Collective action: how networks can champion diverse talent

In this episode of in:tech, we talk to the founder of one of the largest professional resource and mentoring networks in the UK - Vanessa Vallely OBE. Vanessa is an author, inspirational speaker, podcaster, and founder of WeAreTheCity and WeAreTechWomen.

Vanessa shares her experience transitioning from a successful career in financial services to supporting women and campaigning for diversity full-time. She also shares key takeaways about coaching, mentoring, and championing gender parity and looks at the value of networks.

If you would like to learn more about Vanessa’s work, visit and

Listen to the podcast episode here or on Global Player


The transcript of this episode

Note: in:tech transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.

Rebecca Donnelly:
 You're listening to in:tech, the Diversity and Inclusion Podcast from the Tech Talent Charter with me your host, Rebecca Donnelly. This podcast is for business leaders, people leaders, and diversity leaders who want to make their organisations more inclusive, more diverse, and more equitable, but need some help, advice, or inspiration wherever they are on that journey.

In each episode, we speak to leading names from across the technology sector who share their practical insights on how organisations can deliver on their D&I commitments.

Now, if you are a woman working in tech, you've probably experienced at one time or another being the only woman in the room or the only woman working on a project. And you probably know the value that being part of a professional network can provide, helping connect you with others who understand your experiences and who can offer support, advice, or inspiration.

Well, in this episode of in:tech, we talk to the creator of the largest network of its kind in the UK, author, inspirational speaker and founder of both WeAreTheCity and WeAreTechWomen, Vanessa Vallely OBE. Welcome, Vanessa.

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
Thank you for having me.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Oh, you're very welcome. I'd love to kick things off just by asking you to tell me a bit more about your own experience with pushing and campaigning for diversity. You had a very successful career in financial services and you founded WeAreTheCity in 2008. What led you to that and what issue were you trying to address?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
To be honest, again, I'm gonna admit this. I actually failed my technology exam. I got an F, um, [Vanessa chuckles] so yeah, it ended up being my career. Why am I passionate about it? I'll take you back to the kind of beginning. Starting in financial services, I was working in a bank. That job didn't go very well. Straight out of school, 16, and I suppose that I hit a lot of biases myself growing up in a very kind of socially and economically challenged area of London.

When I [was] kind of applying for jobs, I wasn't necessarily part of the mold that they expected. I didn't have the academic background, I didn't have the accent. I was a little bit favorably unpolished. I'm going to use that term because when I look back now, I was what I was. I was being my authentic self, but that wasn't necessarily welcomed at the time.

So I managed to kind of get that job and then the next place I landed was in a tech firm. This was back in the day when the city wasn't even using technology. We were still on paper and pen. This company was shipping out kit into the city and no one knew how to use computers. I was a receptionist and then I used to help out the training department where they were teaching people DOS based products - I've been showing my age now - things like WordPerfect and WordStar and all of those kind of things. It kind of wet my appetite for technology.

It was the one thing that I knew that I think that particular audience didn't at the time. So having done computers in my last year of school, I knew how to turn one on.

Rebecca Donnelly:
It's a good start, isn't it?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
I was ahead of the game. So, I mean, I won't go through my entire career, but I jumped many different banks, many different roles, mostly in technology, kind of starting as a trainer. I did a bit of development as well.

I think I've held something like 28 different roles in tech, but it was in just before 2008 when I was getting into more senior positions that I kept looking around my room and thinking, where are the women? The guys that I worked with were fantastic, but their challenges were different than mine.

Yeah, I had two kids under five. I was trying to fly around the world. I was that dirty word, “ambitious” whilst trying to have a family. And it just frustrated me. Also, with looking at the women that worked for me, I thought, how do I get them into this room and what does it take? Because I mean, obviously, 2008 financial crisis.

No one was investing in anybody's personal development. You know, we were lucky if we had plants or a chair, you know, we were selling everything off. But the point was I just felt that compell ed [that] I had to do something. And it was a conversation with my husband. I was moaning. We'd gone away for a weekend about the kids, and I was like, where's the website for me? Where's the thing that motivates me? Stories of women that have been there, seen and done it, networks I can go to, events that I can attend? There was nothing.

You have to bear mind, my husband's a technologist too, right? So he doesn't buy me flowers, he builds me websites. So he built me this little website and it was a hobby. It was a side of a desk thing that I would put as many resources as I could on for women. They could drive their own careers. However, back in those days, there were probably about four women's networks and even [though] they were great, all the women looked like me. You know, there was all white middle class women.

