Career and family: the balancing act for women continues and despite significant strides towards gender equality in recent years, women still encounter barriers on their journey to achieving both career excellence and fulfilling family lives.
However, there is hope, and that hope comes from stories like this one: Dr Shirley Cavin has just been announced as the winner of the Women in Tech Employer Awards 2023 as an Outstanding Woman in Tech. Dr Cavin is Head of Data and AI Accelerator for Leidos UK and Europe, she is a mentor and a mum. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Computer Sciences & Engineering, an MSc and PhD in Advanced Manufacturing and Operations Management from The University of Nottingham. She has a Harvard Leadership Business Certification and other technical and business qualifications, and as a STEM ambassador participates and collaborates in various community activities encouraging young people into the disciplines of data, sciences and engineering. As a strong advocate for self-growth and education she still regularly speaks with her own mentor about areas she is interested in exploring further.
BUT HOW? We hear you cry??! Read on to find out more...
HI SHIRLEY, THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO SPEAK TO US. FIRSTLY, CONGRATULATIONS ON BEING ANNOUNCED WINNER OF THE WOMEN IN TECH EMPLOYER AWARDS 2023 AS AN OUTSTANDING WOMAN IN TECH. PLEASE CAN YOU START BY EXPLAINING WHY YOU WANTED TO GET INTO THE WORLD OF TECH AND HOW YOUR JOURNEY BEGAN?
Hi Bella, thanks for this opportunity. Winning the Women in Tech Employer Awards 2023 as Outstanding Woman in Tech is a wonderful feeling. All the finalists are remarkable females in the tech world, with great achievements on their own, hence I feel very moved that I was selected for this award, still processing professionally and personally the impact of it, but overall, very grateful and honoured for this recognition.
How did I start my journey? I will say at a very young age. I was always very inquisitive, and curious about my surroundings, especially on the ability of humans to use our intelligence, skills and ingenuity to overcome challenges for the greater good, with the use of engineering, sciences and technology. Hence, my interest in understanding, and directing my efforts in making things better for us. I believe this was reflected also in my academic performance, taking subjects in sciences and engineering was the natural flow at school, followed by a first university degree in Computer Science and Engineering, which I truly enjoyed. It was wonderful to see how theory and experimentation can be joined together to bring innovation and resolve critical challenges. This led me to build a professional career in those areas, and to continue my academic path, into a deeper understanding, hence continuing academically with an MSc and a PhD in advanced manufacturing and researching in industrial automation (robotics), and work-related opportunities in high-tech organisations.
WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT POSITION AT LEIDOS AND THE EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES YOU ARE WORKING WITH?
My current position at Leidos is as Head of Data and AI Accelerator for Leidos UK and Europe. I am responsible in supporting customers, programmes and divisions in their adequate adoption of emerging capabilities and technologies in the areas of Data and AI. This includes the recent advances in AI/ML such as GenAI, LLMs and the application of these technologies for our business and deliverables. Also, the promotion and education of staff in these capabilities, and most importantly in supporting our customers in the opportunities that arise due to their adoption of these technologies. It is an exciting area to work on, which I am very pleased to lead, as technology, innovation and the applications of the most advanced technologies for various challenging problems and processes is where I believe my team and I can provide the most advantage and support with the knowledge, skills and experience we have acquired throughout time.
AS AN ACADEMIC YOURSELF, HOW HAS EDUCATION IMPACTED YOUR CAREER IN TECH AND WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A WOMAN IN YOUR CHOSEN FIELD OF STUDY?
Education has a great impact on my career and professional development. Since childhood, I understood the value of it. Firstly, by enabling me to understand various aspects of our daily lives, and to foresee opportunities from applied learning. I value education quite greatly, as it has been a key driving force that allowed me to get into exciting areas in science, engineering and technology. I was able to progress in my career through education and provided me with new opportunities. I continue educating myself in various areas, as it is more than an activity, it is a practice and a way of life. I found that great education not only depends on formal learning but also by applying this learning, transferring and sharing it with others, getting feedback and increasing awareness, in diverse and multidisciplinary teams and bringing minds and ideas together for the greater good. Hence, widening access to education for everyone is the pathway to great opportunities to improve our communities and make a real and positive impact on people’s lives.
DO YOU FEEL THAT EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT IN CHANGING THE GENDER GAP IN TECH OR ARE THERE OTHER WAYS FOR WOMEN TO START THEIR CAREER?
