It can be intimidating to be faced with a male-dominated culture, notes PwC’s Sheridan Ash. While she has learned to be resilient, she stresses she didn’t always feel that way, struggling with worry that was disproportionate. While she has since become proactive about managing her career, she believes she could have reached her potential sooner if she’d done that earlier. “I help myself by helping others,” she says, adding that her drive comes from helping other people avoid some of the road blocks she encountered.
From Model to Tech Leader
Ash is proud of the winding road her career has taken, from school dropout to a catwalk model to her current post as technology and investments director.
Schoolwork was a challenge, as she suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia, so she left at age 15 and launched a modeling career in London, with a specialty of catwalk modeling that allowed her to travel from Milan to Paris. After having a son at a young age, she realised she needed a more stable career path and went back to school while her son was a baby to earn her degree, landing a position in the pharmaceutical business.
Although she knew she wanted to pursue additional studying, she approached it with trepidation, since schoolwork wasn’t easy given her dyslexia: Nevertheless Ash found a way to compensate and overcame the challenge to earn her MBA at Imperial College. That’s where she began looking at technology from a health perspective, working with the National Health Service and private health care providers. Winning an award for having the best dissertation gave her an excellent boost of confidence, further augmented by her work as a research assistant for some professors writing a book on technology and innovation.
“I was hooked,” she says, joining consulting firm Accenture in the health tech team and then moving to PwC first with the health team, but then ascending as she saw an opportunity to grow the business, ultimately working for the head of technology and investments across the entire firm.
Nurturing the Next Generation
Ash is particularly proud of the Women in Tech group she helped launch when she realized there was clearly a diversity issue in the technology team. Celebrating its fourth anniversary in November, it has been successful in attracting and retaining women as they address what she calls a societal problem with not enough young women choosing to pursue tech careers.
Her work with the group has also raised her own profile within the firm, in part leading to her current role where she is helping implement what she calls “massive change” within PwC. “We want to be the leading tech-enabled professional services firm, and while we already do a lot of great work in technology, I am proud to be leading the strategy work on developing our capabilities in technology innovation and how emerging technologies are converging to create new businesses utilising such advances as blockchain and drones.”
She sees the two goals intersecting, as they develop new businesses and ways of working while at the same time focusing on how to attract women into those types of jobs. One opportunity she sees is in demonstrating to women how tech has a positive impact on the world. “Women need to feel that what they do has a large impact,” she notes.
While there is considerable bias given the primarily male-dominated workplace, she says that 90 percent of the time it’s not intentional but inevitable that behaviors and cultures develop around specific types of people and what they like.
“Tackling that unconscious bias is one of the key challenges we need to overcome,” she says, and more role models is an important place to start.
On that note, she encourages women to be observant when they apply for a job about whether the company has a well-publicized and open program around diversity and gender. “Think about whether they put a female in front of you for an interview or had diversity represented at recruiting events,” she says, as that will tell you what their culture is truly like.
And women at her stage need to be actively involved in helping to develop the next generation, as more than mentors but as champions and proactive ambassadors for at least one person to help them develop and get promoted.
To that end, she has formed a group with some external partners and together they have developed a manifesto to work together as a group of companies to tackle the issue of women in technology.
Her passion for helping women has extended to small investments she has recently made to help women in developing countries become capable of running their own businesses, as part of a focus to help women in other countries become independent.
Even with her busy career and passion for supporting women, Ash takes time to travel. “Because I had my son young and didn’t get together with my partner until later in life, we have been making up for lost time over the past seven years,” she says.