Women in Tech: in conversation with Sue-Ellen Wright

| minute read

At Sopra Steria, we have always valued diversity and we’re lucky enough to have a great team of female leaders and mentors, each of whom have their own stories to tell about overcoming challenges and creating opportunities that have shaped their careers, and their lives.   

The first in our series of short interviews is with Sue-Ellen Wright, Managing Director of Sopra Steria’s Aerospace Defence and Security Business who is also on the TechUK Defence Board. Sue-Ellen is one of our most passionate supporters of encouraging women to achieve their potential and in this open and honest discussion, she shares her thoughts on why it’s important for more women to join the tech industry, the biggest challenges she has faced and her vision for the future.  

How has Sopra Steria made the workplace more inclusive and actively encouraged women in technology? 

I think Sopra Steria does well on really ‘walking the talk’ in trying to make its workplace more inclusive. We can still do even better! But I think we’ve got some key things in place that have made a real difference for everyone, not just our women. Flexible working gives people a better work-life balance. We have specialist mentoring  and leadership programmes in place to help give women and other under-represented people the confidence to achieve and progress at work. We work hard on employee wellness and giving our people opportunities to put back into the community through volunteering and Tech for Good. And we support seven different inclusion networks which give our people the confidence to bring their whole selves to work. These networks welcome allies, and we build time into peoples’ schedules to participate so that our whole workforce can be informed and involved on different aspects of diversity. This is important because diversity benefits everyone, especially in such a competitive skills market. I often say that we aren’t looking to replace people, we’re trying to fill those empty seats next to them with diverse talent.   

Critically, all of these things are actively supported by my senior leadership team, as well as by a dedicated Workforce Inclusion Manager. It starts at the top, leadership behaviour is most influential on how our teams prioritise issues such as inclusion and diversity.  And the results show up in our Great Place to Work ™ scores, which show Sopra to be in the top ranks of large employers for women, technology and wellness.   

Encouraging more women into technology is a challenge for everyone in the industry. Women still enter the technical workforce in much lower numbers, and leave it at a higher rate than men, so the percentage of women in technical jobs in the UK still hovers around 26%. We are looking hard at the way we recruit: factors such as the language we put in our job descriptions, the emphasis we place on aptitude and commitment over experience and meeting the exact selection criteria. These can have a big impact on attracting more women to apply for our roles. We are being more demanding of our recruitment managers, asking them to think hard about what “good” looks like for their team. And we’re creating more opportunities for women through internal career coaching and re-skilling initiatives.   

My own division in Sopra, Aerospace & Defence, has a number of great female technical role models, including lead architects, software developers, cyber security consultants and engineers. Women also excel in the equally important roles that surround our technologists: service delivery, strategic consulting and project/programme management. We need to increase their numbers. Role models are important – it’s that “see it/be it” factor that is important for any marginalized group in any sector. This is why my division has set itself a challenge to not just increase the total number of women, but specifically increase it in our technical workforce.   

What initiatives have you been a part of to support the progression of women in the technology industry?  

At the highest level, Sopra Steria is a signatory to the UK Tech Talent Charter. Signatories commit to measuring and improving the diversity of their technical workforce, and share data to help understand the state of D&I in the tech sector.   

Right at the other end, my division, Aerospace & Defence, has supported a number of initiatives that are starting at the bottom of the challenge, in simply trying to encourage more girls and young women to pick technology careers. We support the National Cyber Security Centre’s Cyber First initiative which works to get young people, especially girls, into tech through cyber security, supporting events for school kids in the Gloucestershire region. We will also be back at the Cheltenham Science Festival this year with a big interactive coding challenge for young people. Through our Social Value programme, we’ve also supported Speakers for Schools, which assists young people, including girls, to build communications skills and confidence as well as get the careers advice that they need.   

To support women in the workplace, this year Sopra Steria is partnering with WiTCH (Women in Tech & Cyber Hub) for an event, Celebrating Women in Gloucestershire, where a day of talks and networking will take place on International Women’s Day (8 March). Many of our staff participate in the Mission Gender Equity mentoring programme, which matches up women and ethnic minority mentees with mentors across UK industry. Internally, in addition to supporting our UK-wide Women’s Inclusive Network, which provides events and support, Aerospace Division is adding Coaching Cafes for women to its social value plan, to provide women with a safe discussion space to focus on career progression. And we’re trying to carve out new job opportunities in the low-code/no-code realm, where you don’t have to have “proper techie” skills to design technology-base solutions for our clients. It’s a great way for people from any background, including women, without formal technical training but great skills and aptitude, to move into different roles that will give them better career progression.  

