Empower to include

Sally-Ann Williams is the CEO of Cicada Innovations, Australia’s home of Deep Tech.

What is your story and what made you choose to work in the tech sector?

I fell in love with technology because I recognized its potential and saw the good it can do for people. My path is a bit unusual, in that I got into the tech sector by accident and not by design. This is why I am passionate about changing the opportunities for women and other underrepresented people in tech.

I am the youngest of three by a really long margin. My parents owned a fruit and vegetable shop and no one in my family had finished high school. I was the first in my family to do so. When I was thinking about what I would do after high school, I was basically told: “Well, you’re smart. You should go to university because you’ll get a job.” A career advisor suggested that I study Japanese because that was my second language, so that’s what I did at university. At the time I did not know what an engineer was, and I did not use computers at all. It was only when I was doing my master’s degree that I needed to buy a computer to write my thesis. I asked a friend who was studying computer science to take me shopping for a computer; we went to a component store and I built my first computer. That experience changed everything. So I got into tech by accident. Yes, I worked hard, but I got really lucky because I am not a software engineer by training and I did not study computer science. I picked up enough technical skills on my own and was eventually hired by Google as a program manager on the engineering team. That is what allowed my career to flourish, but if it wasn’t for a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, that door would never have been opened to me.

What challenges have you encountered as a woman in tech?

I think that when you are a minority in a large group, any unconscious bias the group has about you will come to the surface. For a large part of my career, I have been the only woman in the room or at the table. More than once I’ve walked into a room at an external company where I was a new advisory board member and been asked by someone who did not know me to get them coffee. They assumed I was a secretary, and when I explained I was a board member, they did not know how to react. I’ve had people assume that I’m from HR, marketing or sales because “that’s what women in tech do.” All of those roles and departments are essential, but that’s not by background.

How have you overcome these challenges?

I got a really great piece of advice one day after being invited to give a presentation somewhere. I wondered why I had been chosen and if I was good enough. My friend told me, “All you need to do is say ‘yes’ and do your absolute best. It’s not up to you to judge whether you are worthy or not.” Impostor syndrome is real, and it’s important to find people who validate you, who champion you. I didn’t think I was ready to be a CEO, but here I am, the CEO of a company.

Do you think that having more female role models in tech would have given you more confidence?

I think I would have identified at an earlier age that tech was something I could pursue had I had more female role models. It would have allowed me to see that I could have a job like theirs, and shown me a path I could follow.

I believe role models should be vulnerable and authentic, and not afraid to show their fears and fragilities, because the way we see ourselves and the way others see us is very different. There are quite a few brilliant young women on my team who sometimes come out of a meeting saying, “I’m so sorry. I did horribly.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “Were we in the same meeting? Because you were brilliant.” There’s a huge difference between our internal narratives and reality, which is why it’s so important to have leaders who tell you the truth about who you are and what you’re capable of.

In your opinion, why is diversity important for a company?

Super simple: the world is a diverse place and if you want to build the best products and the best solutions to help the most amount of people, you need to have a representative workforce, one that includes different genders, ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, physical abilities, and skill sets.

How can employers empower all employees and let ideas flow?

Many traditional companies are very hierarchical; everything comes from the top down in terms of the strategic direction and ideas. If you want to empower employees, not just in diversity initiatives but in the strategic direction of the company, I think there is one thing you really need to foster: psychological safety. It’s critical that employees feel safe and comfortable to speak up and share their ideas. You have to organize a process to allow those ideas to emerge and be heard. Fundamentally, I believe that good ideas can come from anywhere. They are not just had exclusively by people who attended elite universities or are in the senior levels of an organization.

In order to achieve a flow of ideas it is essential to invest in leaders and managers and make sure that they lead by example, that they lead inclusively, from the top down and the bottom up. They need to give the opportunity for people to have a voice, to create a respectful dialogue and healthy debates. When an idea emerges, a team should debate it and identify its strengths and weaknesses. Commit to dealing with problems quickly and accurately, and don’t penalize whistleblowers and people who bring things forward.

cicada logo

Did you take part in mentoring programs? What do you think are the benefits of mentoring?

I’ve seen all sorts of mentoring programs, formal and informal. At the moment, I’m a mentor for a program called Superstars of STEM in Australia that’s run by the Science and Technology Association. The goal is to help women in STEM become brilliant public speakers, to teach them how to communicate their science and to raise their profile.

The mentees in this program are trained through various training sessions, and then they’re given an industry mentor to help guide them over an 18-month journey. It is a really phenomenal program. We have seen women come through the program that have leapfrogged years ahead in their career because they’ve had coaching and support, and have developed the confidence to take risks they normally wouldn’t have. They’ve been given the opportunity to have someone outside of their organization help them think about how to reframe some of the challenging conversations they’re having in their organization.

When I was at Google, I was very fortunate to have a vice president mentor me. The conversation was driven by my immediate needs every time I showed up. Without that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. My mentor reflected back to me a very different version of myself than what I would see in the mirror, and I had to start believing in myself the way she believed in me. I think mentoring, when it’s done really well, is essentially that. Mentoring covers all the practical things, but fundamentally, it teaches you to believe in yourself in the way somebody else really does.

Do you believe providing training to employees contributes to creating a more inclusive environment?

Absolutely. And I believe it should always be done during working hours.

Besides keeping up with technical updates, I think that one of the greatest courses that a lot of people can be sent to if they work in a technical environment is one in storytelling and creative writing. Generally speaking, scientists and engineers are terrible at that. Stimulating their creativity, learning how to think out of the box, and being able to communicate their ideas to audiences that are not scientists and engineers will be incredibly useful for them as they go up the ladder.

Training not only enormously benefits employees, it is also an investment for a company. If you invest in women and you have a long-term view, if you make it easy for them to have maternity leave and ramp back slowly, if you provide the benefits, they are going to want to stay with you. They are going to want to continue to contribute and build the company. There’s a loyalty that happens in both directions that you both benefit from. It’s really short-sighted not to provide all of that. It’s kind of “penny wise, pound foolish,” as the saying goes. It’s a very short-term benefit that you get by saving money, but your long-term loss is huge.

Get custom recommendations to Pow’Her Tech

Accelerate efforts to empower women to join and thrive in the tech sector locally and internationally. Be challenged to create more inclusive culture, intentionally. Start here!

Get recommendations

Read more content

Start with what you value
Blair Presley
Inspiring the next generation
Elisabeth Holm
case study
How Alan shakes up the rules
A recruiter’s perspective
Aline Lerner
Pow'Her In Tech is a global initiative led by Inco Group and supported by the Fondation Chanel
RecommendationsContentDownload the guideContact
© 2020 All rights reserved
Terms and Conditions