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ANNA’S DIVERSITY IN AI SERIES: CATHERINE OXLEY, ON THE NEED FOR MORE WOMEN IN AI

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by Anna Heneghan
Machine Learning , Candidate , Candidates , Clients , AI , Artificial Intelligence , Diversity , Equality
software engineer catherine oxley headshot

Did you know, when our Head of Machine Learning & AI recruitment, Anna Heneghan, is not filling some of the most exciting, new AI jobs, she’s hosting her very own ‘Diversity in AI’ interview series? In case you missed out, we’ve recapped what we learned from episode one, featuring software engineer Catherine Oxley.

Diversity in AI is something I’m truly passionate about. I may not work directly in tech, but every day I am talking to hiring managers and candidates, and whilst there have been positive changes since I joined Understanding Recruitment in 2017, I’m still struck by the lack of women in AI.

How do we attract more female-identifying people to jobs in AI, best support them in their career, and keep them in the industry? What needs to change within our education system, hiring processes, and company culture? These are all important questions I want to have an open conversation about, and more, in my new ‘Diversity in AI’ interview series, which you can catch on the UR YouTube channel and recaps on the UR blog if you’re short on time.

For my first Diversity in AI interview, I sat down (virtually), with Catherine Oxley, who has made a name for herself working as a software engineer in e-commerce and other sectors, and is currently finishing her Master’s in Computer Science. I am delighted to have placed her in her newest role in the exciting world of AI-driven software technology and was keen to discuss diversity in technology with her – why it is lacking, what impact this could have on the industry, and how we work towards a solution and change things for the better.

Why aren’t there many women in AI?

The stats speak volumes – according to Diversity in Tech, a recent study showed that two of the biggest barriers for women in tech are lack of mentors (48%) and lack of female role models (42%), and having little support can of course impact gender diversity, as it can cause uncertainty for those who are interested in entering the industry. This feels problematic when you consider that the tech sector is expanding three times faster than the rest of the UK economy, is worth around £184 bn, yet diversity is one of the biggest challenges for the industry.

women working together at a computer with text representing statistics about diversity in tech

Only 15% of the tech workforce are BAME and gender diversity sits at if you can believe it, 30% less than all other jobs (49% vs 19%). I think these statistics are quite shocking, and that’s why I wanted to talk to Catherine, as someone who has worked so hard to have her place as a woman in AI.

Meet Catherine Oxley

catherine oxley headshot"I’m a software engineer and I’ve mostly been working in full stack development and front end for the past four years or so and am doing my Master’s degree,” explains Catherine. “I’ve had a strange introduction into software engineering as I’ve done things backwards, but I do think a lot of women are coming into the field later in life. I can’t wait to branch out into a new domain and thanks for helping me find my new role!” she adds.

Does education hold women back from careers in tech?

We all probably remember the stage in our teenage years when we had to start thinking about what we may want to do as a job. I think a lot of women will resonate with the feeling of subconsciously being pushed towards the arts. I  certainly showed skill in ICT but studying felt it was never going to be a conversation. There’s perhaps a damaging presumption that men like maths and sciences and women like the arts holding women back from pursuing studies that will lead them toward a career in tech.

“I absolutely think there is, and I think it’s a cultural thing leading to men being more interested in and going onto study those subjects more than women from an early age,” says Catherine. “I didn’t love maths at school, but maths using coding is a lot more interesting and creative than you actually would think at school age!”

Catherine took another path initially, completing a French degree and coming back to academia to do her Masters course, where there were around seven women out of a hundred students. “Then you go into the workplace it’s unusual to see many other female developers too.”

Can you come to a career in tech later in life?

Every day I meet people who show me sometimes all you need is a spark – an interest in tech, and a handful of determination, that can lead to a great career in tech. “Growing up I really enjoyed gaming and I thought I’d love to build the games I’ve been playing. There turned out to be too much of a block degree-wise, but when I started looking at other options and web development stood out as something I also enjoyed that I could get started with quicker.”

Catherine is a shining example of how you don’t have to come from the most conventional background. Working in the field as a recruiter, I sometimes see people holding themselves back because I think they think as they’ve not done a certain degree so they can’t go into a specific career.

