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Q&A with Dr. Terri Simpkin: Overcoming Diversity and Inclusion Challenges Through the Will of Data Centre Leaders

In the first of a new series focused on diversity and inclusion within the European data centre space, João Marques Lima sits down with Dr Terri Simpkin, one of the industry’s biggest advocates for change, and a driving force behind many leadership and development strategies across the old continent.

Dr Simpkin is an associate professor, head of MBA programmes (Intl), director, exec MBA and SLDA at the University of Nottingham, UK. She also serves as CEO at Mischief Business Engineering, a consulting and professional development organisation focusing on workforce development and capability building. Additionally, she is an associate at executive recruitment firm Portman Partners, launched by Europe’s long standing recruitment visionary Peter Hannaford. 

Over her career, she has studied the sector and helped it develop itself into a more inclusive field, something she says still needs a lot more work.

From educating children to creating the right frameworks and support for everyone to succeed in the data economy, Dr Simpkin goes into detail on several of the issues and consequent resolutions to help eradicate discrimination and underrepresentation of genders in boardrooms.  

JML: Tell us about you and your journey. How did you get involved with the data centre world and what do you do within the diversity and gender equality front?

Dr TS: Like many people, I fell into working in the digital infrastructure sector.  Having spent a career working with governments, industry associations and businesses to explore and improve workforce structures, talent pipelines and educational frameworks, I found myself evolving into  a full-time academic and industry consultant. Over the years, I’ve worked with organisations and conducted research into the underpinning barriers to successful inclusion practices in a range of sectors. Q&A with Dr. Terri Simpkin: Overcoming Diversity and Inclusion Challenges Through the Will of Data Centre Leaders

A partnership between Anglia Ruskin University in the UK and CNet Training offered me the opportunity to co-design and develop the world’s first and (still) only purpose-built Master’s programme in Data Centre Leadership and Management. I had the privilege of applying emerging thinking around business leadership and management to the technical landscape of data centres. It offered me a broad, global insight into the structural and cultural barriers to inclusion in the sector and in turn we were able to embed capability development to address them through education of emerging leaders.  

Since moving on from that role I’ve been conducting research into diversity and inclusion in the data centre workplace with the team at Portman Partners. This work has provided deep insight into the experience of underrepresented groups in digital infrastructure (particularly women).  

JML: What trends do you see in the European data centre space in terms of industry diversification and equality?

Dr TS: While there are some pockets of good practice in specific organisations, overall, the sector is well behind the curve in relation to employing robust and embedded inclusion practices and business philosophy. Logically, organisations and leaders in business understand the business case for diversity – that’s really clear – but the process of turning that logic into workable practices, behaviours and values across the sector is moving very slowly indeed. 

One of the reasons for this, as evidenced in my Portman research, is an embedded sectoral culture that has not evolved to recognise the way that inclusion as a practice, rather than as an administrative function, actually works. Being a new sector, it has duplicated many of the traditional structures from other industries such as telecoms, engineering and IT. All those sectors are still struggling to develop diverse workforces and talent pipelines and sadly, the digital infrastructure sector has replicated that.  

Having said that, the rapid pace of change in the industry can be of benefit as growth continues and better business practices are implemented to accommodate new technologies, new business models and with new people with fresh ideas making it into leadership positions, we could see a more enlightened response emerging.

JML: What do you envision as potentially the most transformative diversity and inclusion initiative within the European data centre market in 2021?

Dr TS: The only way that transformation of current diversity and inclusion challenges will be made is through the will of leaders.  Fundamentally, the perpetuation of barriers to diversity of workforce and the inclusion of underrepresented groups is attributed to the lack of will of those in decision-making roles to take informed action.  

Action in regard to inclusion is not just about bolting on some administrative remedies via the human resources department, I mean real action that cultivates inclusion as a part of the culture and that infuses the organisation with values that supports the recruitment, development, advancement and recognition of people from diverse backgrounds. Having a diverse workforce is relatively easy to accomplish, encouraging behaviours and building systems that allows those people to work unencumbered by overt or implicit bias is much harder.  

The most transformative initiatives are not separate from the way the organisation runs on a day-to-day basis and this will only be managed if decision makers, leaders and perhaps the board really understand the bigger picture of inclusion. We’re a long way from that now.   

JML: Does the industry do enough to support the entry of more women into the high ranks of data centre executive teams?

Dr TS: In a word: no. There are a raft of reasons for this – cultural, structural and behavioural. It’s a complex but not irresolvable suite of issues. Many women are employed in roles that do not necessarily lead through traditional hierarchy to the C-suite so their careers are not necessarily designed to put them on a senior leadership trajectory, because the pathways are not necessarily there. 

