Jennifer Smith’s 24 years in the tech sector have been divided equally between the UK and the US – but it wasn’t until she made the move stateside that she was able to reach the C-suite.
From her first job in customer service with disc maker Memorex, she moved on to a marketing role at a small UK HR and payroll provider, which was acquired by Great Plains, which in turn was acquired by Microsoft. Smith recalls:
I ended up working for this giant tech company. I did a couple of roles there and I loved it, as a young marketer the culture was amazing. What I didn't love was I didn't feel like I could impact it. There were just too many people with too much budget and we used to just talk about things and nobody really owned anything.
After stints at PeopleSoft and Information Builders, Smith joined Progress Software, where she got an opportunity to move to the US:
I was running marketing for Europe, and then they asked me to run field marketing for the globe. I was doing it out of the UK and it was hard work. So my husband and I said, 'We'll take the opportunity, we'll go for two years'. And here we are, 12 years later.
Since moving to the US, if something has arisen where Smith thought she could make an impact, she has always jumped at the opportunity, leading to her current role as Chief Marketing Officer at Brightcove. When it comes to any differences she has experienced as a woman in technology in the UK compared to the US, Smith is aware that it wasn’t until she was in the US that she reached C-level:
I was only at VP level and I was always in an American technology company when I lived in Europe. There is definitely that divide because of culture - the US is sending things over and it doesn't work that way here. You have to take the time to really educate people about what that local market is going to need or what's going to work. People have not had the experience outside of an American market.
Smith doesn’t look back on her career and see examples of where she was hindered from doing something because she was a woman. However, she can definitely recall times where she wasn’t on an equal footing.
I've quite often been the only woman in the room. I can bet in a lot of those situations, I wasn't being paid the same. I do think I am in my last couple of roles, as I don't have that fear. I'm not afraid to ask.
If she was the only woman in the room now, Smith would find that both surprising and concerning. This is especially true since the pandemic, she argues:
For all that the pandemic is horrific, from a professional point of view, we've learned a lot through how we communicate with people, how we can still do the job, even if we're not all in an office. That has brought opportunities to women in equality worldwide that wasn't there pre-pandemic.
As a working mother, Smith admits to challenges before the pandemic around spending too little time at home with her two children, who are now 11 and 16:
Back then our youngest was eight. We were having somewhat of an anxiety issue with him because he needed to know where he was going to be all the time. I quite often put it down to because I wasn't there and different people were picking him up.
When the pandemic hit, a side effect was that Smith got two years at home with her eight-year old. While she wouldn’t want to go back to home-schooling, she relishes the time getting to know her son better:
It’s just so sad as a mom. I love my job but, of course, I love my kids more than anything. Now I can do both. Now I work in a company where I get to choose whether I want to be fully remote, fully in the office or hybrid.
Smith has chosen hybrid, so she can spend time with her team, but also has several days a week when she can take her son to school and pick him up after.
The opportunity for remote working levels up the playing field for those working regularly from home – often working mothers in pre-pandemic times – and people based in different countries or locations to head office, notes Smith:
There's nothing more annoying when you have an all-hands call, than the CEO being in a meeting room with all these people and you’re in a remote location, you’re not going to get to ask the questions and there's banter in the meeting room and you feel like a second-class citizen.
During the pandemic, nobody was in the office and everybody got to ask their questions through video chat, she observes:
All of a sudden, there was an equality brought to every employee. A mom who is nursing a child still and can't get on the plane to go to an event, they can still join the event because the event is now online.
No going back?
Smith hopes that businesses see the opportunity the situation has brought and don’t revert to pre-pandemic office-based culture when she felt she had to be in the building:
Women would think, 'I have to be there, therefore I can't drop the kids at school because I've got to be in the office by 8.30'. You never challenged, 'Why do I feel like I need to be there?'. Because women feel if everybody else is there and they're not, somebody is going to say that's because they've got kids. That's gone off the table now. The world has proven we can operate in a different way.
While remote working can make it easier for women to progress in technology, Smith says US provision for and attitudes to maternity leave are still not helpful.
I had my first child in the UK and I took five months off. With my second child, I was in the US so I got six weeks, which was brutal.
Smith says many of her friends have taken gaps when having children, and notes that when women take a career break, it’s not to do nothing. Instead, they're helping out at schools on the parents’ association, they're organizing their family, they're doing charity work:
They never just 100% stop. There are skills there. It's really old fashioned of any employer to think, 'That person was in branding five years ago, so how they would they know what they're doing now?'. Maybe they need to update themselves and that's our responsibility to help. But I've always thought I'd rather have that skill back than not have it.
And what does Smith wish she’d known 24 years ago? Don't be afraid to put your ideas forward, she says:
What I would definitely say to my younger self is just have that confidence and don't ever be turned off that you can't go and present your idea, no matter where you are in the seniority of an organization. I've found myself in front of heads of divisions and CEOs saying, 'I've got an idea for this, what do you think?'. And somebody said, 'Just go present it'. I was terrified, but I pushed myself to do it.
That gave me confidence, but it also got me recognized through the company that actually maybe there's some different creative ideas here.