“I realised later in life I was interested in tech in a way that was different from my friends. Even though I’d grown up around computers, it never actually occurred to me it might be something I do in my career,” explains Catherine.

A year abroad teaching English lessons about technology and she came to realise it’s what she wanted to do in life. It was not without its struggles however when it comes to academia; “I thought working with coding and mathematical concepts for four years would be enough to get onto a Masters, but it was a big struggle to get universities to believe I could do it. I had to fight hard to get a place.”

There are so many blockers in the way for women in tech, being open to individuals who have industry experience, but maybe don’t have the STEM degree, seems like it would be a huge positive for creating a more diverse tech industry. Catherine’s persistency paid off, but it does take that resilience and sometimes the confidence to change paths. “Women do tend to come to it later and it is a hindrance and they can remain junior for longer because they come into it later or are from a different background.”

How can we keep women in tech?

Individuals like Catherine show what is possible as a woman in tech, but the challenges highlighted by Diversity in Tech can be detrimental. “Women do tend to drop out of tech more than men because there are a lot of barriers especially if you haven’t got that academic environment and have come to it later,” states Catherine.

Of course, this is not part of an agenda against anyone who has different pronouns to she/her working in tech. My concern is one identity dominating an industry can prevent others from joining and companies benefitting from other methods or solutions that you could come to, and there being a kind of a bubble that doesn't get broken for a long time.

How does Catherine feel things can get better in the long term in the tech industry? “I think targeting girls at younger ages would be beneficial and making conversations around things like maternity leave easy to have.”

close up of bottom half of body and hands working at laptops in an office

Catherine also highlights the importance of female peers; “Even though there are not many women developers, I’m really lucky that I’ve worked with quite a few and my last two managers who were at a very senior level were female (which is unusual). It’s been amazing for me to have those role models, but I know a lot of female developers don’t have the same benefit,’ explains Catherine.

“I wouldn’t want to put any woman off joining the industry because I think it’s opening up a lot but it [lack of other women] does impact your work and can affect how you feel on a day-to-day basis, especially if you're the only woman on projects or in a job.” She says having female managers had a significant impact on her career; “They understand what you experience and can give you specific advice about how to deal with certain situations.”

Catherine pinpoints job adverts as another aspect of the industry potentially holding women in tech back from future career development. “I think job adverts especially for tech can be very intimidating,” she affirms. “There’ll be pages and pages of long requirements and you may not know half of them, but you realise it’s quite normal in this industry and you’re only really expected to tick half and learn the rest.”

There’s a stat I read stating that women will make sure they pass every single job requirement before they even apply for a job, whereas men don’t. Catherine’s advice? “If you see a job that you’re missing a few qualifications for, go for it anyway!”

What does Catherine value in a tech job?

“Personally, what’s most important is the culture and the tech stack,” states Catherine, on what is appealing in a potential employer.

“To be always learning is a priority for me. I think it’s quite a common concern in tech that you go stale because technology moving so fast, so I always want to be learning – whether that be a new language, technology, leadership skills, or letting you go do hackathon!”

Catherine also stresses the importance of culture too and feeling comfortable in a team due to the atmosphere. “I think there's just as time goes on companies are realising it's not that easy to attract talent and there's so much competition for it,” she says. “Sometimes when you're in a startup or even at a big company you can forget candidates have a lot of options for how they move forward in their career, so it’s essential to be an attractive employer but also promote the right attitude [to inequality].”

In terms of future advice for any young people considering a career in tech, Catherine stresses getting involved as early as possible; “Think about what you may need to do as soon as you can. There are so many free resources out there now (like Harvard’s CS50 course) that are so useful for getting started – give it go and I’m sure you’ll find it a lot more fun than you think!”


A big thank you to Catherine for being the first to take part in my Diversity in AI series and share her path to working in tech, and I’m very excited to see all she achieves in her new role! Hiring in AI and machine learning? Feel free to get in touch to have a chat about how I can help you expand your team to reach your business goals, or if you have any feedback about the series.

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