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As part of Motherboard’s ‘Allyship In Action’ series, they caught up with Tom Ashworth, Chief Technology Officer at natcap. Tom has been in tech for well over ten years and is now focused on leading technology and product teams to bring about large-scale nature and climate-positive change.
The purpose of our ‘MotherBoard’ content series is to highlight incredible working mums within tech & data, as well as individuals and businesses that are supportive and progressive within their approach to creating more inclusive tech & data teams for women.
Tom: I’m the CTO of natcap, a London-based startup providing nature intelligence & reporting capabilities to large companies & financial institutions. We use scientific modelling of natural capital, ecosystems, and large-scale geospatial datasets, including satellite imagery, to provide insight into the environmental impacts & dependencies of organisations, and the resulting risks & opportunities. Our focus areas include biodiversity, water, and soil health. With a 69% average species loss since 1970, as reported by the World Wide Fund for Nature, it’s crucial to address this nature crisis. There’s hope for improvement with policies like the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, which mandates large and listed companies disclose environmental risks and opportunities. natcap is building a key component of this new ecosystem.
I’m a software engineer at heart. I was fortunate to start coding when I was quite young, and through that process was introduced to a world of fascinating ideas that school simply wasn’t giving me.
I’m a software engineer at heart. I was fortunate to start coding when I was quite young, and through that process was introduced to a world of fascinating ideas (evolutionary biology via genetic algorithms, and neuroscience via neural-network-driven robotics) that school simply wasn’t giving me! Before natcap, I worked on drug discovery, renewable energy, and social media. I have been lucky enough to work on everything from products that people use all day, every day in newsrooms across the world, all the way to multi-million requests-per-second distributed systems and infrastructure.
Tom: The tech industry is rightly criticised for our history of poor diversity and inclusion and ongoing systemic bias. While this is changing for the better, there’s a way to go. And while gender is just one axis on which we can improve, by supporting mothers in tech, I’m hoping to both build more balanced and diverse teams in an inclusive workplace that are both high performing and happy.
Many talented women leave the tech industry or have their careers hindered after becoming mothers due to a lack of support or flexible work arrangements. This is such a waste! There’s a wealth of experience, knowledge and wisdom there. Purely selfishly — why wouldn’t we create an environment that enables us to hire these great people? It’s an opportunity that others are passing-by.
Many talented women leave the tech industry or have their careers hindered after becoming mothers due to a lack of support or flexible work arrangements. This is such a waste! There’s a wealth of experience, knowledge and wisdom there. Purely selfishly — why wouldn’t we create an environment that enables us to hire these great people? It’s an opportunity that others are passing by.
Tech’s diversity issues are often framed as a pipeline problem, but it’s pretty clear now that this brain-drain around motherhood is a contributor to a bigger issue: lack of representation at senior levels. This can and should be fixed, and making inclusive work environments for mothers is mandatory for bringing about this change.
Listening to the needs of mums in tech motivates policies that benefit everyone, such as flexible hours, remote work options, and generous parental leave. These have onward societal benefits too. Another no-brainer.
Lastly, and more personally, I was hugely inspired by meeting Dame Steve Shirley, an extraordinary woman who founded a 99% female software company, with flexible working and work-from-home… in 1959! Her autobiography, Let It Go, is a must-read.
Tom: Where do we start? Lack of real support for flexible working; an antiquated “bums on seats” view of productivity; lack of comfortable, private mother-and-baby spaces (not a toilet!) for expressing or breastfeeding…
In terms of what I personally do, and what I’d advocate for other leaders to do: listen, discuss, prioritise, and act. I think within this, explicitly asking the mums around me at work how things could be improved has been a great way to start a conversation.
I’ll leave it to mothers to describe the solutions that would work for them in their context, but I think we in tech are very fortunate that we can work from anywhere, at any time. So much of our work is about knowledge, communication, and good thinking: that doesn’t require a special time, place or equipment.