Even from my own standpoint, I didn't necessarily feel comfortable there. I found it overly bureaucratic as well. Any kind of network that you joined was forms or recommendation.

I wanted to build something that was for everyone that was inclusive from the get go. So if you think about it, 14 years ago, gender was on no one's agenda, and diversity wasn't even a term. It was only 2010 when Lord Davis come along and said, we need more women on boards. I believe that kind of opened the floodgates for the conversation.

[I] built up WeAreTheCity for the best part of seven years off the side of my desk and the world of gender kind of imploded. You've got lots of women's networks spinning up. I did that for the best part of seven years.

Then, if I'm completely honest, I kind of fell out of love with all things banking, not necessarily tech, and fell in love with all things women. What could I do now to pay those experiences forward?

I'd written a book called Heel of Steel and the second one will come at some point, but I decided that it was time to give up my job and that was a huge risk. Everything I'd ever wanted as a 16 year old girl, you know, flashy job title and everything like that was all within reach. Then I decided to go and do something else. I remember at the time doing that, being an entrepreneur, thinking that I knew everything that would take me on that journey.

I didn't, [chuckles] I didn't realise I'd be the CMO, the CFO, the lady that fixed the printer and everything like that. It has been a baptism of fire, but we built up WeAreTheCity. I literally had no commercial products. I had a business plan that, well, even when I look at it now, 14 years on, it was like solving world peace.

I really didn't have a clue when I think about it, however, somehow rolling through the years, we've managed to build up this incredible community of 140,000 women. We're supported by 150 companies. We do events and conferences. Everything that's on that website is free. It's not behind a pay wall. I don't believe that finances should be a barrier to learning.

We get involved with research and everything like that. It's almost five years ago that we thought WeAreTheCity has been so successful, why don't we build one for tech? So kind of go back to my own passion, but even back then, even prior to that as 17% is the number of women in tech, 16% globally. It was clearly needed and I realised how far we'd moved on, because had I tried to build that website 14 years ago, it would've been bare, even more bare than We Are a City. But I actually built that website in three days in terms of content.

So that shows you how progress had been made with organisations that were spinning up, the likes of Stemettes, like the fact that there were women in tech networks that you could go to, people had done white papers like The Big Four around the lack of women in tech. So there were resources that were there. So that infused me that actually there is a market here in terms of helping these women because everyone seems to be studying up and taking notice.

So we built out, WeAreTechWomen. It is a huge resource center. Again, behind no paywall. We do everything. We interview incredible people that work in the world of corporate and charities mal allies. We talked about amazing role models in tech. We have everything on there from where to get free training, because a lot of ladies that come to us want to get into tech but they don’t know where to start. So all the free training that you can get from Microsoft, from Salesforce, from AWS, all of that's featured.

Where can they volunteer? You've got this other suite of women that want to give their skills back. They're at that same point that I got to in their career where, how do we encourage more girls into technology? So where do we volunteer? We've got a whole directory of that and networks they can go to. We're aware of 50 different women in tech networks across the UK, but that's growing. What events can they attend? It's all encompassing. And then obviously around the edges we're doing our own thing around raising the profile of women for our Tech Women 100 Awards, educating and upskilling women, and even women that are not in the industry through our conferences and summits.

And most recently bringing companies together to brainstorm best practice off the back of some research that we did, which I'm sure we'll talk about later. So there's so much going on in that space, our own podcast, the job board, lists where we can identify incredible people and shine a spotlight on them.

A lot of these companies, even when our award winners win, their companies are like scratching their heads, why didn't we see that talent? And I'm like, well, they've been through 50 of the crème de la crème judges, they're clearly talented. Now you need to do something about this. So it's the gift that keeps giving - our awards.

Rebecca Donnelly:
At the Tech Talent Charter, a lot of what we do is about bringing together a network of our 700 plus tech employers across the UK that we work with.

So this might sound like a stupid question, but what are the values of networks for women trying to succeed in the tech sector? Why should they be part of a network, or why should organisations set up or support networks for women or underrepresented groups?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
I think it's about being with likeminded individuals and knowing that you're not alone. I mean, having been a woman in tech myself, it can be quite a lonely place. I wish when I look back in my career that I'd connected more with other women in tech. I just didn't. I was too busy doing the doing and thinking that hard work would reap the rewards, and it doesn't. It's about who you know. So I think if any women in tech are listening is finding one of these networks, find your tribe, which is a wonderful thing that a lovely lady called Jacqueline de Rojas always says.

