Beverly Clarke MBCS is a national leader in computing, author, former national manager for computing at school and mentor. For the Coding Black Females takeover of the BCS Diversity report 2022, she tells Johanna Hamilton MBCS about her life in IT.
So why did you get into IT?
Unbelievably, it was a natural fit. Essentially, I got an A* in GCSE computing studies.
I enjoyed the subject and was interested in what technology and computing could do for me. I kept hearing “you can get a good job out of it”. What really got me on the computing path was encouragement from my computer teacher at school. Then I went to university in London.
The degree was heavily mathematical in the first two years so a bit challenging. I tried to get an industrial placement for my sandwich year. There was a mini-recession back then. We're looking at 1992 ish. I sent 200 letters – that was pre-email days. Every time, I got “Hello”, it would follow with “unfortunately, we regret…” I just piled them up. Then, I got two offers.
So, the first one was a coding job. I went for the interview. I was clearly unsuitable because I'm not a coder. The other offer was the Metropolitan Police. It was a fantastic year and they paid me too! I ended up working in an all-male department. But they were very, very nice to me. I remember my mentor. He said, “Come on young Beverly, let me take you under my wing. Do you know anything about networks? I will teach you about Novell networks and when you leave university, you will have a job.”
So that's where I really started seeing practical IT. I was sent over to work with the diplomatic services. Back then, records of diplomats were on index cards. We had funding for a programme called Picture Cardbox which has long disappeared. It was essentially a database and training the users were two elderly men still getting to grips with “the computer”.
The industrial placement opened my eyes to different software, different people. Another experience with the police was working with territorial operations. I saw IT packages being used in different ways. Really, really good experience for me. I went back to university for my final year to write my project. I felt I could do something with IT. At university, I thought about my opportunity to have free education, not like today where you're paying nine grand a year in tuition fees.
I do believe free education benefits people from disadvantaged backgrounds. My parents both worked as teachers, but they couldn't afford to pay for three children, a mortgage, etc. They owned their own home, they're paying bills but fees for university were a completely different thing. The agreement was, “we're not charging you rent”. I went all through university paying my way with Saturday work and I got my degree.
How important are mentors to develop you as a professional?
So important. Tony showed me what was important to the industry, what the technical skills were at the time. A huge part of my education came from that exposure. I've never forgotten his words “I'll take you under my wing”. Someone to talk to you about what's out there, you can then start to imagine what you can do.
So, I went back to Uni and I did my project and then chose two modules more aligned to my interests – back then it was one artificial type expert systems module and one management information systems module. That's where I started finding myself. Those things hadn't really occurred to me before that industrial sandwich year. Leaving uni I got a job relatively quickly.
You've been a teacher and you've been an author, and you embrace every opportunity that comes along. Is that a fair statement?
I’m still an author by the way! I think one of the things to be successful is you've always got to be looking ahead. I use the word reinvent. It's not completely changing who you are, but rather spotting opportunities. I've literally just been having a conversation about the metaverse and gigabit cities.
Moving forward, it's not just about making everything faster. You've got to think about what's coming next. Say you’re going to a board meeting and you’ve got an AI joining the meeting. We're going to have to merge all of these different digital, virtual and augmented reality worlds. I said that's where I think we’re going, but I don't know what it looks like. You've just got to be willing to embrace this and develop yourself.
How has being a woman of colour impacted your career?
I would say there's a few things. Has it happened to me because I’m a woman or because I’m black? Or is it both? I'll let the reader decide which one. A long time ago at work, I was pulled aside and told, “don't apply for this role because you've got young children you won't be able to do it.”
Now, I didn’t apply realising that opportunities were closed for me there and that I needed to move on. So, I applied for another job somewhere else and got it. Now what shocked me at the time and to be honest, it still does. I'd never been off sick. I'd never asked for time off to look after my children. I turned up every day… So, that's a form of discrimination. What do you do when your face just doesn't fit or your gender?
