Women in Digital: Julie Pierce

Julie Pierce, director of openness, data and digital at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) talk on her early career in male-dominated industries and the importance of women as supporters and mentors

Posted 29 March 2021 by Christine Horton

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or combination of both?

A rocky road, but I am sure others have had it harder. I started my career as an oceanographer, that is what really interested me, and I quite liked the fact that there were very few of us oceanographers on the planet. But when I started my first job in oil exploration, I was told I wouldn’t be allowed on the boats or rigs as I was a woman. So, I ended up processing the data the men collected, writing software, and so that is how I got into IT.

Then I worked in a different ocean sector, anti-submarine warfare, again very few women, but a lot of data and clever data modelling. And then we started to use satellite data that could be collected from one’s armchair, so technology helped women be able to operate in an equal manner to men. But we weren’t really, there were still very few women in any of these technical disciplines. And now, I look at progress being made as to numbers, reaching higher, becoming more equal, but it still feels quite fragile.

What’s the best career advice you can give to others?  

Network, network, network. Your network, made up of both women and men, is your investment for the future. They will help you raise your profile, support you when you need it, push you forward when you should. And just make you realise you are not alone – so important still for women.

If you had to pick one mentor who has had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

That is a hard question given my previous answer. So many people have been either official or unofficial mentors to me. But if only one, I think that I would choose Catherine Brown, who was my CEO twice in two separate organisations; she has been a huge influence. She just enabled me to be bold; lean forward, speak out, but also to help others. And the more I did those things, the more I realised their value and the more natural it became. A perfect positive feedback loop! But in trying to answer this question I realised I had been working for 30 years before I had a female boss. So, when it happened, it was a bit of a shock to me, I only knew how to relate to male superiors.

From where do you draw inspiration?

The world around me. It is just fascinating to me. And increasingly I am inspired by the growing number of women I see operating in the digital field. Some of that is more women and some their increased visibility. While I love it when we make a noise, we must remember we really need to grow our numbers too.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced to date?

It was hard to think of one challenge, the question sounded like, what was the hardest exam I ever took! I think it has been the day-to-day battle when you are the minority in the room, people’s expectations are preconceived and wrong, and needing to behave in a way that wasn’t really you – that is just hard work.

What qualities do you feel make a good leader?

Maybe simple human traits like listening, supporting, challenging to be just a little bit bold. I would hope we can all be good leaders and followers.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

I got married unplanned in Lake Tahoe and then had to ring my mother with the “you’ll never guess what I did today” call.