Mara Breen remembers striding from university into a job as a management consultant at Accenture. Her 2008 recruitment class reflected an equal balance of men and women, side by side at the starting blocks of their careers. Mara convinced herself that gender inequality in the workplace was a problem of the past.
Fast-forward to today. Mara has become a fast-rising female professional in Accenture, a Senior Manager for Technology in the UK and Ireland. Mara is a global leader for DevOps and Head of Business Operations for Accenture Scotland.
And Mara has a blunt message for her younger self: You had no clue.
Even as she succeeds in her career, she sees there is much work to be done to help ensure gender equality continues beyond the recruitment stage.
Empowered by Accenture’s goal of making its workforce 50/50 by 2025, Mara is now leading the company’s Accent on Gender support programme for the UK and Ireland. Alongside that, she’s founded a learning and mentoring support group called WITH, the Women in Technology Hub. She regularly speaks to schoolgirls through STEM programmes to encourage them to pursue technology and science at university and beyond.
Mara often finds the greatest influence she can wield is the power of her own career story – and her candid admission that she, too, had to overcome her own crisis of confidence.
“Entering the world of consulting was an eye-opener for me. I grew up in a council scheme in a part of Scotland that had high rates of crime and poverty. I was the first member of my family to go to university,” Mara says. “I felt very intimidated by the way that everyone else carried themselves.”
In her first major performance review, she was rated among the lowest 10 percent of her peers, company-wide.
“I didn’t understand how the firm worked. It was disheartening,” says Mara, who recalls applying for other jobs at that time.
Instead, she proactively asked a supervisor for a fresh start in a new ambitious role advising a leading UK investment company on its IT staffing and technology innovation. For more than a year, she pursued a challenging work schedule, catching overnight and crack-of-dawn trains from Edinburgh to Newcastle on Mondays and Tuesdays, Preston on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and London on Fridays.
In the end, Mara discovered, one person can make all the difference. In her case, a senior manager in London named Richard James, offered insight and reassurance in equal measure.
“Richard was really inspirational and charismatic and helped me to navigate the firm and to be confident in the organisation. He had my total trust and hugely influenced my career,” Mara says. “I would not be a senior manager at the firm today without Richard.”
Mara is now mentored by Stuart Chalmers, a Managing Director and Head of Commercial Banking for UKI. “The advice and time Stuart provides me is hugely beneficial to my development and greatly appreciated,” she says. “The encouragement from someone who wants you to do well, and can point out where you are going wrong, is one of the things that motivates me to drive forward with my career.”
Ever since, Mara has been working towards having that same career-bolstering effect on incoming employees – and innovating ways to help everyone find their own mentor. The key is the way mentoring relationships typically develop. It’s most common for men to gravitate towards mentoring other men – while women have not always supported each other in the same way, she says. There are of course exceptions.
As chief recruiter for Accenture’s Scotland office, Mara says she’s committed to hiring a gender-balanced workforce and to keeping colleagues progressing.
“When women come into the firm, I encourage them to move around and apply for distinct roles,” Mara says. “I see women typically aim for roles that are less technical, in HR, marketing or business analyst-type jobs, while men apply for DevOps, digital, robotics, data-type jobs.”
So as part of her commitment as the regional lead of Accent on Gender and as the creator of the Women in Technology Hub, she organises regular networking and learning events accompanied by a connect session where male and female colleagues are encouraged to compare notes and, potentially, find their own professional confidante. Such sessions emphasise what she calls “peer coaching, where senior women in the company mentor each other.”
“Sometimes,” she says, “you need to have difficult conversations if you want change to happen.”
MARA’S ADVICE FOR WOMEN CONSIDERING A CAREER IN TECH
Be confident and welcome the unknown.
Pursue a career that excites you and don’t feel intimidated by things you do not know. Half of the fun in a successful career is all the learning you do along the way. If you think you can do only half of the job description, that’s enough. Just be ready to learn and enjoy the process of challenging yourself to grow. Swim with the wave and don’t let it drown you.
Find a mentor who will share their wealth of experience and their network.
A mentor does not have to be in your own workplace. The key value of a mentor is the counsel they provide, the listening ear, the outside perspective they bring. A good mentor gives you focus and builds you up, helps you to gear up for the next challenge. They are your go-to person for challenges and successes.
Recognise the central importance of networking with others.
It’s critical to make connections with people from different industries. Opportunities come from being well known, being visible to senior managers and clients. Jobs, roles and other business opportunities often will not be openly advertised as “the right person for the job” is suggested through networks.
It’s human nature to seek out people similar to yourself, but this holds back the full potential of your professional development. Working as part of the broadest possible tapestry of people means you will have the ability to tap into and learn from a wider range of skills, experiences and perspectives.
Fall in love with innovation.
Be committed to lifelong learning on the latest technological trends, such as robotics and automation, and imagine how these new capabilities might transform the lives of others for the better. There’s always a future in making the world a better place.
Persevere. Keep swimming.
Don’t be tempted to turn back if your career road turns rocky. Your achievements ultimately will feel more rewarding if you encountered some bumps, or even a few crashes, for perspective along the way.
The Accenture Take:
Our ambition is to be the most inclusive and diverse company. We believe our diversity makes us stronger and more innovative – and we embrace diversity as a source of innovation, creativity and competitive advantage. Achieving means not only putting diversity front and centre when hiring, but ensuring people from different backgrounds like Mara are nurtured and included so they can realise their potential – and help others to develop themselves.