An Interview with Jessica Hemmings
We caught up with Jessica Hemmings who is the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Chair for Apprenticeship Connect. In this interview, we delve into the remarkable career journey of Jessica, who transitioned from recruitment to tutoring and spearheading equality initiatives in the tech and sales industries. Jessica candidly discusses challenges faced, strategies implemented for inclusion, and offers insights for women excelling in these fields. Her dedication to fostering diversity and equality paints a path towards a more inclusive future.
Tell us about your career journey so far…
I started my career as a customer service advisor just under 10 years ago now. I stepped into the world of apprenticeships because I really wanted to earn my own money and continue to learn as an apprentice. This quickly led to a promotion into learning and development where I coached and trained a range of different people within my organisation. However, this role was subsequently removed from the business, and I decided I wanted to try something new. I then ‘fell into’ recruitment – which I think is actually quite a common occurrence with recruiters! I absolutely loved my job, recruiting into business support roles and accountancy and finance positions for various clients. I still remember making a call on my first day that happened to get me my first placement on my third day with the company and I loved the buzz of sales from my very first day. I continued to work through the pandemic on a completely cold desk whilst some of my colleagues were on furlough which was a huge responsibility at the time as the market was so quiet. Fast forward to today and now I teach apprentices how to do the role that I used to love so much and help them to see their own potential as a successful salesperson.
I started my role at Apprenticeship Connect with the ambition of inspiring future salespeople and recruiters to succeed and thrive in the industry that I had enjoyed working in so much. I now look after a caseload of around thirty recruitment apprentices and provide tailored support and coaching, specifically focused around:
- Business development
- Candidate sourcing and candidate management
- Compliance and understanding recruitment law.
I have supported around 17 apprentices to achieve their recruitment qualifications and have watched them flourish into successful salespeople and to continue to build their careers. I have been fortunate enough to develop my skills and knowledge as a teacher due to the continued support of Apprenticeship Connect and with the support I have in my own teaching qualification which they have supported me greatly in to completing.
It has been around a year since I took on the additional duty of supporting the organisation by driving equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives as the EDI chair and this has impacted not only our own organisation, but our learners and employers too.
As someone who has transitioned from recruitment to tutoring and leading the EDI committee, what challenges did you face, if any, in a male-dominated tech/sales industry, and how did you overcome them?
Whilst I was in recruitment, I was very lucky in that I worked with such an inclusive team and we had a real mixture of people who genuinely wanted to see each other thrive. However, I know many women who sought a career in recruitment and sales who have not had as much as a positive experience as I did. I would encourage women who face any barriers due to their gender to keep pushing those barriers and to not allow individuals around them to hold them back from their full potential.
What strategies have you implemented through the EDI committee to foster a more inclusive and diverse work environment at Apprenticeship Connect?
I am very lucky that I work for a company who have such strong core values that are really embodied throughout the organisation. Our company are always exploring ways that we can learn and be better. We are a company that values diversity and we want to ensure that all of our people can see that too.
Since starting my role as EDI chair and opening our committee, we have taken various steps towards encouraging inclusivity. I will share some below:
- Personal swap days – Part of EDI is about acknowledging beliefs and understanding that everyone should have personal choice. Over time, the world we live in has changed and it’s important we understand these changes and adapt to consistently continue to have an inclusive approach in place that supports people regardless of their background and beliefs. Recent years have shown that religious preferences have changed dramatically in the UK compared to when public holidays were introduced in the 1870s. The number of people identifying as Christian has declined. In 2001, there were around 37 million Christians, representing 72% of the population in the UK. However, in 2021, for the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”. In 2021, “no religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12% (22.2 million from 14.1 million in 2011.). However, some of the public holidays we have in the UK today still derive from the Christian calendar, for example, the public holidays that fall on Good Friday and Easter Monday each year. At Apprenticeship Connect, we have implemented a new employee benefit called ‘personal swap days’ to enable our staff to swap their annual leave dates from the public holidays that derive from Christian holidays to other days in the year. This means our colleagues who celebrate other religious or have personal events they wish to celebrate can align their time off with their own beliefs and preferences.
- Pronouns in email signatures – We want to enable our staff to bring their entire selves to work and to share their preferences with how they wish to be addressed being clearly stated within their signatures. We made inclusion of pronouns in email signatures an optional choice, as we feel that although we should recognise individuals’ genders, some people might not yet be ready to state their pronouns due to their personal circumstances and we wanted to show understanding of this too.
- Reviewing our diversity of hiring – As a committee, we have reviewed and discussed the diversity of Apprenticeship Connect’s hiring strategies through discussions as a committee and input from some of our learners on how we can ensure an inclusive approach at every stage. This has enabled us to reflect on the great steps we are taking towards diversity and inclusion, but also to consider new ideas from a greater perspective.
