Gill Cooke, Head of Delivery and Planning at Three

In our most recent #WomenInTechQA, we sat down with Gill Cooke, Head of Delivery and Planning at Three. Gill talks about how she broke into the tech industry, made it her mission to help improve diversity in tech, and offers advice to anyone who is looking to start their own diversity and inclusion initiative.

Gill also mentions setting up her own company, STEMConnext, where she mentors other people to help with their career, confidence and advice on getting started in the tech space.

For the full interview, watch the video below!

Third Republic (TR): How did you get to where you are today in your career? How did it all start and how did you get involved in diversity and inclusion?

Gill Cooke (GC): I applied for a project manager role at a local company; Three. I had absolutely no telecoms experience, I’d never worked in a corporate. I think it’s always worth thinking that someone’s going to take a punt on you, and that is really important in anyone’s career; just someone seeing something in you, that potential or that capability, and I think that’s what they saw in me. I went to work as a project manager and for eight of those years, I was part time and I’ve been promoted four times across the board, from Project Manager, Lead Project Manager, Programme Manager and now Head of Planning and Delivery for the Digital Development team. The sort of banner that I use quite a lot is, people don’t always think that if you’re not techie, are you a woman in tech? and I honestly believe that anyone who works for a tech company, can be a woman in tech.

You mentioned diversity and inclusion; I suppose my journey in that area is that obviously I came to telecoms and compared to when I worked in TV, I would say it was a lot more diverse. There were a lot more women, a lot more people, a lot of people from the LGBTQ community. I’ve always worked in a great open and diverse culture. Coming into telecoms and IT, I definitely noticed the lack of women but also, perhaps, lack of real open culture and belonging that you can just be who you are. I wanted to do something about that; it’s what I do if I see a gap, I jump into it and say ‘what can I do’. So I joined the women in tech group and took over from my colleague as the leader, at the same time I formed my own company, STEMConnext. That’s when it really became my mission to drive change.

TR: You are part of the diversity committee within Three., could you tell us more about your involvement with this and what you think businesses can do to improve diversity within the industry?

GC: When I first started getting involved and made the decision to take on the women in tech group, I thought; ‘there are certain things that I want to try and achieve’.

First of all, I went straight to our CIO, and I asked him to be the sponsor for the women in tech group. Politically, I thought that an exec sponsor was an important thing to have. I also set up a committee, within the women in tech groups. I had seven other women join me so that it wasn’t all about me. The third thing we did was write a vision document, and we put some data behind it. This is data from within Three that I don’t think has changed a huge amount; how many actual women are in the different departments, and figures showed around 17% of women in tech. We put that in and then said, then this is what we want to achieve. So with anything that you want to achieve, you want to put a little bit of a business case behind it, and data is the way of doing that.

The really important piece of advice I would give to anyone creating or forming any sort of employee network, as well as the exec sponsor and a committee, is really make sure that your agenda is aligned with the business or the company. That’s really important, because you don’t want to be working at loggerheads with them. You want to be working and demonstrating to the company that everything you’re doing is a benefit. Its good for your brand, for future customers, and it’s just really good for the internal employee network as well. We demonstrate diversity and you support the people who are trying to drive change. Then it’s a really easy win for the company; support the people who are trying to do it and get behind them. Put some budget behind them as well because then you can build momentum for them.

We do lunch and learns, where we ask different women across the business to participate. They role model and share their career story, like I’m doing now. So hopefully, for someone, it will resonate, they might give some great tips, whether that be mentorship or sponsorship, or networking, and we have these monthly.

We’ve also created a business volunteer programme; this is a woman in tech group. We, aligned with companies and with schools and learning programmes and anything around corporate social responsibility, go into schools and career fairs. We go into those schools virtually now, and either pretend to do an interview with people so that students get an understanding of what it is to have interviews, give them some insight into different roles. I’ve been doing that for about two years now and that was very much the programme that I was fundamental in setting up.

TR: In your experience, are there any challenges that you have faced in this highly male dominated industry?

GC: Some of the challenges are very, very similar. The more I hear about challenges, I think, whatever minority you’re in, whether that’s gender, or your ethnicity, disability, sexual preference, the barriers seem to be the same.

A lot of data has demonstrated that diverse workforces definitely outperform less diverse workforces, I think there’s even something that says, if you have one woman on your board, your EBIT increases by a certain amount, if you have two, then it’s even more, same with any level of diversity.

The point being is that nowadays, any company that isn’t looking at diversity is not representing their customers. They’re not showing and not representing what they’re selling. Therefore, every diversity and inclusion in this initiative is only going to be of benefit, and it’s going to be a benefit for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s all very well bringing in people into your company but if you don’t have the culture that will retain them, then you’re going to lose them again, very quickly. So really, it’s in every company’s interest to get fantastic talent and to keep them. You only get fantastic talent if you’ve got a really good culture. Inclusive management, great recruitment, but also flexible working, trust, being empowered, those things just bring out the best of people. So ensuring that the culture allows people to be themselves.

TR: Are there any barriers that businesses might face when it comes to implementing a diversity initiative?

GC: There are definitely challenges, mindset is a big one and behaviours.

There are a lot of people who genuinely don’t think that there’s a problem. Just be open to things, try to have your eyes open and be willing to listen, willing to try and understand things that maybe you haven’t needed to before, especially for those of us who are white, and who have privilege and are able bodied.

It is our job, not other people’s jobs, it’s our job to educate ourselves. It’s about educating yourself and being inquisitive, being curious. That’s what it’s all about, being in tech is being inquisitive, research, understand and learn from it.

If you would like to take part in our next Q&A, please get in touch!