Meet the Board – Hannah Beresford

Programming Chair, WICT Europe
Corporate Affairs Analyst, Liberty Global

What made you decide to invest your time and experience in WICT?

Well, firstly I think that the aim of WICT and the work we do is so important and I am really pleased to be able to help with that. Additionally, my interest in playing a more active role came from my initial involvement as a member: a couple of weeks after starting working at Liberty Global I received an invitation to a WICT event, and I enjoyed it so much and had such interesting conversations with the other members and with the board, that I thought it was an organization I really wanted to get involved in.

WICT stated mission is to help achieve a level playing field for women in the communications and technology industry, and more in general in the corporate world. Could you give an example of what ‘level playing field’ would look like in day-to-day situations?

This is an interesting question, because it is often it is hard to pinpoint in your everyday interactions the specific things that can hold somebody back in the workplace. In my experience, the more obvious and blatant discrimination towards women doesn’t happen as often anymore but sometimes double standards appear through more subtle incidents, which we need to address and solve as well. For example, if there is only one woman in a meeting, there is often an automatic assumption that she should be the person taking notes. I think this automatic defaulting to the woman in the room being the secretary is one of those small things that can have a big impact on how you are perceived at work – always the person taking notes rather than contributing ideas. This could hold you back, so I think correcting this kind of assumption is part of providing a level playing field.

On the macro level, and this is more important, there are still structural issues facing women and other marginalised groups in the workplace. For example, I think many women face issues relating to maternity leave: how to balance leave with career aspirations, coming back to work and dealing with childcare, and similar. This also impacts men, because the default structure assumes women as the primary caregiver – this actively distorts the playing field. The approach in the Netherlands is quite good compared to other countries, although it is still focused on the mother. The protections in place, the assistance given with childcare and the flexibility regarding work, are better than Ireland for example, which is where I am from. As a woman at the beginning of my career, who would probably like to have children at some point, this is something I am already thinking about.

In WICT we always express the importance of us being a network, was there a moment in your career (in technology or another sector) when you felt you would have benefited from stronger network and support (specifically from women but also in general)?

Yes, and I think this is quite an interesting question for me because of my background. As you know, I work as a lawyer. I started in Ireland and there the legal sector is heavily women dominated with many women in senior positions. So you can imagine, coming from that into tech, I was really struck by the lack of women in senior positions across the industry. In my first role in tech I could really feel that absence, and it meant that there was no clear reference point for certain questions I may have. I have always been very lucky on this, as I have always been surrounded by very supportive men, which I think needs to be an important part of the discussion: building a network does not only mean having women to turn to, but knowing that you have other people in your corner that understand where you are coming from.

Having that kind of backup was very important in my first role in tech – my first manager was a fantastic woman, but my second manager was an extremely supportive man, someone I knew I could turn to with questions. I think this is a good practical example, particularly in a sector that does not have many women in it, of how we can create stronger support networks.

It varies a lot by company as well; for example, Liberty Global, my current employer, has many really interesting women in different positions, so you can get lucky or unlucky. That is what I think we should address: ultimately, it should not be down to luck. You should be able, no matter where you are in the sector, to turn to people who are supportive and who can give you advice and guidance.

As you mentioned, in your previous roles you had people you could turn to, and you could rely on. Has there ever been a person that you looked up to as a leader and that has inspired you in your career, and why?

There have been so many people I have found inspiring throughout my career! One person that springs to mind is a woman I met while in university, Lynn Ruane. Lynn was elected president of the Students Union in Trinity while I was doing my undergrad. She is an amazing woman and a force to be reckoned with. She came to university as a mature student having not finished secondary school, she’s a mother with two kids that she’s bringing up while doing all this incredible and impactful work. She really shook up this organisation that usually had the same kind of people as president- male, middle class, often privately educated. As head of the SU, Lynn caused the organisation to focus on different issues that had not been touched before and she led with great authenticity and drive. After being President of the SU, she ran for the Irish senate and she is now a senator doing incredible work and advocating for people and issues that are often neglected by other politicians. Among the many aspects that I find inspiring about Lynn is the fact that she is very much herself – she never compromised her own values or personality based on the context she found herself in. Whatever career you are in, you should be able to show up to work as your whole self. Of course people are different in their personal and professional lives but you should not have to give up the things that are important to you in order to lead.

Another person I find very inspiring is the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, particularly as someone who uses technology in a very interesting and impactful way. I first encountered her, along with many others, after she attended the World Economic Forum in 2019, where she was cut out of a picture of youth climate activists, the rest of whom were white. She condemned this racism, highlighting the importance of meaningful representation in the voices of authority we look to on vital topics such as the environment. Developing countries are already facing the brunt of climate disaster; activists from the countries most affected are the ones we should be listening to. I’ve been following her work ever since and she is doing so much! She is supporting one project to bring solar panels to schools across Uganda. This is so interesting because it’s taking one problem but also solving so many others. She is looking at how to make her country more sustainable while also ensuring that schools have electrification, including those not on the grid. I think this is such an amazing way of looking at problem solving. When I have to think of how to approach challenges in my life, I now think of Vanessa Nakate and how she is addressing multiple issues with elegant, efficient solutions.

