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.

Meet the Board – Soraya Loerts

WICT Europe Board Position:
President | VP of Product Quality, Liberty Global

Soraya, you have been a driving force of WICT (Women in Communication & Technology) Europe since the very beginning as you were involved in setting it up. What made you decide to take on this challenge and invest your time and experience in WICT?

Well, the main reason I wanted to be involved in setting up WICT’s European chapter was the fact that I thought the European context was completely missing a platform open to women but also to men to learn, to develop and to network; I think real achievements come when we really come together and get a better understanding of what our differences are, as well as our similarities. It is fundamental to voice the challenges that we face, and by that I am not referring only to the challenges faced by women, that is not what we want to achieve. We all have challenges in navigating our careers, with overcoming differences between men and women, and if we want to really drive level playing field and equality in the workplace, we need to address all those challenges together.

You mentioned achieving ‘a level playing field’, and we do talk about it a lot, but how does it translate in da-to-day situations? Could you give us an example of what it would mean in our actual work life?

I think that, very simplistically put, level playing field means that the companies we work for become a true reflection of our society; it means moving towards a 50/50 men and women representation in the workplace. And we know that technology companies have a skewed representation, especially in leadership positions, where we are so much behind.

As a member of WICT, what I really appreciate is that it provides a network of people who are in a similar situation, enabling members to learn from each other and build on each other’s strengths. Throughout your career, whether in telco or elsewhere, was there a moment where you think you would have benefited from a stronger network?

Yes, I think so. You know, I started my work life quite young as I worked full time jobs during university. I think especially in those early years of your career, when you are still trying to figure everything out, and you constantly feel like you are behind, then yes, I could have really benefited from a network to share that with, to understand that feeling insecure is normal and logical, and that it has nothing to do with your own ability. And I think that just the fact of having that sort of discussion and understanding that I did not have to solve it all by myself, would have probably made my early career years a lot easier than they were – and I am not saying they were incredibly hard, but I think we can all recognize that starting something new can be scary, but it does not need to be.

Yes, I am sure many people can relate to that and are going through the same right now! And you seem to have overcome all that and are now a successful figure in an industry that as you mentioned is typically male dominated. What were the main challenges that you had to face? And how did they change over time?

Oh, of course, there has have been plenty of challenges throughout my career! I have always been very ambitious, and especially at the beginning of my career, every time I would put myself out there and say ‘Yes, I will take that next opportunity’, that’s when my insecurity would creep in and make me question whether I was too quick to raise my hand. But then I would dive in, eyes and ears closed, and every time I would made it to the other side, look back and think ‘I made it, on to the next one!’.
From the very beginning of my career, I have always worked in big corporations, and that can be quite overwhelming especially when you are just starting: how can you differentiate yourself in a company with 90,000 employees, while staying close to who you are? How do you build up the confidence to raise your hand and convince yourself that you are ready, and you are better than the other 89,999 people there? Getting that confidence and boldness to always raise to the occasion has always been a challenge; and you know, that insecurity has always been there, but that ambitious part of me that was convinced that I could pull it off and that I would grow from it has always been bigger than that insecurity. So looking at how my career went, I think the biggest challenges I have overcome did not come from an external context, but rather from my own insecurities.

You mentioned how important it is to ‘not get lost’ and remain close to who we are, and we read in your intro on the WICT website that you live quite an active lifestyle outside the office. What impact do you think your approach to your private life has on your life at the office?

I am convinced that being (or trying to be) successful has everything to do with how you balance body and soul, if you want to put it that way. I realized quite early in my career that if I want to perform, if I want to excel, I really need time for myself, to remain fit, to live a healthy lifestyle, and that is why I am very disciplined when it comes to that. Some of you that know me may know that I don’t have children, and that was deliberate choice: I honestly don’t understand how people juggle all those these things, staying fit, eating healthy, having career and having children; I have a huge respect for men and women that can manage that, but it was very clear to me that I could never do that. But even without that, it takes discipline. If you expect excellence from yourself, and consequently from your team, you need to be fit, and be healthy, physically and mentally. I honestly believe that working  in a big corporation is top sport, and for top sport you need to train and be healthy, because it is true that I get a lot of energy from what I get to do on a daily basis – because I have the most amazing job in the whole company, maybe in the entire industry – but it is top sport: we get to work with so many people, all with different energies and challenges to solve, and we have so many opportunities, but in order to keep an open mind and fresh eyes we all need downtime. If I imagine not having an active life outside of work, not staying healthy and keeping my mind in check, and eating healthy, I have no idea how I would go through the day with enough energy. Because it is full on, from morning to evening, especially in these times when we spend way too many hours behind our laptops.

Closing with some advice: now that we are all locked inside with our laptops, do you have any words of wisdom to go through the coming lockdown?