- Educating our staff – We release regular communication to our staff via newsletters and webinars to ensure they have a current and up-to-date knowledge on various topics relevant to ED&I. This allows us to better understand topical issues and to remain open to how we can change and adapt as an organisation to keep improving.
Women are often underrepresented in leadership positions within the tech industry. Have you encountered any barriers or biases that have affected your career progression, and how have you navigated through them?
Absolutely! I would say that I have experienced biases in recruitment processes when I was trying to get into the recruitment industry myself. I specifically remember being told in interviews “this is a male dominated environment, are you sure that you’re going to be okay with that?”. I always used to wonder why this mattered, it almost felt like a warning or that the hiring manager was addressing their bias was towards appointing a male. I generally have navigated myself away from employers that don’t value inclusivity and see a differing gender as a ‘problem’. Companies miss out on some great candidates this way, so it can be a huge put-off if companies are not open to new people with new ideas and experiences.
With your expertise in recruitment and exposure to the tech/sales industry, what are some key skills or qualities you believe women should develop to excel in these fields?
I wouldn’t say that the skills or qualities I am going to share are gender specific as I feel that anyone looking to get into sales would need the same qualities. However, here are some of these qualities below that I feel will help people to excel:
- Develop a thirst for continuous learning – Tech and sales are constantly evolving. If you are willing to learn and adapt, this will give you a competitive advantage. A curious mindset also drives innovation. Curious individuals tend to explore beyond the surface level and find new opportunities.
- Develop problem solving skills – The ability to analyse situations from different angles and to develop effective strategies in vital for both sales and technology. Coming up with creative solutions will make you stand out.
- Develop emotional intelligence – Understand the needs of customers and colleagues and focus on building strong relationships. Also, developing resilience will help when bouncing back from setbacks.
However, I would also say that diversity of thought and experience contributes to a stronger team and better outcomes. Women should feel empowered to pursue careers in tech and in sales and leverage their unique experiences to excel.
How can companies in the tech/sales industry better attract and retain female talent, and what initiatives do you believe are most effective in creating an inclusive and supportive work environment?
Firstly, I would say that a key method to approaching this would be to cultivate an inclusive company culture. Companies shouldn’t just promote a diverse and inclusive environment, but to ensure that all staff, regardless of who they are, feel accepted for who they are and valued for what they can offer. This can also be done by ensuring that there are no biases (conscious or unconscious) that might be hindering the recruitment process – this can be done in many ways such as:
- Using blind CVs so all identifying information is redacted prior to assessing suitability.
- Standardising the interview process and ensuring similarity in the results given by more than one party to ensure fair opportunities for all.
- Providing training for anyone involved in the hiring process to raise awareness of unconscious biases and how these can be avoided.
Secondly, it is important to ensure women receive equal pay and equal advancement opportunities to their male counterparts. It’s a good idea to conduct regular pay audits to address any gender pay gaps that might exist across organisations, or within specific areas. Pathways for advancement should be made clear, alongside complete transparency of the requirements for these pathways. Ensure to use diverse imagery when advertising roles so advancement opportunities are seen as accessible to all.
Finally, organisations should ensure they are getting continuous feedback from staff for continued improvements to take place across the organisation through discussions and surveys. Regularly seek feedback to gauge satisfaction and to identify what your organisation can continue to work to improve so all feel heard. It’s vital to ensure you’re having open conversations to gather insights and to make the workplace more welcoming.
As an advocate for gender equality and diversity, what advice would you give to other organizations or individuals seeking to establish their own EDI committees or initiatives?
I would start by ensuring you have a good idea of what you want to achieve by creating a committee. Understand what your organisation can gain from this and understand more about your company’s current position to reflect on what you wish to achieve and improve. This will help to set clear aims and goals that are measurable so there can be a notable impact over time.
Also, ensure that you are getting diverse representation from across your organisation so that the committee is representative of the overall company itself. However, don’t make the committee so exclusive that it doesn’t accept ideas and input from those who are outside. Otherwise, you will end up creating exclusivity in your committee. Have a way of getting thoughts from external staff so all feel heard. Involve others in the initiatives and implementation.
Finally, ensure regular communication with employees within the business so that their EDI knowledge remains up to date and fosters an inclusive approach that impacts the entire business. This can be done through team meetings, newsletters, emails, and internal platforms for communication.
What are your hopes for the future in terms of gender representation and equality in the tech/sales industry?
Recent statistics from Tech Nation suggests that only 26% of the UK tech workforce is female, with only 19% of the sales workforce in the UK being female too. These are very low percentages when we consider that the 2021 consensus showed that in the UK, 51% of the population was female and 49% was male. The house of commons also shared that roughly 72% of females in the UK work and roughly 79% of males in the UK work. I would like to see that we have a more equal gender representation within these sectors that is reflective of the population. This is absolutely a realistic goal based on these factors. Women should feel empowered to succeed and organisations should reflect on what more they can do to cultivate an environment that encourages all individuals to feel included.