Secondly, the pipeline of talent from which C-suite candidates are drawn is more like a leaky funnel.  That is while women may find themselves in the data centre space in early career, barriers for advancement (particularly in technical roles) and structures that force women out of the sector and into more attractive cultures and roles mean that we are more likely to see attrition.  

JML: You are involved in some fresh research around this topic, what can you reveal at this stage?

Dr TS: The research is illustrating some deep insight into the lived experience of women in the digital infrastructure sector. One of the most harrowing however, is that much of what is taken as normal practice in other sectors and indeed, that which is enshrined in law in many jurisdictions, is not necessarily being experienced in this space. Issues such as sexual harassment, pay differentials, lack of transparency of rewards and lack of equitable access to development opportunities have all been found as underpinning issues for resolution.  

Far from being issues that only impact on women, some of the embedded cultural barriers to inclusion (of any nature) point to poor workplace structures, processes and values. Much of what the research is telling us is that what is perceived to be as an ideal future state for the data centre workplace is actually the norm in other sectors. This includes, for example, open and supportive workplace structures, clearly articulated equality, diversity and inclusion policies, cultures of trust, and informed and enlightened leadership. 

Overall, if we were to look at the research as an interim report card it might read “must do better.”

Q&A with Dr. Terri Simpkin: Overcoming Diversity and Inclusion Challenges Through the Will of Data Centre Leaders

JML: What could we do better to support more women coming into the data centre space?

Dr TS: Looking at diversity from a gender perspective is really limiting the benefits that a more broadly-based inclusion approach will deliver. Looking at the research I’ve been conducting as well as a raft of other evidence-based material, the best thing the sector can do is look at broadening out the pool of talent across the board.  

This must go beyond recruitment and selection practices but to exploring how people from diverse backgrounds are treated in data centre organisations. For example, are there structural barriers to advancement (e.g. only people from certain roles move up into leadership positions)? Are there opportunities to develop skills across the organisations regardless of background? Are there robust reward and recognition programmes in place for all staff? Is there a mechanism for measuring, evaluating and reviewing inclusion practices? Does the notion of inclusion come from the very top and is it embedded in performance metrics/behavioural standards for managers and supervisors? Is there implicit or overt bias baked into people systems? Does the organisation extend its inclusion commitment to its supply chain? Fundamentally however, it must start with addressing harassment, discrimination, pay/reward disparities, poor workplace behaviour and inflexible work practices.

JML: What is being done to prepare the next generation and ensure more balance across teams?

Dr TS: This is an important, but difficult, area to address because it’s connected to the ways in which our communities see digital infrastructure and how they envision the people who should work as part of it. This of course is infused with implicit bias. We know that girls drop out of STEM subjects early in school and never return. We know that people from low socioeconomic backgrounds may not have the opportunities made available to them to take the right subjects for further education or training for the sector, for example.  So, working with primary schools is key. Waiting until people are in secondary education is too late. By then, they may have already divested STEM occupations from their future job choices.  

Other research I’ve done with girls in technical education at University Technical Colleges in the UK suggests girls in particular connect with technical education where they can see a clear career path and where they have role models to emulate. So, my advice would be to generate a sector-wide campaign to raise awareness of the sector, to highlight the jobs of those people who are from a broad range of backgrounds (including women) and start to take seriously the role of organisations to do this for their own benefit. Organisations can do this through the STEM Ambassador programme in the UK for example or through other STEM initiatives that exist globally. 

JML: If our readers want to get involved and help transform our industry, where could they go to learn more about diversity and inclusion initiatives?

Dr TS: The white paper on the experience of women in the digital infrastructure sector is available on the Portman Partners website and that will soon be followed up with a response paper with some strategies for diminishing barriers and improving inclusion in data centre organisations. Also, I’ll beQ&A with Dr. Terri Simpkin: Overcoming Diversity and Inclusion Challenges Through the Will of Data Centre Leaders running online events via Portman Partners in the near future, too. Other work I’ve done can be found on my sites www.braverstrongersmarter.com  and  www.forfakesake.org – the latter is primarily devoted to diminishing the impostor phenomenon in the workplace, which is a real issue for the Digital Infrastructure sector. 

The Infrastructure Masons also have diversity and inclusion special interest groups, so people could get active with those. Also, organisations such as WISE and the STEM Ambassador network in the UK. There are similar organisations in other countries working tirelessly to open up the STEM space for children and underrepresented groups. 

Alternatively, organisations such as McKinsey have some amazing insights into EDI generally.  However, the first step is to recognise that this is a key business issue – not a women’s one.  Leaders who seek to learn more, to do more and to create inclusive organisations will be rewarded with better businesses and more expansive access to talent. 

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