Well, I would say, look back at one day before this period, when you wished you had more time. That phrase, that thought ‘oh, if only I had more time in a day, then I would…’ pick up piano lessons, or Spanish lessons, or do yoga, or run a marathon, or whatever it is… Make sure that whatever it is that you would have loved to do had you only had more time, you do it now. We got so much time back from not having to commute and not being able to meet up with friends and going to restaurants, and we need to be conscious of that, and use that time working on achieving one or two of those dreams, instead of filling it with even more work.

Bonus: heart-felt advice
There is one remark I think is very important to make. When I look back on my career and how it went, I notice I have always worked hard, focusing on my performance, letting the numbers speak for themselves, thinking that then the rest would come by itself, and probably I did not look up enough. And I don’t mean looking up to management, but to lift my eyes from what I was doing, and to look around a bit more, and realize where I was and where I was going next. I think sometimes we underestimate the importance of the time we spend with our network and investing into those relationships, because ultimately building those sponsors, having mentors, and so on, those things are key to build our career.

A new board, a deep commitment to our mission and some challenging questions from the audience: here’s a recap of what happened in WICT September Townhall

Who else has started to expect the worst when they hear the word ‘news’ this year? I definitely have. However, news can still be great news and this is one of those cases – even in these unprecedented times, the leadership team at WICT Europe are finding new ways of connecting with our members.

On September 16th, we held a virtual Townhall event to introduce the new Board chaired by Soraya Loerts who shared her vision and strategy for WICT Europe; it was also an opportunity for us to hear from members on their views and expectations of the Chapter for the coming months. This was our biggest event to date: over 100 people signed up, representing ~15 technology companies across Europe.

We decided to give you a quick recap of the great content covered with the help of WICT Europe’s Chief of Staff, Nadia, who acted as moderator of the event:

What was the purpose of having this Townhall?

Having this Townhall now was so appropriate, for two main reasons. As you know, we have just recently appointed a new board, and it was really important that our members could see us, speak with us, and share their thoughts on the direction of the Chapter for the coming year. We really want all members to play an active role in WICT, so we think creating that personal connection was a meaningful step in that direction.

In addition, we wanted to acknowledge that whilst events have been moving to digital formats, a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future, we are still 100% committed to realizing our goals as a Chapter. If anything, pivoting towards digital events offers the exciting opportunity of really leveraging our central Chapter to expand to new geographies across Europe.

What main topics were addressed during the event?

We wanted to communicate the type of events we will be focusing on this year. There will be a greater emphasis on skill-based leadership training, paired with the launch of our mentoring program. This will be available to all levels through an application process.

Last year we were almost like a start-up, launching the Chapter and building a membership base. We have now moved into the phase where we want to focus on driving value for our members and providing them with development opportunities, as ultimately we believe this will attract wider diversity.

Some C-level guests also joined the event, what was their input to the conversation?

We were really lucky to have the support of so many people at the event! Among others, we were joined by Enrique Rodriguez, the Chief Technology Officer of Liberty Global and Thomas Mulder, the Chief People Officer of VodafoneZiggo, and this was a huge endorsement for WICT Europe. We are really serious about wanting to make a difference for our members through learning and development opportunities, but we also need to play an active role in guiding companies on how we can create measurable and attainable goals.

We were challenged by Enrique and some other members on how we will report our success. That was extremely valid feedback for us, and we are already hatching a plan as to how we will measure and communicate this in a more data driven way over the next year.

What kind of questions were raised by the audience?

It was great to see how eager attendees were to participate in the conversation, and the questions were many and diverse. One recurring theme was the complexity of diversity, and the need to acknowledge its intersectional nature. We have so far focused mostly on gender, but our members pointed out there are so many aspects that can and need to be added to that: the challenges faced, for example, by a single mother will be only partly the same as those faced by a woman of color working in a white man dominated corporation. Some of our members have many of these overlapping social identities, and we need to acknowledge and address the diversity that they add to our cause. How can we look at other verticals beyond just gender, and bring that into the conversation? Perhaps focusing on diversity as a broader topic we can bring light to other movement and strive for equality together. As a first step in this direction, we are hosting an event on LGBTQI+ plus inclusion in the workplace this October; we are also planning an event inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has deeply characterized this last year, and from which we can for sure learn.

If you could pick one takeaway that you would like attendees to remember from this Townhall, what would it be?

The central word for us is ‘together’. It is important for our members to know that we are driven to create a programming calendar that is relevant to them but ultimately if we want to achieve our mission of creating a level playing field for both men and women in technology, we need to do it together. Funnily enough while we were talking about this, we realized that the word ‘together’ can be split in to-get-her, which is so representative of our mission: we want to get her to her next steps, to get her to a leading role, to get a level playing field for her… So, yes: together is the word.

Well, what is left to say, if not that we were so excited to see the engagement from members and we cannot wait to see what next year has in store for WICT Europe!