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Skillsoft Puts Women in Action to Improve Culture

Sarah Thomas
4/3/2017
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As a company that provides e-learning programs to Fortune 500 companies spanning digital, business skills, IT and leadership, Skillsoft is tasked with offering expert advice, but also always making sure it practices what it preaches.

Nowhere is this more true than with Skillsoft's Women in Action program. The program is made up of videos, books, guides and activities to help women advance into leadership roles, build their brands and overcome unconscious biases in their organizations.


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Skillsoft has been offering it for two years and using the program itself with 800 of its own women since October. Chief Creative Officer Tara O'Sullivan says it's been a great way to help women realize their full potential and stick it out in sometimes adverse work environments, but she also admits that any complete program has to involve men as well.

She recently shared her ideas on how to improve company culture in the tech industry, as well as offered some thoughts on what tech is already doing right, with Women in Comms.

Tara O'Sullivan, Chief Creative Officer, Skillsoft
Tara O’Sullivan, Chief Creative Officer, Skillsoft

Women in Comms: Tell us a little about Skillsoft and your focus on education around women in the workplace.

Tara O'Sullivan: Skillsoft is the largest e-learning company in the world with over 40 million users. We have 150,000 different pieces of content from courses to assessments to books to videos we use covering four key areas -- digital, business skills, IT and leadership, which includes the Women in Action program. About one and half years ago a lot of our customers were asking what they could do for women in their organizations. They set up groups where women would meet on a weekly or monthly basis and that didn't really work. They wanted something more like an MBA that was programmatic and you could put your women leadership through it. We developed, with outside experts, some videos, books and courses we felt were relevant to women. It was really interesting that we were doing it internally as well, and I'm the sponsor of that. We've started looking at doing mentoring over the last six months too.

WiC: What is your goal with Women in Action?

TO: With Women in Action, the thing we're trying to do is raise awareness of the fact that we do a huge amount of unconscious bias training in our company, and we work on training people who don't recognize that they are biased about something. A lot of people would say they treat women equally but sometimes it's unconscious. If you give them a CV, 61% of the time they will pick a male one over a female even if just the name is different. Having a Women in Action program makes everyone think about their unconscious bias, which is good.

Women in Action shows from the top that they're willing to put money and time into the problem, and usually there's an executive sponsor saying this is important for my organization. We're going to spend money on it with Skillsoft which has spent time curating this information to make sure you get the help you need. We're looking at doing mentoring as well. It tells women in organizations there's a focus on them and where they are in the organization. It shows they want equality.

WiC: Do any tech companies use your Women in Action program?

TO: We had a major manufacturing company last week develop the program. It's tech companies too. People are recognizing that it's for women everywhere. They are staying at companies longer if they see there is a kind of environment of the company that supports them and their position in the company. I think tech companies are better at it because there is such a skew in engineering of men to women, that they are really focused on it. They are doing an incredible job at investing in schools. You have to change the mind of a six-year-old girl to tell them it's cool. That is absolutely going to work. More women will go into engineering.

WiC: I am surprised you said tech is doing such a good job, when we hear every day how dismal a lot of their company cultures are. Are they doing as good a job internally as they are externally, reaching out to young people?

TO: I do Coder Jogo in my town, and it's still 70% guys, but I think it's starting to raise awareness. I'm a Girls Scouts guide leader and one things the guides are doing in the states is teaching a coding badge. They have knitting badge, but also a coding badge. People are recognizing the kind of tech skills and this thing of tech being a guys' world with math being for men is just not true. I think you have to raise daughters and sons who don’t believe that.

Having said that, we've also come at a time with Uber being challenged. It's appalling and really damaged their reputation of the company and CEO. Women developers are being encouraged to leave Uber, and they are being targeted to go to other companies. I thought it was unbelievable at first but friends in the state said it was known for awhile. There is sexism on the developer side, and it's endorsed from the top. It doesn't happen just because there's a bunch of guys in the room. It's a top-down thing. I do think it can be stopped by the CEO and senior management refusing to allow something like that to happen and refusing to keep on someone who behaves that way.

Our CEO is really positive about diversity. The whole company supports Women's Day and he's committed to equal numbers of women in management positions. That is really important. I know if I heard of a sexist incident that happened, it would be absolutely unacceptable in our organization and the person would be referred to HR.

WiC: How can a company that wants to change go about altering its culture?

TO: I think the first thing to do it admit you don't have a female-friendly culture. That is a big thing. Authenticity and being brutally honest with people is where people are now... Companies have to be incredibly honest and say they don't have it right but they want to get it right. They want to talk to men and women. Women in Action is great, but it only talks to women, and you have to talk to men too. Customers have to inform the whole organization that it's happening and it's great, but I do think there's work to be done with the messaging to the rest of the organization. They know it's happening, where women are doing cool stuff and are becoming confident and supported, but in my opinion you have to bring men with you. Men endorsing it is as important as women. It's important for men to not continue sexism -- men calling men out.

Another thing that's hugely important is looking at salary comparison. We have a new Head of Talent, and when she came in she looked at how we hired. We benchmark every single role we hire, and we benchmark it against years of experience and what the area is and where they live and that kind of stuff. It comes out with a number. If you have a senior manager in one area of business, they should be paid the same as another senior manager or a support person. It's about the role, not the person. In a lot of cases, hiring is about the person. Salary and job description have to be the same across the board to make it fair. It was refreshing, she said. The actual parity across our organizations is really good. You would expect us to eat our own dog food because we're so focused on women and diversity, but it's great to have an objective person verifying that.

WiC: What is your advice for women trying to make it in male-dominated cultures?

TO: Try to find a mentor you can meet with every few weeks to pick their brain. For women in positions where they could mentor, you have to bring women with you. The idea of pulling up the ladder when you're up... You have to use your instinct and knowledge and position to bring other women with you. I believe in what Madeline Albright said: "There is a special circle of hell reserved for women who don't help other women." We have to ask for more. I worked with women in another group and a man came in and said we don't ask for stuff enough. We expect to be rewarded. We say sorry a lot. We need to ask a lot more. There is a Chrome add-on you can do to see if you are apologizing too much. It's really interesting when you start overusing "sorry." That sort of thing is important too.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Director, Women in Comms

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Sarah Thomas
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Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
4/5/2017 | 10:31:20 AM
Women in Action
I would love to take the Women in Action educational program. I'd be really interesting to see what all it entails. As O'Sullivan points out, helping women in the workforce is a multi-facated issue. Speaking to just women on how they can advance their own careers is just one small part of the solution, but it's an important one too.
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Understanding the full experience of women in technology requires starting at the collegiate level (or sooner) and studying the technologies women are involved with, company cultures they're part of and personal experiences of individuals.

During this WiC radio show, we will talk with Nicole Engelbert, the director of Research & Analysis for Ovum Technology and a 23-year telecom industry veteran, about her experiences and perspectives on women in tech. Engelbert covers infrastructure, applications and industries for Ovum, but she is also involved in the research firm's higher education team and has helped colleges and universities globally leverage technology as a strategy for improving recruitment, retention and graduation performance.

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