Sarah Byfield – Be your own biggest advocate!

My name is Sarah….I am a mum in a big blended family – my partner and I have four kids between us, plus our super energetic family dog so it’s never a dull moment in our house! By day I am an Infrastructure and Change Manager at SunLife – a Financial Services company that markets products to the over 50s. By night I am a Marketing Manager for the Bristol Women in Business Charter – a Community Interest Company who work to improve the working lives of women across the city of Bristol. In my day job, I manage a team of Data Engineers and Selection Analysts to support the company’s data needs for marketing campaigns. We do everything from selecting individuals from our client and prospect databases to be included in our email or postal marketing campaigns, to providing reporting and MI or supporting our finance team with data for our month end and year end financial reporting. I am also responsible for making sure that the data processes we run are compliant with GDPR and other industry regulations. It’s a pretty full on role, but I absolutely love it.

The Bristol Women in Business Charter asks businesses to pay a small fee to become a “Signatory” and then we work with them towards our seven Charter Goals that aim to improve outcomes for women in the workplace. My role includes being responsible for our LinkedIn account and other marketing activity that we undertake, both to attract new Signatories and to raise awareness of the work that we do. I get involved with organising online and in person events both for Signatories and public events, plus once a year we release an Annual Impact Report to show the progress that is being made across the city – this always takes a huge amount of effort to produce! The role is vast and varied and can sometimes be tricky to juggle with all the other things going on in my life, but I love hearing the success stories from the businesses and women that we have helped. There really are some amazing things happening but lots more progress to make. 

I always loved maths at school and so it was always probably going to play a big part in my career. I had reached a point where I had to choose what area to move into (I was working in a call centre at the time) and data/analytics really appealed to me purely based on it involving numbers and problem solving. Once I started as a junior analyst I fell in love with the role and found I was really good at it so I progressed from there.

I didn’t go to university – it just wasn’t what I wanted to do, much to my parent’s disappointment after forking out to send me to private school! So, when I left school at 18 after my A levels, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked in a few different jobs from call centres to data entry and even in catering but didn’t really enjoy any of them. Eventually I went to work at another call centre at SunLife and it was from there that I moved into a Junior Analyst role in the Insight department.

After working there for a couple of years I was promoted to a Modelling Analyst, building propensity models and more complex analytical solutions. After a relationship breakdown I moved to a different company for a while – this is probably the only real regret I have in my career. I followed the money (because I needed it at the time!) but it wasn’t the right choice for me and I ended up back at SunLife less than a year later. I can honestly say that SunLife is the best place I have ever worked. 

Once back at SunLife, I progressed through various different roles to the one I hold today. It’s been hard work and perhaps I would have gotten here sooner had I gone to University and got a degree but ultimately I have got to where I want to be – a subject expert in my field, leading a team of amazing people to do incredible things with data and my work with the Charter is making a meaningful difference too.

Outwardly I’m a confident person, but underneath I have always had pretty low self esteem and suffer with imposter syndrome regularly – especially when I’m in a room of important people talking to them about Data Protection for example. But I try to prove myself that I AM good at what I do! I hope I am someone who can inspire the next generation of women in data. I recently attended my daughter’s school for a STEM Careers week and it was amazing to see the girls especially engaging in the topics I was talking about.

Personally the biggest achievement in my life is my children. They are growing up to be incredible human beings and I love that they are also maths geeks like me! From a professional perspective, I would say the team members that I have managed over the years. There’s something very special about nurturing someone along their journey to become a great analyst. Last year, we won an award for CRM Solution of the year at the British Data Awards and I couldn’t have been prouder of the team.

The two biggest lessons I have learnt along the way would be:

  1. Don’t always follow the money. I absolutely believe in people being paid what they are worth, but if you take a job purely based on salary then you are likely to be unhappy. You have to find the right fit for you too.
  2. At an interview, ask questions. An interview is a two-way street. It’s as much an opportunity for you to find out about the culture of the place you are applying to as it is an opportunity for them to find out about you. 

