Tech Mums Advocate – feat. Paul McKenna

MotherBoard had a great chat with Paul McKenna, who recently joined Olio to manage their Community Experience engineering team. Paul has managed and coached engineering teams at companies large and small, in the UK and Sweden, always with a focus on developing  people and growing exceptional teams.

The purpose of this series is to highlight advocates for the incredible working mums within tech & data, as well as businesses that are supportive and progressive within their approach to creating more inclusive tech & data teams for women.

Amber @ MotherBoard: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your current role?

Paul: Hello. I’m Paul, and I am an Engineering Manager at Olio. I’ve been working in Engineering Leadership positions over the last 25 years, with a trend of working for smaller, more purposeful organisations. At Olio our purpose is huge. We are here to tackle the big problems facing the world – food waste, climate change, and the cost-of-living crisis to name but a few. Our app connects local communities, making it easy to pass on things you no longer need to people who live nearby. It’s wonderful to work at such a strong company driving such a huge impact with such passionate and positive people.

Amber @ MotherBoard: When did you realise that the tech industry is not currently set up to support working mums?

Paul: I’ve seen this across all my years managing teams, initially with problems of having such low numbers of women in tech full stop. Now that gender balance is generally much improved, I can still recognise that we see so many more fathers in tech teams than mothers. I am so glad that we have woken up to much of the bias and unfairness of the past, but we have a long way to go.

Amber @ MotherBoard: Why is being an advocate for mums in tech so important to you?

Paul: Some of my smartest, most capable colleagues have been working mums who have sacrificed so much of themselves to maintain a career whilst starting their own family. These friends have shown and taught me how tough it can be for them, and it absolutely makes no sense for us to perpetuate this uneven playing field.

I want to hire more women, to build strong and diverse teams. I want to support women in my teams through every part of their motherhood journey. I want to give flexibility in working conditions, create empathy and understanding within teams and ensure great personal development for their careers ahead.

Amber @ MotherBoard: What do you think are the core benefits of having more mothers in tech & data teams?

Paul: Building diverse teams is a great way to represent our users. Mums are a huge part of the Olio community and it makes sense for mums to also build the product. Aside from user representation, it has been proven that diverse teams, especially gender-diverse teams, will perform better and make much stronger decisions together.

Amber @ MotherBoard: What challenges do you see mums facing day to day in the workplace, and what can be done to support them better?

Paul: Until parental leave policies are improved, working mums are paying a bigger penalty in their career advancement. Managers should understand the challenges mums are currently facing in their teams, and actively work to recognise, support and encourage their development.

Day to day, I see a problem of flexibility in working hours and conditions. I am so grateful that the pandemic has brought remote working to the mainstream. At Olio we have no office, and we value the flexibility that working remotely can bring. Everyone can work to their own schedule and use great tools to collaborate asynchronously.

Amber @ MotherBoard: What do you think needs to be done by companies to improve the number of mums working into tech teams? And how can we get more women into senior leadership roles?

Paul: Improve policies and communicate them throughout your hiring processes. Create a supportive workplace culture that promotes work-life balance, values diversity and inclusion, and provides opportunities for professional development. Regularly review compensation across your organisation through different lenses such as gender to identify and resolve inequities. Hiring and promoting more women into leadership positions will certainly help to sponsor much-needed change. Olio’s founders, Tessa and Saasha, are both incredibly strong women and mums. This has a profound effect on our culture, with inclusion as our number one company value. Take a look at your own company’s leadership team, and see who is representing you.

Amber @ MotherBoard: Where does the onus lie to creating tangible change? Eg. Government/ individuals/ hiring managers/ HR

Paul: Definitely managers can do more to create a better environment for working mums – listening, supporting and championing them through their career. As for governments,  I was fortunate to see a much fairer parental leave system whilst living in Sweden and, as a side-effect, a much better attitude from working fathers who took a larger role in bringing up their families than here in the UK. While I was working for Spotify, leadership and HR drove a policy to bring Swedish-inspired parental-leave benefits to all employees in all countries. Overall I’d love to see these problems tackled from all sides and not left to any single group to solve.

Amber @ MotherBoard: What are the biggest hurdles leaders in the industry are facing when hiring more mums?

Paul: Since it is already hard to attract women into tech, you need to work even harder to attract mums. Do not ignore the problem: Be upfront with your policies and create an inclusive and welcoming environment designed for fairness and equity. I would also be careful about the current trend to persuade people to return physically to an office location for a minimum number of days per week. You could be robbing mums of the flexible working they need. Or perhaps you are creating conditions where office-based employees (who can be physically present and more noticeable to the office-based leadership) will be more readily selected for promotions over those who would opt to stay remote and take advantage of the flexible conditions.

Amber @ MotherBoard: Do you have any final thoughts or words of wisdom to anyone who doesn’t think the inclusion of mums is important to diversify teams?

Paul: I would especially like to reach those who may not usually read this. Those who would normally leave the burden of DEI work to those most affected. Hopefully they realise some of their own privilege by now, and they know how comparatively easy they themselves have it. Now it is time to share your advantage and create fair and equitable conditions for your present and future teams. Do it because teams are made stronger by including mums – but mainly do it because it is absolutely the right thing to do. I say this not to admonish or berate, but to awaken and engage. I can remember back to a much younger version of myself who stood shamefully in passive support rather than positively acting. I hope I can encourage someone else to act sooner and with more positive impact.

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Amber Rowbottom