#WomenInTech – Lt Col Vanessa McDermott

Increasing gender diversity and encouraging women into the tech sector has been a topic in the news for many years, yet women still remain largely under-represented in IT and tech-focused roles.

At Women Empowering Defence, we know the importance and value of increasing diversity in the workplace and want to encourage more women into the tech industry. 

Lt Col Vanessa McDermott

Lt Col Vanessa McDermott has served in the Royal Signals for nearly 20 years and is currently Commanding Officer of 3rd (UK) Division Signal Regiment enabling deployed command and control for the UK’s warfighting Division.

Until recently she was a member of the Army Advanced Development Programme (AADP) working as an in-house management consultant for the Army addressing challenges that prevent the Army from being at its best.  She has a master’s degree in information Capability Management from Cranfield and an MBA from Henley Business School.  

Vanessa places communication and building trusted relationships at the heart of her leadership approach.  A passionate advocate for women in technology Vanessa is committed to increasing opportunities for all in the Army, founding the Royal Signals: Inspiring Women in Technology network in 2017 and launching the Royal Signals Mentoring Programme in 2021. 

We have interviewed Vanessa to share her journey, advice and experience to help put the spotlight on women in technology with the hope of inspiring more women into tech and leadership roles. 

What has been the driving force to get you where you are today?

I think I have succeeded because I’ve never looked too far ahead.  While I’ve always known the rules and requirements for the next promotion, I have always focused on my current role and doing that well.  

That, and keeping my imposter syndrome in check! I am very conscious that there are not many women to my left and right anymore: The Army has c.170 women at my rank (out of nearly 1,700 – more than there are total female officers in the Army) and the total number of women in the ranks above mine is just over 60 (based on Oct 23 figures).  

Without knowing what I know now, I often felt that I had a different approach – to leadership or to a problem – and frequently question whether I was the only one in the room that “didn’t get it”, but I’ve come to realise that that is what it feels like to bring a different perspective into the room.  And that, in itself, has been a driving force for me; to be in positions where I can use that perspective to influence decision-making and inform idea development.  

As I’ve become more senior, my motivation has become a bit more determined: I feel a responsibility to test the water, to prove what can be done, to challenge anyone who suggests that I cannot fulfil my potential because of my children or my husband or my capbadge or my gender.  And I’ve built a strong network among my female peers and seniors which is a real source of strength!

Tell us more about the Royal Signals ‘Inspiring Women in Technology’ Network.

Women make up only 6% of the Regular R SIGNALS WF – that is less than 400 out of a Corps of 5.5k.  Along with the RE, REME, AAC and Cav/Inf we, have one of the lowest representation of women in the direct entry Corps by some margin.  I just found this unacceptable and, recognising that no one was doing anything to understand and retain women in the Corps I set up the network to do just that.  

The focus of the network is around building professional confidence, particularly technical confidence.  We aim to do this by celebrating success, sharing opportunities, working with industry partners to show what ‘tech’ looks like in the real world, and encouraging professional development through apprenticeships and charterships, where women from the Corps are particularly poorly represented. We have an incredible champion in Maj Gen Jon Collyer, D Info and I am privileged to work with a team of motivated, optimistic women and men on the network committee.

Why do you think there are still so few females in the technology sector?

“Its complicated.” I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the Barriers to Women in the Tech Sector, back in 2014 and found there to be multiple factors which contribute to this answer.  Frustratingly, I have seen no research since that points to any new factors, which makes me think that we as a society are not doing enough to tackle those barriers that we’ve already identified.  But if I were to highlight the greatest ones:

  • Gender-Stereo-typing of Professions at an early age.  Primary School. Worse in Co-Ed secondary)
  • Lack of Role Models at a young age (to quote Marianne Elliott “If you cant see it, you cant be it”)
  • Lack of understanding of breadth of opportunities, diversity of roles etc among gatekeepers (teachers, parents, media) – it’s not just coding!!
  • Competition for skills (young women taking STEM subjects tend to go into medicine, dentistry, and veterinary science rather than tech)
  • Lack of routes back into tech for those who take career diversions (a depressingly low % of female STEM graduates still working in tech roles…..)
  • 2-tier “Women in Tech”…. those in tech roles and those in marketing, finance, HR, PR etc….???

I don’t think it’s any secret that many women in the tech industry have felt their gender has affected the way that they are perceived or treated. Have you ever been in a situation like that? How did you handle it?

As a woman working in a male-dominated/saturated organisation like the MOD you develop a “6th Sense” for misogyny.  Looking back, I think I have encountered one or two during each of my postings who have required ‘active’ management: sometimes, as the Boss, it has been finding subtle – but firm – ways to remind them of our relative status (the benefits of a hierarchical organisation).  Other times, I have had to prove my competence and intellect to gain their respect via other means, i.e. work harder, but not be subservient.  

