Back to work in STEM

Digital infrastructure firm Equinix is running a returners programme for women in STEM. We spoke to them about how it got off the ground and what it aims to do.

 

Last March Lorraine Wilkinson, Regional Vice President of Sales UK at global digital infrastructure company Equinix, was speaking on an International Women’s Day panel as she has done many times over the last 30 years as she has advocated for more women in STEM. Afterwards she felt frustrated and angry. It seemed like she had been having conversations about women’s equality for years and only small gains were being made and very slowly.

So she decided to do something about it. After the event, she and other women from marketing, HR and sales got together to talk about how they could collectively make a difference in their business and beyond. The result is Equinix’s ‘I Am Remarkable’ programme.

Covid also played its part in spurring the programme. As the women chatted, they realised how resilient women had been over the course of the pandemic.

Collectively they had faced marital discord owing to the pressures of homeschooling and working, depressed partners, separation and divorce, domestic abuse, juggling the needs of multiple young kids, managing teenagers, children with eating disorders and depression, children who were scared and didn’t know what was happening to their world, their friends or their life, whilst also being paralysed by fear for their parents, colleagues and friends.   For some their job involved dealing with employees who had suffered bereavement, providing mental health support for workers isolated at home, putting on a brave face for a workforce that relied on them to show them the way whilst pivoting the business as usual into a whole new way of working.

Yet Lorraine, whose son worked as a doctor on a Covid ward, was very aware of how fortunate Equinix employees were. Business was booming as more people were going online during the pandemic and Equinix provides the services and platform for them to do so. Moreover, the company has a strong emphasis on wellbeing, flexibility and flexible benefits. It had undertaken a number of initiatives to address mental health during the pandemic, including a Friday virtual pub session, a ‘find a better way Wednesday’ policy to get people to communicate in other ways than on back to back Zoom calls and had reduced meeting slots to 25 minutes to allow people time between meetings.

Lorraine knew that in other industries and sectors people were really struggling. Her best friend had to close her nail technician business, look after her severely autistic son and was struggling to put food on the table.

Lorraine thought about the impact of the pandemic on women in sectors like beauty, travel and hospitality where they tend to pre-dominate. She and her colleagues wanted to help them back to work, but have since widened their remit to women from any background who want to return to work.

“Women have tremendous skills, but they don’t realise they are transferable,” says Lorraine. “The tech industry is very low on women. It is important that we look at how we can attract more women into the industry.”  Just 22% of staff at Equinix are women, with that figure falling to 19% in operations. Even in sales, Lorraine’s area, women can be put off applying because of the sector when skills such as empathy and an ability to listen to people are the most important thing – skills which women often excel at.

Returner programme

The women felt a STEM-based returner programme could help. They came up with the concept of the four Rs –  Remarkable, Resilient, Reskilled and Required – to celebrate those transferable skills, reskill women and provide women with jobs that are ring-fenced for the programme. “Women don’t see that they are truly remarkable. We need to help them to realise that,” says Lorraine.

The women worked with Equinix’s operations and talent acquisition teams to see what practical help they could provide. The talent acquisition team already ran a one to two-year career transition programme to bring people into the business as technicians and engineers. They used this to onboard military veterans and athletes. Lorraine and her colleagues argued that this could be tailored for women.

The idea was well received by senior leaders and many of its sponsors and allies have been men. Lorraine, who only joined Equinix in November 2020, spoke to the president of EMEA who agreed to sponsor the ‘I Am Remarkable’ programme and the talent acquisition team put up the funding. The women then worked with the operations team on the details. They decided to pilot five roles at first in Manchester, London and Slough. Even with that small number, the operations team leader said it would double the number of women in his team.

Lorraine says a lot of the role of a technician is about customer relationship management – requiring skills that women often have in abundance –  and that the technical side of the job can be taught. As part of the preparation for the programme job descriptions have been reviewed and rewritten so that they don’t put women off applying.

Those on the programme, which offers a City & Guilds qualification, will get access to ambassadors from the Equinix Women Leaders Network. They will provide coaching and mentorship. There is also a focus on broadening career pathways so women can see where they can go in the business after their training. Traditionally the pathway has been fairly narrow with people moving into the operations team.  “It’s not just about bringing women in but about supporting them to have successful careers,” says Lorraine.

The programme will be reviewed and the hope is that it will expand and develop. Lorraine notes that the operations team currently has 63 vacancies. The programme is full time in the data centres, but efforts are being made long-term to adapt shift patterns in the operations team so that they take account of things like childcare. Lorraine herself is a big advocate of flexible working and has promoted jobs shares in the sales team.

She hopes that the programme will take off and that she can share learnings with others in the sector and beyond. “We would like to share ideas and learn from others,” she says. “We want to make this a bigger action and do something that makes a real difference.”

*WM People is running a webinar on the I am remarkable programme on 31st March 10-11am. Find out more here.



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