Women in Tech Leadership: Tara O’Sullivan

Date Published
Tara O'Sullivan - Immedis CMO

Describe your journey to becoming Chief Marketing Officer at Immedis

I have been in marketing since I was in my teens; I read ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ when I was 14 and fell in love with the psychology behind marketing and advertising. I was lucky to get into tech marketing with one of the first Irish technology companies – IONA technologies. We were the first major Irish tech IPO, and I learned so much from that role. I worked in all sections of marketing including PR, events, customer and product marketing. At that time, tech marketing was unknown in Ireland, so we learnt as we went.

Then I went to work for a broad selection of tech brands, including Oracle, SAS, and Baltimore Technologies. In 2016 I joined Skillsoft, initially under a short contract, and stayed for almost 4 years. During that time I served as Chief Creative Officer in charge of content strategy, delivery, and marketing. It was an incredible experience, working  for a $600m, 20-year-old brand that needed refreshing. We replaced all the content (script writing, filming, and editing), built a new content platform called Percipio (amazing) and ensured customers were retained and new business was won.

Then I did some consulting while I looked for my next role, and was lucky enough to meet Ruairi and Mark from Immedis and joined the company as CMO in May 2020.

What do you enjoy most about the role?

I love marketing and was excited by the opportunity at Immedis. I knew nothing about payroll, apart from some small experience in SumTotal, a Skillsoft brand. Global payroll is more complex, so understanding the Immedis customer journey has been a steep learning curve. My focus for the first 4 months was to get the messaging right and ensure everyone understood our mission, vision, and values. Once we had this base, it made persona development and content planning much more straightforward.

The team I work with are some of the best I have ever seen, so that brings me great joy every day. We have a stand-up 4 days a week, where we talk about Netflix, the weather, books we are reading. This time together creates a sense of comradery and acts as a sort of water cooler experience – critical given the entire team started during or just before Covid.

What advice would you give to women considering a career within the technology sector?

The data on women in tech is appalling – as the percentage of employed women across all job sectors in the US has grown to 47%, the five largest tech companies on the planet only have a workforce of about 34.4% women. We still have some significant challenges around gender diversity.

Research shows us that:

  • At 6 years old, girls start to see themselves as less talented than boys
  • Girls respond differently to failure than boys
  • Girls face the burden of “stereotype threat” that they are “bad” at maths and science
  • Parents are twice as likely to google “is my son gifted” than “is my daughter gifted”
  • Among 6–7 year olds, only boys associate brilliant and intelligence with their gender
  • A belief and stereotype that intelligence is a male trait doesn’t fade with age – if you ask 7 year olds to pick out a friend who is really intelligent, they will overwhelming pick a male
  • In several studies, when children were asked to draw a mathematician or scientist, girls were twice as likely to draw men as draw women.

Technology is lucrative for people to be part of – people get promoted faster due to phenomenal growth, and typically command a higher salary than in other verticals. We need women in this industry to create more balance. The developers working on today’s technological advances — those creating the algorithms — are predominantly male and white. When a white male develops AI and chatbots, these machines are likely to perpetuate inequities. Gender stereotyping is hard coded into the algorithm. Take the apple watch – such an amazing piece of engineering and yet it didn’t have a period tracker.

My view is that the problem is deep-rooted. We need to start early, encouraging girls and teenagers to participate in STEM in school and colleges. We need to ensure that women are given the support to break into these careers, and this will likely need to be based on a quota for a decade or so, and then we should have enough of a footprint in the industry to attract a more equal proportion of women.

Then, we need to be more confident in being willing to be part of changing the industry; to make bold choices and encourage our daughters to do likewise. If we can see it, we can be it, and already there are so many women we can look up to in STEM.  It will get easier.

Have you had a particular role model you have looked up to? How have they inspired you?

I read anything Brene Brown publishes, from books to podcasts, and I use many of her teachings in my everyday life – in and out of work. Her material around the importance of vulnerability to create and innovate in an organization changed the dynamic of failure and made the corporate world more human, especially during COVID-19.

The work Sheryl Sandberg has done with Lean In and more recently, in Option B has heavily impacted how I think about supporting other women. More than 184,000 women have started Lean In circles in 184 countries – that sort of support will drive much change in the workplace and culturally.

As a member of the senior leadership team at Immedis, what advice would you offer women looking to make the step up to board level?

Often people looking for board members consider other CEOs, and given there are few female CEOs, women need to find different ways onto boards. I think becoming a specialist in an area and sharing that knowledge either through podcasts, or articles on LinkedIn and Medium, and speaking at events all help put you in the way of opportunity.

Women also need to find a sponsor. A coach talks to you, a mentor talks with you, but a sponsor talks about you. They speak for you when you are not in the room and ensure that opportunities are put in your way. I have been blessed to have one specific sponsor who has offered me multiple opportunities along the way and helped me grow and flex as a leader and as a marketer.

At the Davos Forum, The New York Times reported on anxieties that men had about mentoring women, especially with Me Too. In most cases, the only mentorship available to junior women is from men. That’s why the thought of men shying away from mentoring women is troubling because it has severe implications for the advancement of women in organisations.

So become brilliant at what you do, share your insight, and get people to sponsor you.

Immedis talks about diversity, inclusion and belonging as one of its strengths. What do you think is key to attracting and retaining a diverse talent base?

There is a lovely explanation about D&I, which is that diversity is being invited to the dance, inclusion is being asked to dance, but belonging is when they play your music. At Immedis we ensure that we look at all areas of recruitment, but finding the right people is only the start; we must make sure they stay and flourish.

Any organisation needs to ensure that job ads are put in places where a diverse group of candidates will apply. They need to push recruiters to provide diverse candidates.

We need to rewrite job descriptions too. Removing gender language and emphasizing skills over experience could encourage women to apply for positions that would put them on the executive track. Changes like this would also force companies to be more specific about what skills they need to hire for.  There is a gender decoder site you can use to ensure your job descriptions are gender neutral and make sure you are not including subtle linguistic gender-coding that stops women from applying. Atlassian changed their job ad copy and saw an 80% increase in women hired in technical roles over a two-year period.

Finally, training is needed – for men about how to support and sponsor women, and training for women about how to be more confident, self-promote and support each other.

Last year with Black Lives Matter, we began a conversation internally with employees about the importance of diversity, inclusion and belonging. That has grown to an Employee Board where we have a wide selection of people who can make suggestions for changes to what we do.

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