Women Leading Tech: Rokt’s Sarah Burton & Sarah Bleasdale On Swapping Careers And Being Supported In Tech

Women Leading Tech: Rokt’s Sarah Burton & Sarah Bleasdale On Swapping Careers And Being Supported In Tech

Sarah Burton (left) and Sarah Bleasdale (right), senior product design and senior product manager, respectively, at ecommerce company Rokt, tell us how joining the company was a transformative experience for their careers.

Burton, who joined Rokt during the pandemic, explained how joining Rokt gave her a “psychological freedom” she had not experienced before in the workplace during her time as a mechanical engineer.

Bleasdale, meanwhile, told B&T how moving into tech from a digital marketing and comms background allowed her to accelerate her career progression thanks to Rokt’s transparent career ladder and inclusive working environment.

Ahead of the B&T Women Leading Tech Awards, Presented by Atlassian, we spoke to Rokt’s dynamic duo of Sarahs to find out their thoughts on the industry and what more can be done to help improve the working lives of women in tech.

B&T: Could you tell us a bit about your careers and how you came to work at Rokt?

Sarah Burton: I started off not in a product design capacity. I trained as a mechanical engineer at university and started a career completely outside of the tech field. Mechanical Engineering, I found, was a bit of a challenging environment to navigate as a woman and I ended up switching into product design. I joined Rokt at the height of the pandemic, in August 2020, after some redundancies with the company I was working at. It was pretty rare, it seemed like Rokt was one of the only companies hiring — I thought I’d never work again!

Sarah Bleasdale: I joined Rokt about four-and-a-half years ago as an associate product manager. Before I worked at Rokt, I had worked in various digital marketing and media-based roles. I had been working at a male grooming company in a small team. It was very ad-hoc with supply chain management, digital marketing, engagement and community management in the role. As it was quite a tech-savvy business, I was exposed to all of its internal inventory management and customer service management platforms. This gave me exposure to the product team there and I decided that product management was something I wanted more exposure to. So, I did some retraining and then started looking for roles in product. Rokt gave me the opportunity, they took a shot at someone who didn’t have any direct product experiences and I’ve grown my career with Rokt since then.

B&T: What has it been like moving to Rokt from your previous roles?

Burton: One noticeable change was joining the Rokt team and seeing women product managers. I remember that being such a surprise. It was great to have that psychological freedom to be yourself at work. I felt some pressure in previous environments to present as more bloke-y. I felt like having to suppress sides of myself whenever I came to work. But moving into Rokt, I definitely feel like I can bring more of my entire self and it doesn’t have an impact on how professional I am perceived to be or how I get along with my peers.

Bleasdale: At my previous company, I was in a really small team within Australia because it was a US-based company, so the feeling of gender imbalance wasn’t as much of a reality. But we were based in a shared office space with a business that was more into digital marketing and it had good female representation. Coming to the Rokt Sydney office, with the R&D hub and the tech and engineering sides of business, there isn’t quite as much representation of women, but I’ve always found it to be an inclusive environment.

B&T: What steps has Rokt taken to make you feel empowered and make your voices heard at work?

Burton: I’ve had a lot of opportunity and ownership over projects. I think that’s really important for everybody, but especially women, in order to progress. Being placed on high visibility projects is important — especially for early career progression opportunities.

Being able to promote and retain junior staff and train them into management positions within the company is really important for staff retention. A lot of companies, from what I understand, can struggle with early promotions but I’ve had a lot of opportunities within Rokt. I’ve had really good sponsorship from people who have created opportunities and actively advocated for me at critical points in my career. This allowed me to take part in bigger projects and things that might have been a bit of a stretch. I have had a seat at the table where more junior people might not have been invited before. That’s really helped me.

Bleasdale: I’ve had buy-in from day one and my career has really accelerated here. I feel like I’m further along than I would have been at other companies. I pushed pretty hard to get there, but Rokt has really bought into giving me that responsibility and autonomy and trusting me with increasingly large roles within the team. Even at stages when I was early in my career, to be trusted with that ability was huge. I’m definitely much further along than I would have been without that kind of buy-in.

B&T: What has changed since you’ve been working at the company?

Bleasdale: The company has at least doubled in size in the time that I’ve been here. With that growth and scale means you need to bring in more formalised processes. They’ve revamped our maternity leave policy and I see more female representation at the executive level, compared to when I first joined. There is also more diversity at board level and we moved to a transparent career ladder. They really go out of their way to create that level playing field. One recent example is letting people choose when they take their public holiday days to make it more inclusive — maybe you want to take a day off for Pride, maybe celebrate Chinese New Year. It lets people choose a time to be with your family or with your community.

B&T:Are there any specific initiatives that Rokt has been working on to champion women in the company?

Bleasdale: The major one that I appreciate is the transparent career ladder. I think having career progression and salaries be obscured helps enforce gender wage gaps.

I think it is great that we are transparent and everything is standardised across roles. Anyone working at the same level in the same department is going to be earning the same as everyone else. It’s visible and you can see where you’re going as well as the systems in place in other departments. I think that’s huge. That’s my top initiative that Rokt has in place because we do not have a wage gap on an overall level here, which is quite unusual.

Burton: A by-product of the transparent ladders is that they give a really clear framework as well. So everyone, especially for those people early in their careers, are able to know what the criteria is for progression. It means that they clearly see the steps for progression and it helps to correct for any of the biases in early promotion decisions.

B&T: What changes would you like to see in the tech industry to make women feel more empowered and more visible?

Burton: One change I would like to see is making sure that the talent pipeline is robust. We run into challenges when there is a lack of representation at all levels. It’s not just getting women into the industry, but making sure that we’re getting women into higher levels. You can’t be what you can’t see, so it’s making sure that junior women that come into the industry see a pathway for themselves and they can see themselves rising to the higher levels.

It’s a multi-faceted problem and I’d love to see more support at any earlier stage. Interventions in primary school are necessary because girls as young as six or seven start to get the message that math is for boys and not for girls. We’re self-selecting out of these careers meaning that, by the time that we hit year 11 or year 12 and we’re making choices for what we want to study at university — we’re sailing into a headwind. Then, when you get into university, that self-selection makes it harder to progress to the next level. For example, when I was at university studying mechanical engineering, I was one of 10 women on the course. Then, some women will attrition out over the course of the four years, because it’s tough not having those support networks in place. Then, by the time you get into the industry, it is too late. We’ve already had all these points of attrition to get to that level.

The other piece is making sure that career changes into tech are possible. It’s important to have support to allow for talented women to change careers.

Bleasdale: If I reflect on my own experience, I didn’t do any STEM subjects in high school or at university but that hasn’t held me back from learning and upskilling at this stage. But we need more people into the pipeline. There aren’t many people who make the jump that I’ve made — at least, not yet. Hopefully, there will be more.

The reason why we need more senior women within companies is to provide mentorship. That’s really important for building confidence in women and providing strong cultures of support for women. It will help them from a sponsorship perspective with people actively advocating for them but also providing support, encouragement, and empathy with the experiences that they’re going through. I want to see more female-based mentorship programs within organisations.

We need to provide environments which help both men and women better balance the demands like home and work life. When we reflect on the gender wage gap, a big driver of that is gender imbalance. Often, when it comes to who makes sacrifices to do the domestic work or the care, it’s women because they typically don’t earn as much as their male partners. That’s obviously a binary version of partnerships, but companies don’t offer men as much flexibility as has historically been extended to women. So it’s important to provide those structures within companies for both men and women to have flexibility. I think tech is getting really good at flexible working arrangements but putting the structures, systems, and processes in place for both men and women means that people have different choices.

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