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Interview: BT TechWomen's programme manager

We began working with BT in 2019 to integrate a wellbeing strand into their award-winning TechWomen programme, which aims to help women within the business to progress and flourish in their careers. We are extremely passionate about women’s wellbeing and it has been very rewarding to be a part of this initiative. We spoke with Rachel Brackenbury, TechWomen Programme Manager at BT, to understand some of the challenges this year has posed, and the on-going ambitions of the programme.

Kamwell: “To set the scene, can you tell us a bit about the brilliant TechWomen programme?”

Rachel Brackenbury: “TechWomen is a development programme within BT to help women realise their potential and achieve their career goals. It first launched in 2015, when there was a clear lack of women progressing into senior roles in what was a very male dominated industry. The programme was established with the aim of equipping women with the tools they need to progress their careers. To achieve this, we cover four modules which focus on: how to build your personal brand, how to become more confident and impactful when you're speaking, networking , how to manage politics in the workplace, and how to become more agile and resilient.”

Kamwell: “Do you feel the programme is now fully embedded within BT?”

RB: “Since its inception 5 years ago, the TechWomen Programme has seen such a transformation and we’re really proud that it’s now a pan-BT programme that takes on around 500 women per year!”

Kamwell: “That’s very impressive and clearly the programme has really been embraced. Wellbeing has recently been introduced as a strand to the programme – why did you decide to include this?”

RB: “We wanted to remind everyone on the programme that although it's really important to invest time and energy towards your professional and career goals, it's also incredibly important to look after your mental and physical wellbeing - especially because many of our women are juggling lots of different responsibilities both in the workplace and at home. BT has been investing in employee wellbeing for a long time, not least over the past 12 months, but we wanted to make sure that we were addressing wellbeing issues that were specific to women – after all, women face particular challenges. And women deal with things differently to men. The wellbeing elements we’ve introduced tie in really nicely with the wider BT message about the importance of looking after our mental and physical health.”

Kamwell: “Were you aware of any particular wellbeing challenges that women seemed to be facing before you brought this element into the TechWomen programme?”

RB: “Work-life balance is obviously a major one. And that's both in regards to women who have children at home, those who are carers, or those who just have extra responsibilities – women have that pressure to ‘do it all’. As a result, women are also more likely to suffer from burnout. The wellbeing element of our TechWomen programme has been a blessing in disguise during this time of Covid-19 because it has provided very practical tips and tricks around how to sleep better, how to eat better, how to tackle fitting exercise into a busy day etc. These things may sound really basic to some people, but to others, it's really hard to navigate when you are already doing so much. Women can find themselves asking: “can I afford to take half an hour out of my day to exercise or 15 minutes to meditate?”. We are able to give them the tools to ensure the answer to this is “yes”! We want people to make wellbeing a key factor in their life.”

Kamwell: “That leads me nicely on to my next question: there has been a lot of discussion around the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the more traditional gender roles, with women taking on more caring responsibilities, home-schooling etc. and that women’s careers bore the brunt of lockdown - have you noticed any particular instances of this?”

RB “I’ve definitely noticed that it has been a challenging time for women, just in terms of fitting it all in and juggling all their responsibilities. All of a sudden they were home-schooling or someone in the family is vulnerable and needs extra support – and yet, you still have a job!” I think one positive that has come from the pandemic is that we have learnt that we can work a lot more flexibly. Someone might need to stop work at 3pm to pick up their kids but then they’re back online later on to finish off their work, and that’s fine. I think people are making their work and personal lives fit better together, and there are some who actually feel they have a better work life balance because of it! Our approach is a lot more fluid and people aren’t feeling like they have to be stuck to their desks 9am – 5pm. It’s about making work, work for you.”

Kamwell: “Yes, absolutely – the tides are changing.

Going back to the TechWomen programme, whilst the majority of each cohort is based in the UK, you do have around 25% who are based in India – how have you ensured that the programme is culturally relevant across different geographies?” 

RB: “It’s really important that we have an understanding of different cultures and, especially, that we make sure the language we use across the TechWomen Programme lands well regardless of where a woman is based. Luckily, at BT, there is a good understanding of cross-cultural differences - pre-Covid, there was a lot of travel between the regions which provides really valuable cultural insight.”

Kamwell: “Sounds like you have an excellent foundation to work from. I understand that one of the objectives of the TechWomen programme is to contribute to having more women in senior roles at BT. Can you talk a little bit about that?”

RB: “We want to get women into more senior roles, the more senior, the better, but carving the way for younger talent coming through is an important part of this goal as well. The content of the TechWomen programme was designed to support women at any level to realise their potential and progress in their career. This allows us to create a continuous pipeline of women who are ready for more senior roles.”

Kamwell: “From your own personal perspective, what do you think is the most valuable aspect of the TechWomen programme?”

RB: “Without a doubt it’s the community we’ve created. Once you’re a TechWoman, you’re always a TechWoman – it’s like a sisterhood! We’ve got over 1,500 alumni now – whether you joined five years ago or this year – you are fully supported. It’s an incredible community where women talk, they help each other out. There is lots of talk about women dragging each other down but, for us, it’s the opposite. Being a TechWomen – it’s a badge we wear with pride. Our alumni also act as very important role models to newer cohorts, as well as across the wider business.”

Kamwell: “Such an important message there about women lifting up other women. We know that alumni are invited back to join sessions in following years – why is that so important?”

RB: “We all know we need reminders to stay on track and it’s not easy to keep implementing the things you learn as your career changes. So it’s a really important aspect of the programme that alumni are invited back, we want to keep supporting them and ensuring their learning is embedded as they progress.”

Kamwell: Lastly, looking to the future, what are your ambitions for the TechWomen programme, particularly in terms of its wellbeing element?

RB: “We had no idea of the additional challenges we were going to have to face this year. And of course we don’t know for sure what next year is going to look like. But I think a main aim for us is to continue promoting wellbeing as a really important factor and something that women need to prioritise. We also plan to explore more women-specific issues, such as the menopause, but I think this links to a wider educational piece to the BT community as a whole that says "these are the challenges that women face in their personal lives". The more barriers we can remove, the more we will see women achieving their personal and professional goals”.

A huge thank you to Rachel for taking the time to speak with us!