Find that community where it is your safe space. You can bounce ideas or you can talk about things that perhaps don't go right. I think that's massively important from an individual perspective. But from a company perspective, it is about creating those safe spaces.

What we've seen, on the WeAreTheCity side, we run something called gender networks, which brings together all of the chairs and co-chairs of women's networks across a hundred different firms. We've been doing that for the best part of 13 years.

Rebecca Donnelly:
So a network for the networks?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
It was originally called the Network of Networks, so it's gender networks on that side, and that's amazing. We meet every three months, we share best practice. We're all on the same journey. Last year we set up the same thing for tech networks, because what we started to see is a lot of companies setting up specific women in tech networks because they were having problems retaining and they were having problems attracting, so they were actually setting up these kind of safe spaces so that they could hear from a grassroots level is what is stopping these women getting through.

Rebecca Donnelly:
You're talking about progress there, but you mentioned [at] the start that 17% of tech roles are held by women. I think it's creeping up slightly, but it's still really slow. Why? Why is progress so slow? I mean, do you think the tech sector is listening?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
We did a piece of research with Tech Talent Charter this year, and Ipsos MORI about the barriers that women face in tech, and it made for quite depressing reading for me because I recognise all of that from my career 30 years ago.

Things like access to role models. They may see role models, but they don't have access to them or for certain people from different kind of cultural backgrounds, they look up and they see no one that looks like them. So the journey seems inaccessible. You've also got this thing around absence of sponsorship. So there's been a lot of focus around mentorship over the last few years, but it's not the silver bullet.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Well, tell me the difference then, between mentoring and sponsorship. How would you define the two?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
I cannot remember who done the quote, but I'm gonna quote them. So apologies if you're listening, but mentors talk to you, sponsors talk about you. That's the easiest way, right? So how do we kind of create an environment where a senior individual takes a cohort of women, intersectional women under their belt and gives them exposure to their network that shows them examples of their work? So I'll tell a real quick story that I always tell.

There was a gentleman that decided enough is enough. You know, he kept looking at a sea of men and he wanted to bring some more women into the organisation to get that diversity of thought. So he took a cohort of three women and he said “right you're going to learn to mentor each other, but I'm gonna be here at the start of that journey”.

He would take them to his meetings. He would introduce them to his senior leadership team. They began to build a network. He would give them examples of his work and say, look, I have to go in and make an informed decision. Here are the papers. You guys brainstorm that. Tell me what you would come up with, no wrong or right answers.

He was giving them exposure to what that looked like at his level, and it was amazing. What happened in that actual scenario is the gentleman around the room were thinking, well, I need to get myself cohort because it's learned behavior, right? I need to be doing what he's doing because he's the senior leader.
That was really, really successful and I've seen many other little different programs like that. But just looking at that talent pool and thinking from a sponsorship perspective, how do I open up doors for opportunities for others? You don't necessarily have to be senior to be a sponsor. We're all in different rooms, but I think this is the fundamental piece that's missing.

Mentoring? Great. All well and good. We all need mentors, multiple mentors, different sectors, reverse mentoring, cut it wherever way you will, but that sponsorship piece is the thing for me that will move the needle.

Rebecca Donnelly:
You've talked about progress. What progress have you seen in the last, say, five years, and what do you think could be some of the stumbling blocks in the next few years that companies should be aware of when they're thinking about setting up or managing their own networks for staff?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
Obviously, we've not necessarily seen a percentage rise in terms of the women in tech. I think what I've observed is the conversations that are happening. Now, obviously, these companies are big ships to move. You can't just magic women in tech out of thin air. We also have other problems, such as the curriculums in our schools isn't necessarily enticing into the industry.

If we do get girls coming through, we know they outperform the boys, but we lose them to other industries. Or they come into tech and they get stuck in the middle or they don't see the role models. All the things that came out of barriers for women in tech research that we did.

I think I'm happy that we're having the conversation that we're seeing so many organisations spin up to support women in tech. I love the white papers and the research that's coming out. I love the fact that Tech Talent Charter’s here and other organisations that are really pushing it, for example, Tech She Can, that are kind of rewriting lesson plans that are going into schools. So we are all sitting in this huge ball of activity and eventually it's got to click in, right? Something has to turn at some point, but for me, the biggest piece of progress is the fact that we're having the conversation.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Vanessa, how can we stop lack of diversity being seen as a problem that women are entirely tasked with solving? What's the role for men here?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
I think there is a role to play in terms of male allyship, but we can't make the assumption that the gents know what that looks like.

