Women in Digital: Susan Morrow

Head of R&D at Avoco Secure, Susan Morrow, reveals her rocky career path, and how the tech industry has more work to do to remove barriers for women.

Posted 12 September 2022 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

No, I hated it, I was bullied for being a ‘swot’, having second hand clothes, and generally being a nerd. I was painfully shy, and had no real friends for a long while as a kid. Even the teachers would bully me – you know those kids in the class who are the poor kids with dirty hair and a snotty nose? That was me. School was a dreadful experience and I was often beaten up as well as bullied. One time I remember loads of kids ganging up on me and kicking me and pulling handfuls of hair out of my head. It was a learning experience, no one would dare bully me now…

What qualifications do you have?

I left home at 16 but stayed on at school as I am quite academic but I had to work two jobs to pay my way and ended up with poor A level results. I have science and art A levels: the art I did when my daughter was a baby. I originally went to university at 18 but dropped out become an activist in animal rights. I then went to university when my daughter was a toddler and did a degree in Chemistry. After my degree, I was offered a PhD but decided to work as a chemist instead so I could begin to actually earn some money for myself and my daughter. I did a Masters degree in evolutionary anthropology about 15 years ago, but had to drop out before finishing in my thesis as I was helping to start-up Avoco. However, I’ve picked it back up now and I am doing a Masters by research at Durham Uni looking at how proverbs may be used as a mechanism in the evolution of group behaviour.

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

Very, very rocky…I’ll skip over the career as a chemist and science teacher and focus on the tech industry. I could write a book about the early days of my tech career that would involve starting up companies, seeing them fail, dealing with some very dodgy characters, meeting some wonderful humans, massive amounts of travelling, getting death threats, learning to be assertive: it has been a roller coaster of a journey, some good, some bad. I have learned an enormous amount about the business of technology as well as the application of technology. Would I work in technology if I had my life over? Probably not. I still think of myself as a scientist and still love science – all I’ll say is that the tech industry would do well if it used the scientific method more often.

What specific challenges do you see women facing in the industry?

I always live in the hope that equality for all with reign, and it has improved over the last 25 years I’ve worked in tech. However, you still see it creeping in with certain people with bad attitudes. I am very tuned in to sexism and pick up on its subtle but insidious tones. I tend to nip it in the bud these days but it has taken me a lifetime of learning how to be assertive to do so – of course, I have been accused of being aggressive when I am being assertive, sigh. The insidious nature of sexism makes it especially hard to deal with, it can mean that prejudice happens quietly and is nuanced and can hide in plain sight but have devastating effects on women’s self-worth and confidence.

 As regards myself, an issue I have is that I have a quiet voice. Couple that with being female and I can get drowned out in conversations. I’ve noticed it being more acute when using Zoom or similar. I have to raise my voice a lot and I find it exhausting.

 What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Do what you enjoy and if you can’t do that make sure you take your full holiday entitlement and enjoy life – it is very short.

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

My partner – he taught me to be positive even in the face of adversity.

From where do you draw inspiration?

My dog who died in 2013 and next door’s dog; dogs just enjoy life, all they ask is nice food, the odd cuddle, a decent walk, and a nice place to sleep. Mind you, they don’t have to pay the gas and leccy bills.

I am also inspired by my wonderful friends, including two amazing female friends, Jude and Carrie. Both are incredibly dedicated to making others’ lives better. 

Jude is a human rights lawyer who works for the Haringey Migrant support centre: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/haringey-migrant-support-centre 

Carrie is the founder of Journey to Justice (J2J) who work to educate on human rights and social justice: https://jtojhumanrights.org.uk/

I took part in the economic injustice project that J2J are working on: https://economicinjustice.org.uk/

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

My health. I was diagnosed with a rare disease called dermatomyositis (DM) in 2011 and then cervical cancer last year. My health has humbled me. I am lucky that modern medicine has helped me stay alive, but my muscles are left weakened by the DM and the dreadful drugs have given me ongoing health issues. However, I do feel very lucky that I am not in too bad shape as I take care of my diet and don’t smoke and only drink in moderation (I daren’t say that out loud in case the health gods smite me). I have learned how to manage chronic ill health: you have to give things up, like going out on the razz until 4am (actually I wouldn’t do that anyway, but I can pretend I am a crazy clubber).

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

I’m not sure I am a good leader as I tend to prefer working alone. But from my vast experience of very bad leaders I can say that good leaders:

  • Listen carefully and do not judge
  • Take ideas on board
  • Care about people
  • Do their best to treat everyone equally
  • Give as well as take

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12-24 months been like?

Tiring, but Avoco have made enormous progress in creating a service (alongside one of our major partners) that moves transactional identity using banking IDs into the real-world. All I’ll say is that the clue is in the data orchestration, kids.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

  • Wrangling the power from the big techs
  • As long as we make money from data it will be abused
  • Changing the narrative from ‘digital identity’ to ‘identifying people and transactions’
  • HCI 2.0 – more understanding of how human behaviour and technology dovetail

 What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?

Give us free makeup (ha! joking! or am I?) 

Seriously though, it has to start early, at primary school. I remember picking my granddaughter up from primary school a few years ago, she was crying because some boys said that girls were rubbish at computing. That sort of thing needs to not even enter the heads of kids, it should be a natural standpoint that everyone can be good at computing if it interests them. 

You also need to encourage girls at school. When I was a teacher I had a female student who wanted to join the science club. The rules said that as she wasn’t in the top set she couldn’t join. I made the argument to allow her to join the club, which she did: she grew up to become a microbiologist.

We all need role models to admire. Role models that are like us, same sex, gender, skin colour, etc. make a difference; they show us that people just like us can do that job. We also need encouragement and support to say, you can do this. 

 In other words, remove barriers.

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

I love crafts and have tried most of them over the years. I can do silversmithing, book binding, linocuts, litho printing; I can draw and paint reasonably well too. I am writing a book that is macabre fantasy about humans taking on the traits of certain animals.