Why do you think it is important for more women to join the tech industry? 

First, I think it’s a no-brainer that the tech industry needs to look more like the society it serves. Diversity has actually always been important in technology. Unfortunately we can see this most clearly through negative stories, such as the built-in bias of certain AI technologies, and the design of ‘safety’ equipment that is actually more dangerous to women because it has been designed for the male form. If we’re designing solutions that are going to be really widespread in society, then we simply have to consider all our end users. And if the best, the most successful solutions will work for a diverse group of end users, we need diverse teams to design them. This is only going to become more important as technology permeates every aspect of our lives, from learning and shopping, to identity management.   

Second, there is no longer a huge separation between what technology does and what the purpose of a business is. Teams delivering technical solutions are closer than ever before to their end users, and so we need a bigger range of skills to deliver these solutions. Yes, we still need our super-techies who get right under the hood of the technology, but we also need technically minded consultants to ensure that the solution meets the requirement, and that it is flexible enough to take different requirements into account. We need people who can really explain the business benefits of a solution – and persuade our users that they can, and should, adopt new behaviours and different ways of working to get the most out of them.    

Finally, we are simply missing a trick if we don’t engage properly with half the available talent in our society! I’ve read a few articles that suggest that we don’t have a talent shortage in the UK, so much as a broken recruitment culture. I expect my senior leadership and team leads to work hard on this – to really look at how they define “skills” or “team fit”, and to be prepared to invest in their team. To set a much higher bar for “essential” qualifications and experience in the roles they create. To look at skill and aptitude and imagine the benefits that somebody who doesn’t look, or sound, or think exactly like them, will bring to the team. We are teaching our people how to “recruit for potential” and by the end of this year, the majority of new people we bring into Aerospace & Defence will have been hired by managers with this training.   

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career? 

I’ve been lucky in my career to have great mentors and sponsors who encouraged me and recommended me for leadership roles. Having said this, women typically suffer more than men from imposter syndrome and I’ve been no different. Words like “confident” and “professional” put me off. “Professional” for me was an image of some smart young man in a suit. Yet these are really common words to find in job descriptions at my level, probably more so than “authentic” or “resilient”. I want people to feel they can succeed however they define themselves. You can be authentic and resilient and be a great strategic thinker and leader. And if you’re able to share those experiences and help other women move slightly out of their comfort zone, you’re passing along some of the support and encouragement that has been given to you. I want my leadership team to keep asking open questions of the women around them. What do you want to do? What do you need to get there?   

To conclude, what is your vision for the for the future and how you would like to shape the experience for women in tech? 

My vision for Sopra Steria, and especially Aerospace, is a faster path to where we’re currently heading – building on the work we’ve already done to make this a great place to work and developing (and retaining!) the sort of diverse workforce that will make us more successful, and more resilient to future change. Specifically on gender balance, I’d like to see a significant shift in our numbers of women overall, as well as the number of women in senior roles. We will achieve this with the engagement and participation of all our workforce – men and women. It will benefit our business and it will contribute to our sense of purpose as an organization. As we continue to attract and promote more diverse talent, we become advocates of the Sopra Steria story and strengthen our commitment to making a positive impact on society.  

About Sue-Ellen 

I began my career in 1990 after graduating from the Australian Defence Force Academy. In a career spanning more than 30 years, I have worked with clients internationally to deliver IT & BPO services and transformation across a number of sectors, ranging from defence and public services, transport and retail, to consumer-related businesses and healthcare.   

Today I am Managing Director of Sopra Steria’s Aerospace Defence and Security Business where we are helping to transform some of the UK’s most complex systems and processes in secure environments. As a business we are pushing the boundaries to deliver more agile and flexible solutions that help people on the ground do their job more effectively, by identifying and developing the right tools be it AI, analytics, robotics or cloud.   

I am proud to sit on the Sopra Steria UK Board and play a number of additional key roles across the organisation, including being an executive sponsor for Wellbeing and for our Women’s Inclusive Network.   

Before moving into my current role I was in SSCL (Shared Services Connected Ltd), which is the Joint Venture between Sopra Steria and the Cabinet Office, as Managing Director of our Police business delivering back office business processing and recruitment services to the Metropolitan Police.   

Outside of work, I am married to James and love spending time with my daughters, and playing netball. I love holidays with a passion, especially in Australia and enjoy experimenting on my friends with new dishes at dinner parties. My favourite time of the day is arriving home to be greeted by my excitable black Labrador pup.  

Listen to the UNLEASH podcast with Sue-Ellen Wright as she discusses how we can get more women into the tech industry with editor Jon Kennard.



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