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The Chair of ‘Women on Boards UK’ shares her vision for an equitable digital future

Posted 1 Mar 2023

This International Women’s Day Digital Catapult’s trailblazing Board share their insights…

A key part of Digital Catapult’s mission to accelerate digital adoption is working with the UK’s trailblazing founders, technology experts, and business leaders. To celebrate International Women’s Day and the crucial role women have played in accelerating the digital future, we sat down with our Board to hear more about their vision for an equitable digital future and how we can get there. In this interview we caught up with Rowena Ironside, Founder of Women on Boards UK and software expert on her vision for a more equitable digital future. 

Rowena is a founder and currently Non-Executive Director of Women on Boards UK, a purpose-led company providing the information, connections and encouragement to ensure more women are appointed to boards and senior leadership positions across all sectors. She has been a Non-Executive Director of the Digital Catapult since 2015 and is also Chair of the healthcare charity PSPA. Rowena spent 25 years in the ICT industry, starting her career writing software in Australia; building and selling an IT services business in London in the 1980’s and finally running several multi-national professional and managed services businesses in the software and hosting industries. After a year at London Business School completing the Sloan Masters (2002), Rowena’s ‘second career’ has focused on board, advisory and entrepreneurial roles in purpose-led organisations, including start-ups, universities, charities and the Cabinet Office. As well as a deep tech background, Rowena brings broad strategic expertise and global operations experience in the digital sector, along with a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation and diversity.

What do you feel are the strengths of the UK technology ecosystem? How is it creating a more conducive environment for women to succeed than other ecosystems like Silicon Valley? 

The quality of academic research in UK universities is world-leading and provides a strong, geographically dispersed foundation for a vibrant technology ecosystem in the UK. The power of the Silicon Valley ecosystem comes from the close proximity of a rich pool of tech startups to venture capital; past founders with deep pockets; and Stanford University. But this tight-knit ecosystem suffers from being dominated by (mostly white) men, reflecting the demographic that has enjoyed the lions’ share of past success. In the UK on the other hand, along with the powerful tech cluster in the London, Cambridge and Oxford triangle there are also tech hubs in many other cities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Which gives the UK a less homogenous startup environment and hopefully provides the foundations for a more diverse technology ecosystem. These strong and diverse foundations are creating an environment where more people are empowered and encouraged to join the ecosystem and pursue careers in technology. 

In which area would you like to see more progress? Where do we need to direct our tools, policy, and talent to ensure that women have the support they need to have a successful career in technology? 

The percentage of girls thinking about jobs in technology remains way too low. We need to make more progress in broadening the funnel of talent and opportunity for the sector by ensuring that encouragement for girls to look at careers in tech starts in schools. Unfortunately, we are still handicapped by strong gender stereotypes in many homes and schools that influence which careers are deemed ‘suitable’ for girls and discourages far too many from having the confidence to give tech a go. All stakeholders in the technology ecosystem across the UK need to ensure that we keep building and showcasing female role models in the sector as well as calling out and challenging these outdated stereotypes.

The theme of IWD this year is to ‘embrace equity’. At Digital Catapult we’ve been thinking a lot about how the metaverse can be an environment where stakeholders of all sizes feel empowered. Could you tell us what an equitable digital future looks like to you? 

The big challenges that come to mind for me around an equitable digital future are:

Access to technology 

  1. Online safety
  2. Biased digital decision making 

An equitable digital future is one where everyone has the opportunity to experience the metaverse and get excited about its potential. It’s critical to ensure that governance of online behaviour is effective in creating an environment where everybody can feel safe to interact and express themselves online. The Digital Catapult is playing a leading role in strengthening AI ethics and we need to keep a spotlight on the risk that AI-based decisions that AI-based decisions will reflect and perpetuate our long history of gender and ethnic bias.

How can our male allies support us in building an equitable digital future? 

A simple but important starting point for our male allies is recognising that women experience the world differently from men. It is easy to assume that the playing field is level in the world of work, but this is far from true. The challenge is that the many privileges accorded to white men by ‘dominant cultures’ are largely invisible – unless and until they are pointed out. Once men become aware of this they are better equipped to be more thoughtful and proactive in how they treat, encourage and support female colleagues.

What advice has been helpful for you throughout your career that you would like to share with other women? 

  • Grab opportunities, accept there will always be some risks and then do your best. Don’t spend a lot of time worrying about not doing a perfect job. There is a lot of luck in any successful career so don’t let self-doubt make you step back from an exciting opportunity. 
  • Start building your own support network early on, and make time to keep in touch with people you enjoy working with or who show an interest in your success. 
  • Stay curious and keep learning.

What is one piece of advice would you give to someone interested in working in the technology industry? 

Take advantage of the many online learning opportunities that exist right now.  There has never been a better time to expand your knowledge for free (or almost), so spend time discovering, learning and working out where your passions lie.   


At Digital Catapult we are committed to building an organisation that is fully representative and reflective of UK society. You can find out more about our equality, diversity and inclusion charter here