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  • October 31, 2022
  • Andy

Championing Women in the Technology Industry with Debbie McMahon, Product Director at Financial Times


Debbie McMahon, Product Director at Financial Times, currently oversees product for ft.com and the Financial Times apps – an interesting role that spans the totality of brand new propositions as well as older technologies for individual consumers.

Prior to this, Debbie worked in a variety of product roles across the industry, including working on account based functionality at the BBC and scaling up digital for Universal Credit. Before her move into the technology sector, Debbie worked across the civil service in a range of change management and policy positions, before gradually making her way into the digital space.

Finding Confidence

Despite steps to improve the gender balance, lots of roles within the technology arena are still heavily male dominated. Whereas product, design and business analysis are now much more mixed than they once were, some environments – such as engineering, infrastructure and delivery – in many organisations are yet to catch up. For women working in those environments, Debbie has this advice:

“It’s important to keep your confidence up when things are tough or they go wrong. They inevitably do – that’s true of any job, but it’s particularly true of these jobs. But when everyone is looking at you saying this didn’t work, you’ve got to be the person to decide what we do now. I think that definitely can be difficult. I’ve certainly found that women react differently to that and we are more often looking for someone else to give us a bit of reassurance and that often isn’t there.”

Finding that confidence can be difficult, but it is important for success in this type of role. When it doesn’t come naturally, the best way to achieve it is through practice and accepting that occasionally this will feel uncomfortable.

Another struggle for women in these male dominated industries is the lack of colleagues at a similar level who are experiencing similar things – including pregnancy, maternity and menopause, which male counterparts may have limited knowledge about. This can be isolating, and as well as seeking out potential networks of women (perhaps through LinkedIn, MeetUp and other professional networks), Debbie is an advocate for those women who are already there calling out behaviours that could make women uncomfortable.

“I’ve been in situations in a room with eight or nine people, and every other person was a man, and somebody made a joke about something being that simple that even their wife could understand. You sit there and you’re the only one that doesn’t laugh and that’s not nice. I told them it wasn’t funny. If I don’t do that in my privileged position in that room, what about the 23 year old software engineer who’s in her first meeting and the same scenario happens?” 

Supporting and Championing Women in the Industry

As well as the need to encourage more women to join the sector, Debbie is keen to highlight the importance of supporting those women who are already there. As an example, maternity leave and the processes for returning after maternity leave are extremely company dependent.

“I do wonder, what does that then mean for the choices that women have? I could go and work somewhere that had a terrible maternity policy or didn’t have any paternity leave because that’s not currently my path. But if you were intending on having a child, you couldn’t. So does that then mean that your ability to move jobs is reduced?”

There are many networks, initiatives and programmes that have been set up to encourage women into the tech space – and to support them when they are there – but there needs to be proper focus on whether these are actually benefitting the groups they aspire to help, or whether they risk being used as tick box exercises.

“I often reverse things back and think if you were a product team given this problem what would you do? You wouldn’t necessarily go top down, you would go and talk to early stage career women and do a discovery on what they felt their challenges were. And then you would construct stuff around them.”

Debbie uses this perspective in her current work as well. While working to increase female readership of the Financial Times, Debbie recognised that the places where the content was competing for attention was not necessarily the same for women as for men. Rather than competing against women’s lives and attempting to slot in where there is not space, Debbie saw opportunities in areas where women already were – such as podcast platforms and streaming services.

“We need to meet people where they are, whether that be more junior women in organisations thinking about how they want to progress or women who we think could benefit from our content in their careers, rather than the way we’ve always managed something which is looking at a particular engagement metric. If we’re not, we probably need to look at that bit differently.”

Debbie’s Advice

For those hoping to join the tech industry, Debbie’s advice is to spend less time worrying about where you are and more time thinking about where you are going. This helps to remove the concerns about what everyone else is doing when you worry that your career is perhaps not going in the same direction.

“We can spend a lot of energy and time worrying about our current scenario. I would always say whether for good or for ill you are where you are, but the important thing is, where’s that headed? If you know where it’s headed, even if it’s not perfect right now, then that’s OK.”

As well as this, it is important to focus on the things that make you happy. Debbie advocates finding a job that you are good at and where you spend most of the time doing things you enjoy – and changing the job or the environment if that isn’t the case. And finally:

“One thing that you’ll never regret? Get more sleep. You’ll literally never regret more sleep. There’s no circumstance in which more sleep does not do some form of good though you never ever realise this when you’re younger.”

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