So again, up to discussion in terms of this is what a good ally looks like, this is the kind of things that you can do to open up doors of opportunities. It's a bit of a two-way street. I think it's about the guys leaning in=to that conversation and looking at, see where they see barriers, and also putting themselves in the shoes of that individual that's working in tech with the understanding that they're trying to get ahead, they're trying to find opportunities, and then almost flipping back into their own skin and saying, okay, what could I do? You know, how do I raise the profile of this individual? How do I use my reputational capital to do that? Or how can I expand this individual's network? Is there meetings or things that they can attend with me so that they can grow their own network so they're in lifts with people that they can actually say hello to because they know who they are. I think the male allyship piece is definitely there. I do think there is a worry, and again, recent surveys have kind of surfaced it, that “what's in it for me?” coming from the men, because obviously as we focus on elevating women, that doesn't mean disempowering the men.

It's about having both of us at the table, all having the same conversation. [There are] very interesting perspectives coming out of recent research around that. But I think from a male perspective, again, it's about listening and it's about creating space outside of one-to-ones, outside of meetings, and not just pitching up to women's network, working events, just to open it and then disappearing, actually going to them.

Because when a senior leader goes to a women's network event internally, the other men think well, he's going, why can't I go? And again, I speak from experience from my own communities. They are desperate for male engagement. They know that they're the very people that need to shift the needle on some of these things. So step up and lean in.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Well, let's talk about practical action now then, because I think we agree with you at the Tech Talent Charter. We talk about it, but we also try and provide our Signatories and the broader industry with tools they can really take and act right now. In every episode of in:tech, we ask our guests to share some of that tangible advice that our listeners can put into practice in three minutes, three weeks, and three months.

That's something that you can do right now within three minutes of listening to this podcast, and then some practical action you can take within the next three weeks. And finally, how in three months you can start to transform that into longer term impact. So Vanessa, what can our listeners do within three minutes of listening to this podcast that is gonna help them move the needle on their diversity?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
I would say go and visit, obviously. The reason I would say that is because we don't just promote what we are doing, we promote what everyone's doing. Whether it's events, whether it's inspirational stories, whether it's a summit that we've got coming up, whether we're gonna gather everyone together to brainstorm.

There's a lot of information on there. There's a lot of access to best practice, but also there's a lot of incredible men and women out there for text. That's the first thing that I would do, because you can root off into other organisations. Think of us as the mothership for what's going on for women in tech.So that's the first thing in three minutes.

I think in three weeks you can start to listen to your staff if you're not already doing it. Often it's the people at the grassroots, as we well know, that really know what the barriers are and what's going on. So even to form together some sort of focus groups where people can talk freely about the barriers.

What you could clear out the way, whether it's policy change, whether it's opening up a door of opportunity to learn something or network. I think even having the meeting you can do in three weeks, not to say that you'll be able to spin it up that quickl.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Before you move on to three months. What would you recommend organisations think about setting up networks within their own organisations or encouraging their staff to join external networks or a combination of the two?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
I think it's a bit of both. I definitely think it's a bit of both. Obviously nobody knows your company, like your company. Having that internal conversation I think is really important. I do think it's very important to have external networks. It's different perspectives, it's different people and you'll learn different things.

I think a combination of both and encouraging companies to encourage their women in tech to go and network externally without the fear of, oh my God, they're gonna go out and we're going to lose them.

Rebecca Donnelly:
We work with a lot of very small organisations at the Tech Talent Charter as well as, you know, big international corporations and I think for them, they often feel, what can we do when we're perhaps a team of 15, 20, 50 people?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
We can help them . But I mean, for smaller companies, you know, I love it. We deal with a lot of startups in the last year. We've had a huge rise in clients coming from that area, that startup scale up and I love it. The fact they're trying to get it right from the get go. The conversations we're having is “we want to hire a diverse team”, “we want to get ED&I right from the start”. That really encourages me as well. Even if you are a small company, don't ever think that that's a barrier to be able to do something because it's not.

Rebecca Donnelly:
We've got in three minutes, they can go and have a look at, and in three weeks they can go out and start listening to their staff and what the obstacles and barriers are for them. What about in three months? What can you do in that time period to convert this initial action to something more long lasting?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
Well, I think from the listening, I think three months is, a decent enough timeframe to drive some action to have some recommendations coming out of those focus groups for things that they could implement. One of the things I would say is like anything, don't boil the ocean. Pick the biggest thing.

