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What I’d say to me back then – IFS CIO Belinda Finch on going from making the tea for male COBOL programmers to sharing her menopause moments with the boss

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett April 29, 2024
Summary:
Why Finch sees menopause policies and linking women’s ERGs with other diverse groups as vital.

Belinda Finch
Belinda Finch

Of all the things that might inspire a career in technology, a rocket-themed address book is not the first that springs to mind. But that was the original spark for Belinda Finch’s 25-plus years and counting in the industry. 

Finch recalls when she was 12 or 13, her father came home with a BBC Model B computer. Although it was intended for Finch and her two brothers, the latter were completely uninterested. 

They were more interested in fighting with each other and sticking Lego up each other's noses.

This meant Finch had full reign over this amazing machine. She started out playing games on it, and then began reading the magazines her father bought on how to code in Basic. When Finch wanted a new address book, she decided rather than getting a standard one, she’d create her own. The resulting program in Basic was more aesthetically pleasing than functional, with a rocket at the start of the address book, she recalls: 

This rocket moved up the screen really slowly - because nothing moved fast on computers those days. As it was moving up, I coded it to sing Strawberry Fields Forever because that was quite easy to code as there weren't so many notes.

As the rocket continued up the screen, instead of fire coming out of the bottom, it read ‘Address book’. Finch says: 

I was really pleased with myself at the time and it was a working thing that I did use. That's what really got my interest in technology.

Finch went on to take a GCSE in computer studies, which at the time entailed just rudimentary elements like word processing. She wanted to carry on and do an A-level in computer science, but her school didn't offer that course" 

I went to a Welsh language school. Computer science hadn't been translated into Welsh yet, so my school didn't provide the facility to do the A-level.

Determined to pursue her tech education, Finch sent her parents to the school to argue the case. They managed to overturn the decision and Finch got her computer science A-level. But her computing studies ended there, ironically due to her father, who’d originally supplied the machine that sparked Finch’s interest in tech:

I didn't do it at degree level because my father, who's a poet and nothing to do with technology, said, 'Don't do computer science, you'll be too pigeon-holed, you need to do something broader'. Little did he know!

Industry 

Instead, Finch studied economics at university, followed by a Masters in software engineering. This led to her first job in the technology sector as a COBOL and Visual Basic programmer for the Bank of England: 

This was the mid to late nineties, doing the Millennium Bug [fix]. I was based in the basement of the Bank of England with about 40 or 50 what can only be described as old men with woolly jumpers, sandals and beards.

As a new graduate brimming with enthusiasm, Finch got told, 'Stop asking questions, get on with your basic coding, and make the tea!':  

The way I was treated, it's disgraceful, it would never happen now.

As she moved up the ranks and into consulting, Finch started to see more females and the situation began to improve: 

I started to feel more comfortable and confident that I wasn't a girl in a man's world.

After roles at Vodafone, Centrica and Three, working on their transformation programs, Finch joined IFS last November as CIO. 

Better?

There have been huge improvements for women in tech since the early days of her career, but Finch wonders whether it has gone too far with initiatives like quotas:

Have we actually gone to the point where people now feel, 'I've got the job because I ticked a box' or do other people think that? Or are we creating a problem because women prefer hybrid working, they prefer to work at home more than men. There's a lot of research been done around that. Are we about to create a massive problem for women? There's a bit to explore there.

While it’s now easier establish a career in tech as a woman, thanks in part to companies aiming for a 50/50 male/female split on graduate intakes, Finch says there’s still a problem at the higher ranks: 

That’s potentially because women go off and have kids and then get too frightened to come back into the workforce. Or it’s as the bosses are getting older and older, because you don't retire as early, the mindset hasn't changed. The next generation hasn't gone up to that top level.

The lack of women in more senior roles in tech could be tackled by more returners programs. Finch sponsored a couple of women during her time at Three on a return to work scheme. This included a friend from her Accenture days, who was a Tibco engineer and very technical, and had been out of the workforce for 10 years. Three was desperate for skill sets like hers and was in need of Tibco engineers, but this friend was too scared to go back to work as everything had changed so much:

She said, 'Everyone uses Teams now; I used to use a pad and note paper'. She didn't have the confidence to come back into work.

Three set up a returners program, which included six to 12 weeks to learn the ropes first before going back properly into work. Two of the returner women in Finch’s team ended up getting promoted many times, showing it’s about building confidence rather than skills:

That's something that we definitely need to concentrate on if we want to get more women up into the higher leadership exec roles.

Finch argues that having menopause-specific policies in an organization is another aspect that will help women climb the ladder and stay there  rather than give up because it’s too difficult to handle. As women who are going through the menopause become more senior and vocal in organizations, this will make a difference, she says: 

I have absolutely no issue going into a meeting with [IFS CEO] Mark Moffat and going, 'I'm really really hot'. I am going to say it, because that is happening to me and it is a problem and it is embarrassing, especially if you're wearing a white shirt. Being able to do that and making everyone else around you feel comfortable to talk about it is really important.

Diverse

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s still a perception challenge with younger women and girls around tech education and careers. Finch, whose 13-year-old daughter is currently choosing her GCSEs, always automatically assumed her daughter would do ICT, as both Finch and her husband are CIOs. But her daughter has declined on the basis it's a boy subject and she’d have to sit for two years with boys. This view is echoed by her daughter’s friends and Finch’s friends with daughters of a similar age: 

It’s hard to get girls to understand there's a big, human, empathetic side to technology, which girls of that age relate to. We don't teach it in that way. We teach it in a very masculine, logical, engineering type way that appeals to boys rather than girls of that age.

This has left Finch wondering if we have done the younger generation a disservice in terms of assuming everybody's a digital native and technology-savvy, and therefore there’s not as much need to focus on getting girls into the subject as there was five or 10 years ago.

In her new role at IFS, Finch is trying to pioneer a shift from having just one women's group to linking up with all the other diverse groups and making sure that each country is represented, to reflect the different cultures in each country or region: 

We're trying to split it up and making sure that we don't forget that it's not just a male/female thing, that it's all diversity. Different countries have different issues and problems we need to address. 

In Sri Lanka and India, there's a lot more work to do there in terms of equality. The women in Sri Lanka especially - I've got a lot of team members in Sri Lanka - have no confidence at all that they can be senior managers. There's a lot of culture around male as the head of the family, therefore as a male, you need to be the more senior in the organization and women aren't taken as seriously as men.

Lessons

Looking back to the start of her career in tech, Finch would tell herself not to be afraid to be yourself. For so many years, she thought she had to be a slightly different person: 

I'm quite shy and introverted by nature, and I learned to be this different person, especially in consulting where I tried to be an extrovert. Every single day it was so stressful putting on this mask and not being me. As soon as I realized it's okay to be me and don't be afraid to be your authentic self, all of a sudden I started to be less stressed. Everything was a lot easier. I started getting promotions.

Another more painful lesson, after Finch broke her back two years ago - listen to your body: 

If I had listened to my body, I would never have run the London Marathon off the back of a hundred miler and I would never have broken my back. I've been out of it for about six months now, but it was incredibly difficult trying to manage a broken back, operations, and horrible painkillers.

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