Debra Sherrill, director at CGI, has some important advice for women looking to advance in their careers: Just speak up.
“Taking responsibility for your career is the key,” says Debra, who is a consulting expert for Managed IT and Cloud Solutions. “Whether it is IT or any other industry, it's important for women to make their career aspirations known. In my experience, other leaders will help women and men get to where they want to be.”
Debra credited the people who encouraged and believed in her – coworkers and friends – with keeping her on track.
“We have a group of women and we bounce ideas and thoughts off of each other,” she says. “It's really good to have a supportive network, and we encourage each other. It's not even a planned thing, it just happens in conversation. More than once individuals working on my team provided mentorship. For example, an awesome woman once said to me, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to be successful?’ at a time that I needed to hear that. I think of that advice often and it puts me back on track.”
She adds that it is all too common for people to sit back and stay quiet because they are scared. She recalls a question from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” in which Sandberg asks, “What would you do if you weren't scared?”
“My advice is don’t be scared,” says Debra. “If there is a wall, speak up and break it down.”
Inspiring new talent
While there are many ways to encourage young girls to pursue a career in STEM, Debra believes that early exposure is the most effective solution.
“From an industry perspective, I’d like to see commercials portraying girls and women in STEM roles,” she says. “I remember one commercial where a little girl was inventing better ways to do her chores and it was very inspiring.”
Debra thinks that movies and TV shows could also play a role in inspiring future generations of women. She points to the movie Hidden Figures, which tells the story of female mathematicians who proved to be invaluable to NASA during the Space Race.
“How cool is it for girls to see that and say, ‘Wow, I can do that!’ ” says Debra. “It’s all about early exposure. Every young woman I’ve talked to in STEM professions had the experience of a teacher or someone in authority telling them, ‘You are good at math, science, research, etc.’ It encourages them to go on. And for me it was people telling me, ‘You are a good leader. You learn quickly.’ ”
CGI also plays a role in encouraging young minds by partnering with schools and community organizations for STEM camps across the country.
“These fun, interactive events teach students about STEM-related careers,” she explains. “Plus, to inspire the future programmers, engineers and business consultants during the pandemic, CGI offers a program supporting K-12 at-home learning. Parents, educators, caregivers and mentors can download activity packs to help children learn all aspects of STEM, including coding, robotics and more.”
An opportunity for improvement
As a director at CGI, Debra is responsible for creating and managing CGI’s U.S. Global Technology Operations service offerings. She collaborates with the business development teams, architects and engineers, global teams, marketing, and leadership across the company. She is also working to build CGI’s AI offering with Amelia, collaborating with her firm’s internal IT service desk to identify the right use cases. Looking to the future, she has high hopes for AI and what it can achieve – not only for CGI but for all industries.
“Where I see a real opportunity for improvement from AI is with all industries in human resources processes, such as onboarding, especially when it comes to young people that are just entering the workforce after college,” she says.
Debra also sees potential in how AI can assist medical professionals. “Healthcare, through advances in artificial intelligence including machine learning and predictive analytics, has increased the focus on precision medicine,” she explains. “Particularly cancer diagnosis and treatment. In fact, my daughter is in research and they use AI to detect cancer from MRIs. Personally, I’d rather have a machine diagnose my illness than a human, using the collective minds of many is more accurate than the mind of one."