, and then it was like, okay, what am I doing with this math degree? I only knew that I didn’t want to be an accountant.”

“What I did at that time is, I just spammed the market. All the graduate roles I could find, I just applied for indiscriminately. Because I really had no idea.”

“Fortunately, I got turned down by every single one.”

“Maybe that’s a reflection of my mindset because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. And so, people maybe felt that. And even if I’d got one of those roles, maybe it wasn’t for me. So, all of those rejections meant I had to do something. So, I decided to do another degree.”

“This time I did an Operational Research Degree, which is actually a fantastic degree, turns out it was very useful because it was about taking numbers and using those numbers to help you make decisions.”

“I actually then joined a family business. Which is probably the biggest mistake and learning experience in my life. I was responsible for a million-pound turnover business with 50 employees. I was effectively in charge. And so that was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, an immersive experience. Cut a long story short, that ended after a couple of years.”

“At the time you might think, oh my goodness, why is this happening? But usually, the universe is wise, and she’s provided you with this challenge as an opportunity for growth. That was a perfect example. Because of that experience, I was quite attracted to the job market. Because not only was I a double graduate, but I also had real experience.”

“That experience got me my first role, which was a graduate role. I worked at one of those eccentric software companies. I was in charge of a whole product line within software. I hadn’t considered software. I was applying all over the place, but that just fitted in and I absolutely loved it.”

Is there anything that you would tell your past self?

“Just get that confidence earlier on. You have a lot of growth and learning to do. So, when the winter comes and you don’t know what’s going on, don’t be phased by it, just go with it. Look for what is the growth opportunity out of the situation. How can I be my best? And how does it bring the best out of my qualities that I didn’t even know I had.”

“In the family business mentioned earlier, it went bankrupt, and I couldn’t even pay staff. We had like 50 people. I had no money for salaries, and we were paying salaries on Friday.”

“I remember I was literally scrambling around in my car, looking for pennies. These people were on breadlines. I have to give them the money; they’ve worked. I was very tired and unbelievably stressed. I remember thinking, all my friends are out partying with graduate jobs and I don’t have a life. I haven’t been out for two years and I’ve got this immense financial pressure to deal with.”

“I would tell my past self, that these qualities that you didn’t know you had in you, this is helping you to bring those out. This is going to give you the confidence and the skills for effectively, pushing water uphill.”

“Have a goal and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter. It’s about who have you become, what have you learned, how have you grown, how have you contributed and how have you helped others on your journey.”

What would you say to other women looking to start a career in the IT industry?

“Firstly, I think the world has changed in a beautiful way and hopefully through COVID as well. There’s this dropping of ‘work masks’, and I think this hopefully will be to the benefit of women. Because I think women truly are more open and also typically women have more of the family and kids’ responsibilities.”

“So, to have that as part of your persona and be able to be open about it in a professional environment, I think will open up doors and also open up levels. Because certainly when I was going through the ranks, women could only get to a certain level, frankly, because of kids. Because you had to have maternity leave, and then you were a bit distracted looking after the kids.”

“It wasn’t said explicitly, but there was a ceiling that women would typically stop at. I really believe that has changed now.”

“So, express yourself, be yourself, be all parts of yourself. Express yourself as a mother, as a wife, and as a woman. Women have different attributes, and express them. There’s nothing wrong with it. You don’t have to all be homogenous and the same, we want different thoughts.”

“As a woman, I would say support other women. Be yourself, allow yourself to be feminine. Allow yourself to be different. Bring all of yourself to work.”

“You have to find creative ways to have more impact and that’ll come from being yourself. That will come from your diverse way of thinking and from your woman way of relating with people, having empathy, having compassion, caring, all these things you don’t really hear in a corporate environment, but why not?”

“We’re human, so use your women qualities for good. Use it as your power source. Express it, don’t be ashamed of it, express who you really are. Express all parts of yourself. Help other women, support other women. It doesn’t mean you discriminate against men, that is wrong. We have to put away all of the labels and treat everyone as an individual.”

“Be kind, nice, and supportive to women, but also everyone else. Don’t discriminate. And you will get that help back. Ultimately believe in who you are and believe in your potential.”

“Even if it’s not fully there, really believed deeply that even if you’re very different, you still have some value to give. You really do.”

“We’re all born unique. We will have unique DNA. Tap into what is unique about you.”

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