As women, we often must make the choice between our careers or our families. Women take “time out” (it didn’t feel like a time out at the time!) to have babies and this can adversely affect their careers as their workplace moves on without them. Certainly, coming back to work after maternity leave was really daunting for me as I felt completely out of touch with what was happening in the business. This is changing though. SunLife, like many other businesses, recently began offering six months fully paid paternity leave – the exact same amount that they offer for maternity leave – and this is going to be a real game changer. Suddenly, the bias that can exist towards women in recruitment processes will disappear as there is just as much chance that a man will take this time off to have a baby as a woman. Equally, men will begin to understand how hard it can be when you first re-enter the workforce.

I don’t think my gender has made it difficult for me to progress specifically in the data world, BUT I am often the only woman in the room because there is a real lack of women taking up STEM roles. I think this goes back to the unconscious bias that can affect which subjects’ girls choose at GCSE and A Level – girls are statistically less likely to choose STEM subjects and therefore this will naturally mean that they won’t then follow these career paths. We need to do more to encourage girls to love STEM!

In my spare time I am an avid baker and can often be found baking birthday cakes for the family (and the occasional wedding cake!) My kids and my nieces and nephews keep me on my toes with their outlandish requests for cake themes! I am also a big Bristol Rovers fan and can be seen on many weekends cheering them on from the stands.

My three tips I would give to young females starting their careers would be:

  1. Don’t let your career happen to you, make your career happen. It’s easy to drift from one role to the next and just take what life throws at you, but the people who are happier at work tend to be the ones who have chosen what they do.
  2. Be your own biggest advocate
  3. Go for it. According to research, men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100%. Most role profile describe the ideal candidate, but the ideal candidate often doesn’t exist (and if they did, they would want more money than what is being offered!) Personally, when I am hiring, I care much more about the person than the skills. Skills can be taught, but the right attitude can’t be. So next time you see a role that you really want, but are worried if you are qualified enough, go for it anyway. You may be pleasantly surprised.

When I first began working in data, there are two women who really shaped my learning and gave me the confidence to progress in this field. One was my line manager and the other was our head of department. They gave me the support and tools I needed to develop my technical and interpersonal skills, whilst also giving me the space to learn on my own and make my own mistakes which is crucial for growth.

To see two women excelling in their careers in data was really inspiring and gave me two strong female roles models that I could look up to. 

I’m driven by a desire to do a good job and to feel a sense of achievement. I want to make sure that I can be proud of the work that I do and that I am making a difference to others – be that in supporting or mentoring others in their careers, driving the gender equality agenda or even just making life that bit easier for our colleagues and customers.

I don’t think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance. You only have to look at the gender pay gap to see that there is a real problem with gender equality in the workplace. I think some businesses are doing a lot and others less so. It’s not something that can be solved by individual businesses running initiatives here and there though. It’s much bigger than that and a societal shift is needed. People need to understand the difference between gender equity (treating people the way they need to be treated to get an equal outcome) and gender equality (just treating everyone the same). It’s the reason that I took on an additional role as a Marketing Manager for the Bristol Women in Business Charter. It’s the only Charter of its kind across the country and our aim is to make Bristol the first gender equal city in the UK.

I’ve seen some great initiatives from businesses that are Charter signatories that have really helped women to progress in their organisations. The availability of part-time and flexible working at all levels is crucial – we know that women are much more likely to have caring responsibilities for children or even for their own parents and therefore are more likely to need to work outside of the traditional 9 – 5 set up. Businesses also need to make someone at board level responsible for their gender equality agenda – but pick someone who is truly passionate about increasing the pace of change, not just someone who will tick the box!

Treat your team like they are family. Support them and show them that you want them to do well. Whilst this is the right thing to do from a human perspective, it also leads to them wanting to do a good job for you. Ultimately this may end up with them moving on to bigger and better things, but this is a good thing. I’m super proud of everything my past and present team members have achieved, and I am looking forward to seeing what the next generation does too.

What would you say to your 16-year-old self?

Don’t worry so much about what other people think. It will hold you back in life and the only person whose opinion should matter to you is your own. Oh and be nicer to your sister – she’ll be your best friend one day! 

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