BT boss Helen Slinger: 'Coaching, mentoring and sponsorship are key elements in helping women progress up the career ladder'

clock • 4 min read

BT's director of Product Supply Business (PSB) explains why encouraging other women is very important to her

With over 25 years' experience in the channel, BT's PSB director Helen Slinger is a great believer in helping to identify the leaders of the future - both male and female.

But she also believes senior management needs to be prepared to actually back these people through a proper sponsorship scheme to give them a fighting chance.

"BT has been very supportive in helping people to progress their careers, there are programmes in place to make that run consistently," she said. "With new members of staff, we are identifying talent and getting them into additional programmes that identify future leaders. They get nominated but they have to apply themselves. This is not gender specific - it is open to all."

A surprising passion has arisen out of her association with the BT North West Regional Board, and that is encouraging more women to get involved in the industry.

"Since I got involved in this I have changed the way I think about the whole issue. At the end of the day of course the right person has to get the job, but the trouble is so many women are capable of doing it - but they abide by the 80/20 rule: men  - if they can do 20 per cent of a job will go for it, but women won't apply if they don't think they can do 80 per cent of it. 

"There are a lot of self-limiting beliefs and sufferers of imposter syndrome - I do a lot of speaking on this topic and I can see a lot of women nodding away in the audience when I talk about it. We have mentoring sessions and talk about all the things that are specific to women - at BT we have around 300 women involved with that at any one point," she said.

When the government starting making companies employing over 250 people reveal their gender pay gaps, the median figure was a 9.7 per cent gap between what men earn and what women earn. However, BT performed better than most with a 5.2 per cent median pay gap.

Slinger said the telecoms giant is keen to promote women. It has a ‘Tech Women' scheme that has been running for a while, which identifies women who are in positions of mid-management, but who have the capability and desire to progress into more senior roles. It is also adopting ‘Lean In' Chapters within the company (based on the hugely popular book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg).

Slinger said: "We are looking at other ways to get involved. These chapters are about supporting women and bringing them together by profession. I am looking to see what I can do to get behind that as well.

"BT is pretty good at this stuff. Genuinely it is not just a nod to it - it is reflected in the business and we have a good gender and diversity mix," she said.

For someone that started out as a famer's daughter and who initially wanted to be a vet and then thought she would work as an agricultural land valuation expert for an auctioneer, Slinger has worked her way up the channel ranks, and said all her bosses were very supportive.

Her first job was at Crown Computer Products over 25 years ago, followed by a foray at Dabs, then into a distribution role and then back to Dabs to head up the e-commerce business.

"I then left to set up my own consultancy business," she explained, "I was also doing work with a VC company investing in tech companies and that is what brought me back to the channel. I started advising resellers on transformation."

BT eventually asked her to consult for them and she wrote a transformation plan for the telecoms giant, which it asked her to execute.  As the firm acquired channel players such as Dabs and Basilica among others, Slinger took charge of them under the BT umbrella."

One thing she has learnt along the way is that coaching, mentoring and sponsorship is vital to helping people progress, and it is something at men and women should be involved with.

"Building a sponsorship network is important - we need to get people that know when jobs are available and will put someone that they have sponsored, forward," Slinger said. "It does help. If someone has been recommended in this way, I would definitely want that person. And we need to get men involved in this too. They are very good at sponsoring."

Another important factor is getting girls involved in IT from an early age through STEM subjects, Slinger said. 

"I am a trained ‘barefoot' volunteer, which brings coding to primary schools from the age of five, and encourages the teachers to embrace technology. Classrooms have all this technology in them, but it is usually at the back of a cupboard.

"Once teachers get that enthusiasm about the tech, it rubs off on the students and technology is incorporated into everything. Then you cannot see a gender difference - when all the kids are enthusiastic about using the technology, gender just goes away."

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