So, that's the ceiling which has been imposed. I've also had a situation where I was told, “so you're gaining a qualification? That’s really great. And once you've got that, what are you going to do with it? Because there's no room for you here.”
Coding Black Females and BCS have collaborated on a report to capture the real experiences of Black women in the tech industry.
When you start putting them together you start to realise discrimination is at work. What encouraged me to start thinking about it was the events of two years ago with the George Floyd incident, and I didn't realise how much these issues have affected me. I've encountered bias, so that’s why I’ve chosen to speak about it now. How are these situations presenting themselves? And obviously, your readers will decide how they choose to handle these things because I don't think that’s gone away in society. Hopefully, I don't encounter any more.
These are things which, as a woman, you definitely have to rise above. Just three years ago when I took on my role at BCS, I was at an event and I introduced myself to someone… “Hi, I'm the new National Manager.” It was a man. He looked me up and down and then he said to me, “so what exactly qualifies you to do this role?” I did answer his question with a “really nice to meet you” and then I just turned and walked away. I'm fairly certain that men are not asked those questions.
I’ve started to record all of these things in a journal. There's a lot of this out there. I think it's important to talk about it otherwise, we can't move on as a society.
It’s important to have male allies supportive of women and not judging women.
Have you mentored people?
In my teaching career, I then mentored trainee teachers. And then I mentored my teaching assistant to gain a higher level teaching qualification. Then there is coaching, listening and supporting, I have been involved in that. I'm still trying to work out where I'm heading. It's always evolving opportunities.
It's a portfolio career. So when BCS gave me an opportunity to write a book, I was very grateful. I didn't think I could do it but then I thought JUST DO IT! I've always been writing articles with different organisations so through CAS and BCS I did my first bit of advising and BBC scriptwriting. It was like, have you done this before? I said, “No, but I'm gonna give this a go.” That was great.
During the lockdowns, I wrote a children's book series, I self-published the first one. So again, embracing opportunity.
What is the best advice you can give someone starting their career in IT?
Look ahead, keep thinking about a portfolio career. It's not just about looking up – I'm also happy to step to the side or the other side. There are always new things. I think my career journey offers inspiration. Job titles are changeable, but it's key to identifying different pathways.
Pay, this comes with a very big caveat. Yes, time is precious, but consider how you can raise your profile that isn’t paid. Like, I enjoy writing articles, it comes easily to me because I'm interested in it.
On the other hand, I'm not just not going to run around doing things for free. Your worth is equally important. Make sure you’re being paid fairly. I am not afraid to ask if I’m being paid in line with what other contractors are earning because I’m mindful that there's pay discrimination at work.
You shouldn’t be paid more, just by virtue of being male. It's almost like an unspoken rule that you've got to put in more effort as a woman. And as a black woman, you have to work that bit harder.
How would you improve a company’s DE&I policy?
I would say, look around the office the next time you’re in and question what your eyes are taking in. I think that would be the first clue. And then based upon what your eyes see, think about the positions of these people from the receptionist to senior leadership and look at what sort of diversity and inclusion we actually have going on. Then, show me your directors and board members.
If there is a panel talking about DE&I, sometimes you have to ask, “why is everyone on the panel of a certain demographic?” We must balance this with a range of different people.
So in terms of inclusion, that comes back to flexibility in work. Women are biologically different and we'll generally have children. If you're taking on societal roles where women leave full-time work to manage childcare, that, unfortunately, stagnates female careers. It's a case of, “oh, we can't have someone who works four days a week”, why not?
It's shocking, but it does happen. There are really good conversations in recruitment and other sectors that have been completely decimated by artificial intelligence. If all the algorithms had been programmed by men, women would be screened out at the beginning of these processes. That's why we really need to question those building our technologies.
I think we should be talking about these matters more. We have to think about the algorithm. If it just replicates what we've had before, then success looks like white male middle class. If the algorithm is duplicating and amplifying the bias, then nothing will ever change. It needs to do something to counter the bias.