To be successful as a woman, you shouldn’t try to emulate menThursday, March 8th, 2018
Being one of the only women in an all boy’s club can seem pretty daunting. But Avril Howes, Executive Head: Microsoft Dynamics NAV, is a force to be reckoned with in the male-dominated information technology industry.
Highly-driven and fiercely independent, it was clear from the start that Avril was destined to succeed when she first pursued a career in IT. Back in the days when women were still expected to be barefoot in the kitchen – and when computers were so big that they filled an entire room – Avril was out carving a name for herself in her chosen field. Since then, she’s successfully climbed the corporate ladder, and overcome a series of obstacles along the way, to hail as a leader and female role-model in the IT sector.
In light of International Women’s Day (8 March), we decided to sit down with Avril and chat to her about what drives her, her journey to the top, and overcoming adversity as a woman in the workplace.
Q: You chose a very different career path. Tell us more about how you got into the IT industry…
It wasn’t an industry that I thought about growing up – but I got into it by chance after high school, and it turned out that I just had an aptitude for it. It was just a happy coincidence. I was 21 when I started studying, and I already had a bit of work experience. I was at an age where I knew that IT was something I could do and something that I enjoyed. If I had gone on to study straight after school, not knowing what field I wanted to pursue, I probably would have ended up specialising in something that wouldn’t have driven or fulfilled me.
Q: You’ve grown from strength-to-strength since you qualified. What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
Aim to be successful as a woman – which means you shouldn’t try and emulate men. I think that we have come a long way in being accepted as a capable force in the workplace and we don’t need to fight as hard for that role anymore. However, I think there is still a temptation to do things the way men would do them – especially in a male-dominated industry like mine. I believe that women bring something different to the workforce – an extra edge. We have different things to offer and that, in-turn, compliments what men bring to the table, which improves the workplace as a whole.
Q: So what would you say are some of those things that you believe women bring to the workplace?
I think women are more inclined to be collaborative than competitive, and tend to achieve more as a result. I also think that when women are around, men don’t behave as boisterously as they would when they’re solely around other men.
Perhaps I’m just bringing my own personality into this, but I also think we have a gentler approach. But that being said, I do believe that if you have the balance of the two in the workplace – both male and female – you have a strong team that can achieve more together than if they were apart.
Q: What are a few of the challenges that you have and still experience in the workplace?
Insecurity. Even now, whenever I go into a meeting with one of my predominantly male peers, there is an assumption that the man is the boss. They look to the man first and it takes strength to overcome that.
Another challenge, particularly in my field, is the long working hours – especially when one has a family.
Q: You say it takes strength to overcome the assumption that ‘the man is the boss’ when entering a room. Can you elaborate on this?
Thanks to patriarchal ideals, society has accepted this as the conventional norm. It’s a stigma that’s slowly breaking, but it’s still a reality so many of us women face. I’ve learnt that you can’t take it to heart or take it personally. If we position ourselves as people – and not as a man or a woman – we can all work towards a shared outcome or goal. The built-in mindset that some people have that men are superior – even though they may not even be aware of – is a set up for confrontation and failure. Don’t let these assumptions impact you: remind yourself that you are a powerful woman who has worked hard to achieve her role in the company, and see everyone in a room as just another person who isn’t defined by their gender. With that kind of mind set you will earn the respect of your peers, and you will succeed.
Q: That makes a lot of sense. As a working mother and wife, how do you achieve a work-life balance?
[Laughs] I suppose that if you ask my family, they would say that I don’t. The biggest impact on my personal life is travel, which is hard on my family. I try make up for it on the weekends, but it is a challenge.
However, with technology today and with the benefits of virtual offices, it has become easier. What I try to do when I can – and with the support of my boss – is spend more time at home. I will try leave work early in the afternoon so I have quality time with son, and then catch up with work in the evenings.
Q: Are you able to stop thinking about work and be present at home – switch off, so to say, until you pick up work later?
No, I find it very difficult. There are times when I have to force myself [to switch off]. One of the things I’ve done lately is put a rule in place, where I don’t work on a Sunday. It means I won’t have access to my laptop, forcing me to find things to do that are outside the house so that the temptation is not there to switch it on and check e-mails. But I do find it hard, even when I’m not working… My mind is always ticking over the things that are still on my ‘to-do’ list.
Q: We’re sure a lot of women can relate! What important lessons have you learnt as you progressed through your career?
The only thing that you take into a job and out of a job is your personal integrity. You should never compromise on that, even when it’s easier to go with the flow. Sometimes it is worth it to sacrifice short-term gain for long-term self-respect.
Q: That’s so true. What was the best advice you have ever received?
Never attribute to malice what can just as easily be explained by stupidity.
Q: If you could go back in time, what would you say to your 23-year-old self?
Whatever you’re doing, it is not about you. When you are very young, you take yourself very seriously as well as when everything goes wrong, what people say to you, and the way they treat you. You want to be the most important and the most successful person you can be, and that’s not going to get you far.
My view is that we all come into the world with certain gifts and talents, and our purpose in life is to make the best use of them… whatever they may be. The more talented you are, the more you should be delivering. The gifts given are not to make yourself more important or richer – they’re there to help you contribute to others.
Q: That’s very inspiring. So, as we become more equal in the workplace, what do you think the biggest challenge for the next generation of women will be?
I think that there is a myth, driven by affirmative action, that women must be equally represented at every level of society. I believe it’s misleading women into believing that success is only defined by money, power and position. The reality is that many women don’t aspire to that – instead, for example, they aim to be a homemaker because it gives them an opportunity to be with their children, and that in itself is a very successful thing to do. I believe it’s a choice that women should have and not feel like they’re inferior to the woman that drives her career.
The challenge is not to do things the way our male counterparts would do things, but to be yourself and be a woman in the workplace – you have so much to offer. Follow your heart and be yourself.
Avril is a wife, and mother to a 17-year-old son. When she left school, not knowing what she wanted to do, she decided to work instead. Early on in her career, she got into the IT department of an insurance company and discovered that it was her calling. At the age of 21, she studied a BSC in Computer Science and subsequently began freelancing. She later moved to a big corporate, where she rose from a junior position to IT manager. After 13 years, she left to be a full-time freelancer and met Neville Liventhal. They started a business called Wishlist Corporation, which they ran for 10 years. In 2014, Wishlist was acquired into Vox and Avril was appointed as Executive Head of NAV for Braintree by Vox.