Women in Digital: Mariane ter Veen

Some plain speaking from Mariane ter Veen, director, lead data sharing and public services at Innopay on what IT business leaders should – and shouldn’t be doing – to get more women into the industry: “Stop blaming individual women. Stop believing we provide equal opportunities for women (we don’t) and that this will automatically lead to equality (it won’t). We simply need to do better.”

Posted 13 February 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

At my primary school, we did maths, language and that was about it. So when I see how my kids’ school focuses on broader development nowadays – dance, film, social behaviour, learning how to deal with differences – I must admit to feeling slightly jealous! Although things were already better at high school, it was my university period I enjoyed most. Moving to Amsterdam answered my need for independence; learning and living, I sucked it all in.

What qualifications do you have?

I started off studying psychology, but after successfully completing my first year I decided to switch to computer science and I went on to do a master’s degree in artificial intelligence. This combination has been a common thread running through my career. My main focus is always on how we can ensure tech works for people rather than the other way round.

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

At the age of 50, it’s inevitably a combination of both. In hindsight, however, I can sketch a clear line of progression. I started out in what was then called ‘knowledge management’ at IBM and enjoyed all the benefits that working for a large organisation had to offer, including holding various roles. Knowing how corporates operate still helps me to serve customers better to this day. My last role at IBM involved helping software vendors with innovation. I then switched to consultancy, working mainly on multistakeholder IT programmes involving both public and private organisations, and gradually moved into a programme manager role.

Now, at consultancy firm Innopay, everything has come together for me. We specialise in helping organisations to harness the full potential of the digital transactions era by adopting a more open outlook, collaborating across ecosystems and creating new value. I believe in a world where trusted data exchange is the key to unlocking new business models and reducing costs. Therefore I am a strong advocate of data sovereignty, which gives people and organisations control over their data. So I’ve gone from ‘knowledge management’ to ‘data sharing’, but in a way you could say that I’m still doing the same thing!

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

Inspired by both Nancy Poleon and Bibigi Haile – advocating the benefits of visibility for women – I’d say: master the art of ‘showcasing’ rather than ‘showing off’. By ‘showcasing’, I mean there’s nothing wrong with letting people know about your expertise. If a bakery doesn’t have a sign outside, how is anyone going to find it? Moreover, if you hang a clear sign outside your bakery, you’ll be less bothered by people wanting to buy meat, for example. In other words, you can continue to do what you’re good at, without wasting time trying to get better at things that don’t suit you. This approach – staying true to yourself – enables you to add the most value for the people who truly appreciate it. By the way, women are often hesitant to showcase their skills and abilities, as they have learnt to be modest and ‘know their place’ rather than showing off. But once you master the subtle difference, you will have no trouble distinguishing the two – in yourself and others.

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

The people that have had the strongest influence on me have all been working women. Above all, I think they set an example and encouraged me to diversify my life through work. Nowadays, it seems the ‘diversify your life’ frame is often used to nudge people to focus less on work, and more on friends, family and society. While I am very much in favour of a healthy work-life balance (I mean, who can be against it?), I feel strongly about the injustice of putting this burden one-sidedly on women. Can we really have it all? Or are working women still made to feel like they have chosen their career over their family? I feel that this ‘Don’t you want to see your kids growing up?’ frame is fed by decades of men ignoring their family life altogether. And I still have to meet the first mother who doesn’t put her children first, so I don’t really see that risk. Paradoxically, I see the risk the other way around – that, as women, we risk being pushed into the frame that our life should revolve around our family. Yes, family is immensely important, but so too is discovering radioactivity or creating an anti-Covid vaccine. So diversify your life unapologetically, showcase your worth and give yourself the career you deserve.

From where do you draw inspiration?

For me it is ultimately about shaping the world we want to live in. I am very committed to giving people and organisations control over the data they generate. I’m inspired by the real-world stories surrounding us, big and small. Sometimes that means I’m fuelled by anger, seeing how ‘our’ data is hoarded and used for the benefit of a few, with negative side effects. But I choose to be an optimist: it’s not just about the misuse of data, it’s also about the missed use. I believe the time is now to shape the way we want to deal with data. I love contributing to bringing us closer to a world where trusted data sharing helps us to solve key societal challenges.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?
I am currently involved in creating ‘data spaces’, i.e. ecosystems for secure and seamless data sharing. The key challenge lies in gathering enough momentum for change to reap the true benefits. This is never a linear process with full upfront clarity about the value each stakeholder will contribute and receive. Everyone knows that working together will enable them to achieve things that would be impossible alone, but who’s going to take the first step? The biggest hurdle is to find the use case that gets people excited, and to build the trust needed to activate the first believers.

On a personal level, the biggest challenge is that my husband had to stop working a couple of years ago after suffering brain damage, which has forced us to transform our lives.

Which qualities do you feel make a good leader?
I was particularly inspired by the leadership skills of one of my managers early on in my career. She really supported all team members, allowing room for their craftmanship, independence and creativity, while establishing clear, shared goals. She was an associative thinker, and used everyone’s viewpoints and interests to map out a clear path from the as-is situation to the to-be situation, including which steps to take. In doing so, she made it really easy to follow, both for the stakeholders and for the team. I now strive for that too in my leadership role. What’s also important to me is to strike the right balance between feasibility and ambition, and to have some fun along the way.

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

Above all, we need to prevent tech from shaping our world view. As humans, we should be the ones who decide on which values we want to uphold and how tech is allowed to shape not just our economy, but also our society. And by that I mean all humans, inclusively, rather than just the little tech-savvy bubble of tech nerds who have been happily excluding anyone who can’t speak the lingo from the discussion. In that context, I strongly welcome the direction the EU has taken with the data strategy, which is aimed at creating a human-centric data economy focused on making tech work for people.

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

Not ‘can’, ‘should’. Everyone reading this, please take a moment – right now – to look up, down and sideways within your team and organisation to find a woman you can help to take her next step. Forget whatever bullshit reason* you think you have for not appointing or promoting her. Just do it… now! For those of you who think you have a valid reason for not doing so, make the reason explicit and help her to actively tackle it so you can appoint or promote her next time. And to all girls: Do you want to do something with kids? Choose tech. Do you want to do something in healthcare? Choose tech. Do you want to help fight climate change? Choose tech! And if you’re still doubting because you think tech is too hard and not for you, call me. You see, I used to be hesitant to ‘preach’ diversity and the need for more women in tech. But after 25 years in the industry, I still find myself in meeting rooms full of men all the time! It’s time we acknowledge it is systemic. We know men appoint men. Not all men do, but enough to prevent a lot of women getting the jobs they deserve. So stop blaming the individual women. Stop believing we provide equal opportunities for women (we don’t) and that this will automatically lead to equality (it won’t). Everyone would benefit from better representation across the board, not just at C-level, but especially in senior roles and middle management. We simply need to do better.

* doesn’t fit in, doesn’t seem ready for it, lacks the right skills, etc.

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

I love gems. Not just diamonds, all gems. In fact, I am proud to be a qualified European Gemmologist and member of the Federation of European Education in Gemmology.