I mean, companies can look at their attention statistics. Why are the women in tech leaving? What are the exit interviews saying? If you don't have exit interviews, why you are not having them? There's such great data that come out of that. Why can't they set up an alumni group with women that have left tech and keep in contact? We see that with a lot of companies, so I think they can actually start to drive action. Maybe just one or two points. What schools are they engaging with? There's another thing, are they still hunting in the same talent pools? What are they doing about their job specs? Are they enabling women to deselect themselves because they're too prescriptive?

All sorts of things like that. Can we have a women in tech network? What would that bring? What is their mission? What is that kind of overall strategy? Where are we pushing out our jobs? For example, could we do a returners program? I mean, I could go on for hours. There's so much there for things that they could do, but I think picking one and doing it well and getting the right support from a third party sometimes is what you need. And that, again, that's not always us, but we can certainly point companies in the right direction.

Rebecca Donnelly
If you were feeling optimistic, what progress would you hope to see in the tech sector, maybe in the next three years?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
Oh, in the next three years, I'd definitely like to see, it's a big ask.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Let's be ambitious here.

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
Okay. You know, 30%, women in tech, again, it is a big jump in that short period of time. But also I'd like to see in terms of progress, companies not just looking in the existing talent pool but looking across the firms, looking to other areas where there are a lot of women. Could we cross train those women into tech roles? You've got women working in marketing with digital skills, cross fertilise, that kind of skillset and move those women across. I was speaking to a client the other day and they were saying, you know, it's gonna take us six to eight months to hire the people that we need. I'm like, you could put a bootcamp in six to eight months. There are many different solutions to solving this problem around the lack of women.

Rebecca Donnelly:
I mean, there are so many solutions, but do you think mindset is still a problem? And where does that barrier come? Is it at the senior level? Is it across the broader industry? How can diversity leaders change the mindset of their organisations to actually take some of these steps?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
I think it has to come from the ground up and that comes from the listening activity or the focus groups. But it's also has to come from the top down and that monitoring in the middle, because we all know that in the middle is where things stop, where you get a little bit of lip service to say, yeah, that's a great idea, but nothing happens.

So you've got younger generation or the people in kind of lower ranking roles that are saying this is what we need, this is what we want in order to move us forward, which we should be listening to. You have the people at the top going, this is a great idea that let's do this. You need to see more of this happening.

And then it goes down to the action level and it gets stuck. So whatever anyone's implementing, I think monitoring the activity at that action level, holding people to account is absolutely important.

Rebecca Donnelly:
As you were saying, focus on those one or two places you can start not trying to boil the ocean and do everything at once.

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
Also leverage for others. There are many companies out there saying we see them at We are Tech networks, we see them in our own client base. I mean there's about a hundred companies that we deal with at We Tech Women doing incredible stuff. Whether it's dashboards, whether it is these focus groups, but they're all talking to each other.

Although we're all hunting for the same talent pool, ultimately what we want to do is to see more women in tech, that's at the top of the tree, and more intersectional women in tech. Because if we get more women into tech and they look like you and I, then that's not progress.

Rebecca Donnelly:
Are there any shout outs you'd like to give for, for anything that you want our listeners to go and check out after listening to this episode?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
In 2023, we have a number of different things going on. We have some tech categories and our big Rising Star awards. We have a digital science and engineering and a technology category. It’s free to enter our awards and we don't just give out awards. We put in a year's worth of development program for our winners with partners like Warwick Business School Child Management Institute. So look out for those.

We have a global virtual conference happening in May. If you have global teams, that's like a baptism of fire front to the back of tech, which Tech Talent Charter were always involved in. Look out for that in May. Then we'll have our summit and we have the Tech Women 100 Awards that open in August.

Rebecca Donnelly:
So just one or two things?

Vanessa Vallely OBE:
Yeah, just, just a little to-do list

Rebecca Donnelly:
Well, that brings us to the end of this episode, so it's just left for me to say a huge thank you to our guest, Vanessa Vallely OBE, and of course to all of you for listening. If you'd like to find out more about the Tech Talent Charter, or anything we've talked about on this episode, you can find us at or on Twitter @TechCharterUK.

If you like what you've heard today, you can subscribe to this podcast on Spotify to be the first to hear about new episodes, and for more great insights from our incredible guests. I'm Rebecca Donnelly. Please join me again on in:tech the diversity and inclusion podcast from the Tech Talent Chart