Ultimately there are different ways to be a leader but I think there are two things that I think are important.  Firstly, you should be your own person as a leader and secondly you should look beyond the sector you are working in to learn from developments in other areas.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: as programming chair, your activities more than anyone else’s were impacted by the need to shift to digital events due to COVID-19. How did that go, and how do you see events being held in the future?

There is no doubt that it brought some challenges but overall it went pretty well and actually opened a lot of opportunities for WICT Europe in terms of our programming. The challenges changed over time: at first the main concern was the very practical ‘how are we going to host events?’  That largely solved itself – we were lucky to have access to many different options for event hosting platforms. Of course, technical difficulties could still occur – had you told me one year ago I would come to have nightmares about sound issues on a Webex platform I would have laughed at you, but now it is an issue close to my heart, along with people not muting themselves during meetings and talking over a speaker.

Of course, there were other challenges that we could not have foreseen at the beginning of COVID: everyone was suddenly working from home and didn’t know how to spend their time, so there was this incredible rush towards online content, and people were really excited to participate in online events. Then, as the months went by, I think a little bit of fatigue started to set in, so it really became about looking at what our members wanted, what type and how many events they are interested in attending. It was very important from my perspective to make sure that our events were different every month, and even more important that they were interactive – I did not want people to just plug in and sit there for an hour having people talking wash over them. It was important that people could be involved and maintain that element of connection that they would have face-to-face, which is so core to WICT Europe.

Working remotely meant that we could access speakers that it would have been much more difficult to access if we were trying to get them to attend in person; it allowed more people to access our events, both WICT Europe members based in other countries and also members of WICT UK and US chapters. It worked wonderfully in terms of bringing that broader WICT network together, which would not have been possible if we had in-person events only. In the end, I think virtual events were a bit of a blessing in disguise and allowed us to achieve things we would have not achieved otherwise.

In terms of what is going to happen in the future, obviously part of it is dependent on how things go with COVID, but I would foresee that virtual events will remain pretty core part of our programming going forward. At the same time, I think we have all learnt the value of in-person interaction, so I am looking forward to having some events in person and having a well-deserved glass of wine with the other WICT members again!

What is really amazing is that if you look at WICT Europe’s first year, we held three events. This year [2020], we held 9 WICT specific events, 16 events in partnership with CTAM and another 6 or 7 events offered by other branches. In terms of number of events that WICT Europe hosted, it really went off the charts compared to previous years, and we would not have been able to do that with in-person only events because of the costs associated and because it is easier for people to join a 40 minutes Webex than a two hour in-person event. I was very pleased, especially when ‘Zoom fatigue’ kicked in somewhere in the middle of summer, and it looked like people were not interested in online events anymore but then September came and I think people were a bit reinvigorated. I stepped in as Programming Chair around then – I had been helping with events before –  and it was really gratifying, because when you are in charge of organizing something that you really care about, as I did for all the events we offered, and you work hard on it to see other people get value out of it.

I was browsing what the website says about you, and what was very interesting to me was that you coached the Irish World Schools debating team, and now you are essentially working as a lawyer – does all this debating expertise come in handy in your role in Corporate affairs?

Yes, I did! I have done an awful lot of debating with the Irish World Schools team, firstly as a secondary school student as member of the team. I was then involved in the coaching set up and judged competitions and finally I became a joint head coach, a position that I covered for two years.

It definitely comes in handy and in ways that you would not necessarily expect. The obvious thing is that you are comfortable with public speaking and thinking on your feet but there is much more. When you are debating you end up having to discuss a number of topics that you would not necessarily encounter in your everyday life or in your studies, so you naturally acquire a broader set of knowledge, which is quite helpful. It also trains you to think of topics from different angles because sometimes you have to argue a position that you don’t necessarily believe in which can be very useful in terms of coming to see things from other perspectives and once you have thought through an argument inside-out you can also give a much stronger counterargument.

There is also the other part of it – I am from a very small town in rural Ireland and attending the World Schools Debating Championship, particularly when I was a teenager and first got on the Irish team, gave me the chance to go to different countries and meet people from all over the world. It showed me different ways to living your life, which was amazing and really broadened my horizons. Had I not been on the Irish Worlds Schools team, I would not have good friends from across the globe in the way I do now. The work I do is quite international – though it is mostly EU-based, we constantly look at global trends, so having that international perspective, knowing there is more out there beyond the life that you are used to, is really helpful. Beyond being helpful for a career, I think it’s good for you as a person to broaden your horizons a bit.

If you could pick one thing that you would like WICT Europe to achieve in 2021, what would it be?

From a programming perspective, I really want to see more focus on issues of diversity beyond gender. I think it is important when discussing the different things that hold women back in the workplace – or cause women to hold themselves back – we recognize that it applies to many different people for many different reasons, and we take that kind of intersectional approach to improve conditions for as many people as possible. WICT Europe is in an incredible position to do it, because beyond developing our members’ leadership, we can help them recognize that within that potential they have the power to make their company and their sector as inclusive and equitable as possible.

The WICT Network Europe

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.