For those not in a leadership role, and assuming you have a competent manager who listens but perhaps doesn’t have motherhood on the agenda, you should advocate for your ideas to your reporting chain: proactively put this on their agenda. If you can bring a problem, some ideas for a solution and the basics of a plan, even better. In my view, you should also expect your leaders to be able to lay out how change might come about: it shouldn’t be an opaque process.
Tom: Work to hire mums! To help this, at natcap we’ve set up our interview process to make it as flexible as possible, using take-home tests where we can, and not putting strict timelines on completion. We then also try to bring people into our actual work environment — virtually or in person — so the candidate can get a real sense of their potential working life. We want to give them a chance to figure out if what they need is actually on offer. We also take positive action to encourage mums to apply through the way we write job advertisements, or where we place them, and make mothers one focus of our early recruitment efforts for a new role. Sadly, this is still like finding a needle in a haystack and there are many things we can do to improve our office space for mums. Shared or serviced offices, like we have, do make this harder and it’s an area where they can improve.
At natcap we’ve set up our interview process to make it as flexible as possible, using take-home tests where we can, and not putting strict timelines on completion.
In terms of women in senior leadership, this is a huge question and I have even fewer answers. I think that tech has historically rewarded behaviours that women can’t get away with because of bias and cultural expectations. Highly direct communication or self-confidence are perceived as bossiness, and I think that women are expected to excel in communication and interpersonal skills whereas men can get away with being somewhat less personable. There’s also evidence that women are “held to stricter standards for promotion” in senior roles (Lyness, K., & Heilman, M. (2006)).
To change this, one place to start would be to fix our feedback, promotion and reward processes to systematically remove sources of bias. There might be an opportunity for larger organisations to use data to investigate promotion rates and performance review results for women, and work to improve disparities in outcomes. Is there such a thing as corporate anthropology? Google’s re:Work project is interesting from this point-of-view.
One place to start would be to fix our feedback, promotion and reward processes to systematically remove sources of bias. There might be an opportunity for larger organisations to use data to investigate promotion rates and performance review results for women and work to improve disparities in outcomes.
In small organisations, using data is incredibly difficult: n-of-1 cases abound and there are fewer opportunities for senior roles. Additionally, startups sit in a personal and professional risk category that mothers may understandably not wish to take. Instead, we have to establish a culture — exhibiting and reinforcing good behaviours — that removes bias and maximises positive actions to improve representation, diversity and inclusion.
In small organisations, using data is incredibly difficult… Instead, we have to establish a culture — exhibiting and reinforcing good behaviours — that removes bias and maximises positive actions to improve representation, diversity and inclusion.
Lastly, for the really senior positions — what Camille Fournier calls “the big leagues” — I suspect that the real-world social network can be a huge factor, and that in tech, it’s even more of a boys club. That negatively affects representation at this senior level, which echoes down the organisation. Mothers face a particular challenge here as they are potentially excluded from the very social occasions that create these networks by motherhood itself: a boozy evening at a fancy restaurant is tricky with a baby. Do I have data on this? No. Would I like to? Yes!
Tom: All of these above, because we all have different levers of change. Much ink has been spilled on how people in specific roles can act to improve the status quo. Self-education, listening and humble inquiry (great book!) with colleagues, friends, family or spouses, seems to be a good place to start.
Tom: As a leader at a startup, the most direct hurdle is finding mums who want to come work with us. Frankly, I can understand this: purely as businesses, startups are a risk, and this is before the risk of leaving a known environment for a relatively unknown one where, most likely, they don’t have contacts and where the whisper network can’t help. We’re working on improving our office, but have limited control over the shared areas and availability of private space.
Tom: If you’re reading this, you’re probably convinced. But if you are working with people who aren’t convinced, I like the consciousness-raising approach: a concept developed by a group of feminist activists in New York in the 60s.
Invite women and mothers at work or socially to share their own experiences and then, with their permission, share with the unconvinced to build empathy and understanding.
To me what this means is that, being in a position of authority or power, I can proactively invite women and mothers at work or socially to share their own experiences and then, with their permission, share with the unconvinced to build empathy and understanding. Hopefully, we create a safe enough space that mums will share in a group setting, such as a team retrospective because hearing it first-hand will be much more impactful.