I’ve also worked for and with some ‘bullish’ men, who have made me self-conscious of my femininity.  In these cases, I found having mentors and friends – male and female – to test out the scenarios with – extremely helpful.  The key to making those relationships work is to realise that it is not personal.  I am firm believer in “Boss Management” and take it on as part of my role when I change jobs – what makes them tick?  How do they work?  What are their priorities?  

Many years ago a boss introduced me to a great HBR article called “Managing Your Boss” (Gabarro & Kotter) – which is also available as a book via Amazon– and has a checklist.  I have found this really helps to look at the problem from a different viewpoint, understanding the pressures the boss is facing and understanding your role – as a ‘good’ follower – in giving them the support they need and helping them to trust and empower their team.  Others would call this ‘influencing up’! 

Where I have felt that I am facing discrimination based on my sex I have rarely faced it head on.  I am not a confrontational type, if I can help it. Instead, I have always found I have someone to sound out with the “is it just me or…..” question! Which has usually helped me to think of a smarter way to get the outcome I want. 

Recognising and valuing that “a woman isn’t an inferior version of a man”  has really helped me.  I made peace with the fact that I would never be as good at being a man as a man is, so I would be better off just being different – being myself.  And this has bought me a real sense of freedom and – some would say fearless – confidence.  It is not always easy being different, but who said easy was fun?! 

How do you think we can achieve a more diverse future in tech?  

I’ve just completed my MBA dissertation on Cognitive Diversity.  What we need to recognise is that the definition of diversity has expanded, while our general conversation around it has not.   Diversity is so much broader than the protected characteristics.  We are all multi-faceted and those facets intersect in unique ways to bring true value, if we can only encourage authenticity and establish the psychological safety to allow people to try and fail.  Those are the sorts of diverse teams I would like to be a part of. 

Do you notice a lack of women in technology in the Forces? If so, why do you think that’s the case?

Yes.  The Armed Forces has difficulty recruiting and retaining women, and for the Army this seems to be more so, perhaps due to the perceived arduousness of the Service or its culture (Atherton, Perks, Beck…..)

The STEM capbadges have a ‘double whammy’ – Army and tech!  Increasing problem….all Defence propositions talk of an increasing reliance on technology and the need for a highly technically literate human WF to team with machines.  Quite a tall ask!  It is my personal hunch that our current messaging is having the same effect on the technical parts of the Army – where diversity of thought and diversity in role models is so desperately needed.

We also need to think about how we represent women in the Army; we always show them as a “female version of a man” (think if recent adverts for the Army you’ve seen) .  While it is true, in some respects, but misses the value that women can bring to the Armed Forces, especially in technical roles.

What advice would you pass on to other women to help them progress in this industry?

  • Mentors
  • Networking
  • Networks
  • Be an agent for change; start something, change something
  • Say “yes” and figure it out afterwards (asking for help if you need it!!)
  • Take opportunities to learn or try something different.
  • Don’t be afraid to ‘step out of lane’ – unexpected opportunities are usually the most rewarding.

You don’t need to have a technical background to be a leader of technical people.  But you need aptitude, enthusiasm for the subject and the willingness to build credibility (e.g. HE, professional quals). 

So many senior women in Tech will brief that they did not come through a tech pipeline and instead transferred across at a senior level.  So I do despair slightly at the barriers to entry for tech roles that young women face today. 

What would you say is your primary motivating factor behind your leadership?

Advocacy.   I am genuinely passionate about unlocking opportunities for as many people and maximising their individual potential.  This comes through networking, mentoring and sharing experiences to broaden horizons and excite others about opportunities for themselves, but also how they can create opportunities for others.  There can be nothing more rewarding or energising than this as a leader.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female tech leaders?

 I strongly believe that there is no right path and that you can make the most of whatever opportunities and situations you find yourself in.  Just be adaptable and optimistic.  And believe in the power of one person to make a meaningful change. 


Lt Col Vanessa McDermott’s journey and insights offer a beacon of inspiration not just for women in the tech sector, but for anyone aspiring to make a difference in their field. Her leadership approach, centred around communication, building trusted relationships, and advocating for diversity, underscores the profound impact of inclusive leadership. Vanessa’s initiatives, such as founding the Royal Signals: Inspiring Women in Technology network and launching the Royal Signals Mentoring Programme, are testament to her commitment to fostering an environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Her advice to focus on the present role, manage imposter syndrome, and leverage a different perspective to influence decision-making is invaluable. Vanessa’s story is a powerful reminder of the importance of diversity in thought and representation in the tech industry and beyond. It encourages us to challenge the status quo, embrace our unique identities, and actively contribute to a more diverse future in tech.

As we continue to navigate the complexities of gender diversity in the tech sector, Vanessa’s experiences and guidance serve as a roadmap for aspiring female tech leaders. By embracing mentorship, networking, and the courage to be agents of change, we can collectively work towards a future where diversity is not just an aspiration but a reality. Vanessa McDermott’s journey is a clarion call to inspire inclusion, challenge barriers, and empower the next generation of women in technology to step forward and lead with confidence.

Share this interview



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *