Talk about the difference

Abigail Harper tells her story and explains why being accepting of difference isn't enough. We need to talk about, understand and embrace what makes us unique.

With a life that took in the Royal Marines Commandos and latterly software engineer, Abigail Harper explains why she believes simply accepting people isn't enough to engender real equality. Rather, she says, our industry - and work places in general - need to make a profound cultural shift. The first step in this journey, she says, is talking.

Tell us who you are and about your experience

My name is Abigail Harper, I'm 31 and live in Leeds. I work for Sky as a scrum master at the digital centre of excellence - working with, and leading, a team delivering commercial applications.

My career started very differently leaving school at 16 and joining the Royal Marines Commandos as a man. There were many reasons for this but proving I was not just a man, but the manliest of men.

After a number of years, I left the forces with the intention of pursuing a career as a software engineer and went to university as a mature student. Whilst at university, and after many years of struggling, I realised that I didn't have anything to prove as a man, as I wasn't one. I underwent a sex change and started living as a woman.

After university I was really worried about how I would be perceived in the work place, not only would I be treated fairly but would I even get a job. This turned out not to be an issue and over a number of years I've worked firstly on delivering software in IT and telecommunications, then later working as a scrum master and project manager supporting teams and delivering software that has changed the face of the business I've worked for and helped our customers.

I've been lucky enough to be a runner up, twice, in the BCS IT awards and won a number of employee awards. While with Sky I have been involved in supporting women in technology events, and Skys LGBT forum championing inclusion and diversity in the work place, along with events including; Sky's involvement in Leeds Pride parade, and manager's help packs to support trans employees.

Why is this important to you?

Diversity in the work place is an important topic to me. It's been said that you are up to 20 per cent less productive at work if you hide something such as your sexuality or gender identity, as well as other aspects of your life.

Now spread this across a team or an office and you're not only not maximising your own potential but it can seriously impact how productive the work force is. Even in day-to-day interactions with team members if they have brought their whole self to work then it can inform how the dynamics of a team will work through understanding each other more.

Once you have a team that truly knows each other and respects what makes us all different, we will be able to draw on these experiences and offer the best solutions for our customers because we will better reflect them in our diversity. On top of this, if a company hires the best people for the job through their attitudes and skills, rather than their sexuality, gender, or colour of their skin, then the best talent will be able to be nurtured.

What challenges have you faced in your career?

There have been a number of challenges I've faced throughout my career. My first worry has always been in getting hired. I hope that who I am and the skills I have shine through, but there is always the potential that my trans status would prohibit me from certain companies or even countries.

Even small things like being mis-gendered in the work place (be that intentionally or not) and judging if it's the time or place to correct this can be an issue. My main challenge has been around the perception of what makes a successful man or woman in the work place. The traits that make men successful are often seen as detrimental to a woman's career. As a man I was very driven and this was praised in a positive way, but as a woman I've had to take a step back from this so as to not been seen to needing to 'prove something'.

How does the profession need to progress / develop?

For me, the change that needs to take place is more cultural. We need to, as IT professionals, move away from seeing people as a resource or a skill set and understand that everyone has a different story. The experiences and background they have is who they are.

I feel we need to understand that hiring someone becomes counter intuitive if we do not talk about these differences as it is the talking about - not just the acceptance - that allows us to be truly diverse.

What one piece of advice would you give to others?

Be yourself, own the experiences and differences that make you unique, but accept others for theirs. Most of all, keep talking about them.