I think education is important in solving some of the most difficult gender gap challenges. It should be accessible to everyone regardless of their background, gender, or status. Education should be seen as a means to accelerate the intake of a more diverse and inclusive population in tech areas, and within that, a means for women to succeed in their careers, and improve themselves and those around them. Education should be complemented by other important avenues such as apprenticeships, mentorships, work experiences supported by experts, community and group initiatives. Also, pairing and shadowing, learning by experimenting, and seeing other people on the job, is a good way forward to start a career in tech. I have seen organisations increasing resources and initiatives to incentivise women to take a role in science, technology and engineering areas, as there is a growing understanding that a larger female presence in the tech sector will bring great benefit and value to their organisations, so I believe we are moving in the right direction, and I am hopeful for the future.
I AM AWARE THAT HAVING A WORK-LIFE BALANCE WHERE YOU CAN HAVE BOTH AN INCREDIBLE CAREER AND A FAMILY AT HOME IS IMPORTANT TO YOU. HOW CAN COMPANIES SUPPORT WOMEN TO ENABLE THIS AND AS A RESULT HELP CHANGE THE STATISTICS OF THE GENDER GAP IN TECH?
I think it is important for companies to realise that in order to close the gender gap in tech industries, it is critical to support women in their multiple roles – e.g., professional, social, and family-related ones. For me, my family is very important to my career and professional development, therefore, having the opportunity to fulfil both makes me a better and a whole person, who will enjoy the challenges and joys of a good work and life balance. I have two daughters one at school age and another at pre-school age, so working in a company that is flexible, supportive and that enables me to achieve my professional goals with a healthy family life, is a key requirement I have, when choosing where I can or cannot work. I am fortunate that the company I work has put in place processes and policies in those areas, such as flexible working, maternal care, parental leave, and others. Companies need to realise that there is a great opportunity and an important workforce in women, hence, changing and expanding their working and business practices alongside an inclusive culture, is critical for women when choosing an organisation to work for, and for organisations to reap the benefits that could bring from a diverse and inclusive work environment. Also, women need to feel that their voice is listened to and respected and that companies care about our professional aspirations, by providing career opportunities, access to promotion routes and higher levels roles, upskilling, training, spaces and groups for women to put forward their views and ideas.
YOU MENTIONED THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORS AS A STEM AMBASSADOR YOURSELF TRYING TO CLOSE THE GENDER GAP. DID YOU HAVE GOOD MENTORS THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER AND HOW HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE INFLUENCED HOW YOU MENTOR INDIVIDUALS NOW AND LEAD YOUR TEAM AT LEIDOS?
Yes, I think mentorship provides a very good structure for learning, guidance and professional growth. Throughout my academic and professional life, I have been fortunate to have great mentors and very experienced and knowledgeable people who provided me with the guidance and support I required. Sometimes you only know and appreciate what you know in your level or area, and what others are willing to share, so having a mentor that provides you that further insight and awareness, enables you to open to new ideas and opportunities. Also, having access to their experience and connections, it is a great way to upskill and network. For a successful mentorship experience, you need to have the confidence and trust that your mentor will support you in your career development with honest feedback and counsel. At all levels of your career path, mentoring is a great way to grow professionally and personally. At the moment, I have a great mentor, someone who is very experienced and knowledgeable in the areas I am interested in exploring further. We have very insightful and great conversations. It is important that you feel comfortable with your mentor, and that you appreciate the value of sharing. Having mentors and appreciating their style has helped me to understand the best style attuned to me, when receiving and delivering mentorship to others and when working with teams. Within my teams, I encourage good dialogue, openness (candour), and other positive attitudes, such as sharing, trust, communication, respect, transparency and inclusivity. I take great responsibility when leading teams, and make sure that every team member feels included, listened and aware that their contributions are critical to the success of any outcomes. One of my passions is to share the knowledge and experience I have acquired throughout the years with others who are receptive to receiving it, and more importantly to see the positive impact of it, hence I see myself returning to academia at some point. I love talking to people that are interested in similar areas, and are willing to grow their understanding, and for my side to learn from others too. This is how I see the way to grow awareness and new skills - by sharing and providing environments that give opportunities to others -and how innovation and technology could grow and evolve.
FINAL QUESTION! DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE QUOTE THAT RESONATES WITH YOU?
Sure, I have various quotes that resonate with me depending on the moment I am in, so I might share more than one if it is ok.
“Embrace the power of diversity and inclusion, you will be amazed at the benefits they will bring to our communities and workplaces.”
“It is important to look at the end goals, but the journey is what enables us to learn and to grow”.
“Technology is a means to make our lives better and to solve our pressing challenges, never forget its end goal”.
Thanks, Dr Cavin, you rock 🤘
Interview by Bella Snell