Early on in my career I realised that I was being labelled. As an undergraduate in the 1970s I studied Maths at Southampton University and took a module in computing but wanted to pursue something different in my career.

I’d always been fascinated by information, how it’s accumulated, managed, retrieved and stored, and decided to take a Masters at Sheffield University in information science, an interdisciplinary field primarily concerned with the analysis, collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval, movement and dissemination of information.

Little is heard of this term today, but the principles of information science underpin many aspects of today’s information society, especially the World Wide Web and search engines. We studied pioneers such as Karen Spärck Jones whose main research interests were natural language processing and information retrieval.

After graduation I started work at the British Library, indexing newly published materials and then moved on to project manage a major database conversion exercise. I later worked in customer support for some of the earliest adopters of computerised library systems and also managed an online information retrieval system. I regularly worked with IT practitioners but it was clear to me that I was labelled as a librarian.

Wanting to expand my horizons, in the 1980s I moved to a government business that provided furniture, furnishings and a transport operation for the public sector. We served civil servants, local authority staff, ambassadors and spies! I was recruited as a member of the finance division, acting as the liaison with a project developing IT systems for sales, purchasing and warehousing. I was intrigued to find that no one saw me as a librarian any more. I was labelled now as a finance person.

As my career progressed I became more involved in the world of IT, specialising in project management, business analysis and leadership rather than software engineering. For many years now I have been labelled as an IT person, but I have never forgotten those days when I was viewed as someone quite different. My expertise may have grown but it hasn’t changed that radically - just the label people put on me. I have not, of course, even mentioned the label I have always carried, that of being a woman. I’ve never experienced losing that label!

Labels can constrain our views of what we and others are capable of achieving. I saw for myself how meaningless labels can be and how quickly I changed labels in moving from one job to another. Labelling someone as an IT person can be linked to all sorts of negative connotations and stereotypes which are completely misleading about a field that offers such a wide range of possible career options and the opportunity to tackle issues that are crucial for the future of our society.

Whatever labels other people may attach to you, do not let them (or the labels you give yourself) restrain you as your career progresses. As Michelangelo said “The greater danger for most of us lies in not setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.”

Elizabeth Sparrow, BCS Past President, talks about women in IT and careers in IT

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Sparrow has worked in the IT industry for thirty years. She delivered major programmes of change and improved performance in both public and private sectors and developed particular expertise in working with outsourcing partners and improving supplier relationships.

She was a senior IT leader in the public sector, managing multi-million pound outsourcing relationships with a number of different service providers. As IT Director at the Home Office she led a major infrastructure upgrade project and launched an innovative private finance initiative. While at the Crown Prosecution Service, Elizabeth coordinated a substantial change programme involving not only the CPS but also the police service and courts.

Elizabeth served an extended period of 17 months as President of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT between 2009 and 2011. She has represented the Institute at many events in the UK and abroad and, as President, focused on a series of award-winning, high profile public engagement programmes aimed at increasing public confidence in IT, helping everyone make better use of information in their lives and helping people become more active participants in the information society.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate by Kingston University in January 2012 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the profession and also by the Open University in 2008 for her public service and work in areas of special educational interest.

Her first book, 'Successful IT Outsourcing', was published by Springer-Verlag in 2003. Her second book, 'A Guide to Global Sourcing' was published by BCS in 2005.

From 2011 until 2013 Elizabeth was on the Board of AbilityNet, a national charity that helps disabled adults and children use computers and the internet by adapting and adjusting their technology.

Today Elizabeth is active in the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists where she is helping to develop their volunteering programme and communications. She also works on publications and publicity for Barts Guild, St Bartholomew’s Hospital’s League of Friends.