Why it’s so important to have female role models

Tamara Lohan

Article provided by Tamara Lohan, CTO & Co-Founder of Mr & Mrs Smith

Mr & Mrs Smith only exists because of a romantic weekend that went wrong.

My boyfriend had whisked me away to the Lake District for what the guidebook promised would be a few days of luxury, style and sophistication. What we got was chintz, trouser presses and all the charm of a motorway service station. We were sat in a pub wondering how we could have got it so wrong when we realised that the problem was with the guidebook – there wasn’t one out there that told us the kind of things we’d want to know about the kind of places we’d want to stay. We came home with a list of what we wanted from the perfect hotel guide – and a determination to publish our own.

We re-mortgaged our house, borrowed from friends and family, and visited every boutique hotel we could find. The book became a bestseller; my boyfriend became my husband and business partner; and, over the last 15 years, Mr & Mrs Smith has become one of the most successful travel brands in the UK.

But it hasn’t happened by accident; we’ve had to actively adapt the business as the market has evolved. We developed our membership model to encompass an online and offline booking service, built our own technology, and expanded our collection to include hotels (and, more recently, villas and cultural experiences) all around the world. I soon realised that I wasn’t running a travel publisher, but a tech company.

Being a female founder and a female CTO makes me a little unusual. More often than I’d like, I’m the only woman in the room. This means that – although I never set out to get it – I have visibility in the sector, and an ability (a responsibility, in fact) to get my voice heard and bring more women into that room. Women are under-represented in tech – the encouraging thing is that this fact has been acknowledged and we are taking active steps to address it.

It starts with education. Young girls need female role models in all sectors, to show them that there is a pathway to success. Girls need to know that they can do what they want, that all subjects are open to them, and they need to get this message when they’re young. For example, I’ve been involved with a university programme that talks to 14-year-old girls. This age is a critical point for them; it’s when they are thinking about what GCSEs to take – their first opportunity to drop STEM subjects. If we can show them successful women in this field, occupying positions they weren’t sure were within their reach, we can show them that there are choices available that they might not otherwise have taken, and consequently change the make-up of the industry in the future.

But what about now? Are there more immediate changes that can be made to improve inclusivity in the workforce? At Smith, we recognised that a company has to adapt with the needs of its employees, and that rigid structures – whether in terms of office hours or just who sits where – can be exclusionary. With tech in particular, it’s easy for developers to be siloed away in one corner of the office, where, to the rest of the company, they appear to perform some esoteric code-tinkering beyond the understanding of ‘normal’ humans. It’s an insular approach, which culturally separates the wider team, and can entrench assumptions about what – and who – tech involves. I’ve done my best to ensure that my tech team isn’t sequestered away from the rest of our operations, but integrated across them. By working ‘in the open’ like this, we aim to nurture a culture of understanding and respect – one where the whole team recognises that everyone’s role is integral to the overall business.

As CTO, I’m in a position to shape the department, and I’ve worked hard to nurture diversity. We currently have a 60/40 split between men and women, which is good (23% above industry standard), but not yet good enough. My goal is to shift that to 50/50 within two years.

Of course, this has to extend beyond tech teams. Today’s technology means that remote and flexible working are more viable than ever before, and that the needs of every employee can in theory be accommodated; in practice, it depends upon the company employing them. More and more businesses are, like us, embracing these possibilities to reduce institutional discrimination and meet the needs of a more diverse team. We’ve incorporated flexible working hours (we’re school-run-friendly!); have introduced a work-from-home policy one day a week to help Smith parents (we’re currently exploring the possibility of extending that to two days for our tech team); and do our best to adapt to the changing life circumstances of our staff (one of our team had to relocate her family to Bali – she’s still a full-time employee).

I believe that embedding this sort of flexibility has been instrumental in not only making Smith a female-friendly employer, but also in supporting the continuing success of our company. I hope that more businesses follow suit, and together we can fix the mismatch between society’s needs and employment practice. After all, when you identify a problem, you do what you can to fix it. That’s how my business started in the first place.

About the author

Tamara Lohan is the CTO and Co-Founder of the boutique travel club Mr & Mrs Smith. Now in its 16th year, the company recently launched one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in the UK, raising over £1 million on Crowdcube on its first day. Here, Tamara talks about how the company started, how she’s working to get a 50/50 male-female split across her tech team, and why female role models are critical to young girls.

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