As a female who has recently entered into the digital and tech world in Liverpool, I can’t help but notice how male-dominated the field is and how difficult it can be to work your way upwards in the industry. However, it’s not just myself who has noticed that this is a problem for the city’s digital and creative culture: tech education specialists INNOVATEHER have recognised this imbalance in the industry and have been working across Liverpool and the North West to help make the digital sector much more accessible for girls and women.
To help combat the lack of education and awareness for girls in tech, Chelsea Slater and Jo Morfee have spent the last few years developing the InnovateHer brand. Their mission is to prepare girls for a career in the digital sectors and help existing businesses develop their workplace cultures to be more accommodating for women. Digital and tech-based industries are generally male-led, but by providing educational programmes for girls aged between 12 and 16, meet ups for women interested in tech and advice for tech companies on how to be more gender inclusive, they have been able to start bridging the gender and skills gap in the city. The beginning of 2019 has been very significant for the team after merging the two strands of their business – Liverpool Girl Geeks and InnovateHer – to start encouraging more girls and women across the North West to enter into the digital sector. I went to speak to Chelsea and Jo about their journey and what they are doing to help keep all us girl geeks going strong.
“I’ve been working in tech for about six to seven years,” Chelsea explains as she recalls how the idea for Liverpool Girl Geeks came about. “I went to university and got a tech job in Liverpool when I left. I had various tech jobs and realised there was a massive gender imbalance in the industry. I love technology and how creative it is and I was disappointed to not see many people like me in that role. I’ve always been quite an entrepreneur, so I was like, ‘Right, I’m going to inspire more women to get into tech’. So I started Liverpool Girl Geeks back in 2013.”
“It [Liverpool Girl Geeks] wasn’t really meant to be anything other than an event and a blog about inspiring women in tech, but it kind of rolled into what it is today,” Chelsea continues. “Joanne came to a bloggers meet up and said, ‘I’m really passionate about what you’re doing, can I write for you?’ She ended up being our chief blogger and I asked her to join the business as my partner, that’s how it all began.”
The snowballing nature of the business is obviously down to the passion Chelsea and Jo both share for helping women get into tech, which is allied to hands-on experience in the industry and a knowledge of the barriers that need to be overcome.
“I’ve worked in digital and tech roles for over 10 years after I graduated from John Moores University in Law and Business,” Jo recalls. “I had to approach a lot of male clients and they would always speak to me in jargon, like I never got it. That point stood out in my career and I was like, ‘I need to know a bit more about this because I need to be able to talk to these people and have them not treat me like I’m dumb’. I made it my mission to learn HTML and CSS and got a job at the University of Liverpool. I became quite proficient in it, but there were still only two women on the team who were doing technical jobs; similarly to Chelsea I just thought, ‘Why is this?’”
Questioning the gender imbalance in the digital and tech sectors in Liverpool was obviously a catalyst for something much bigger. Liverpool Girl Geeks soon outgrew its primary role as a blog and in hosting meet up events, developing into the full-time social enterprise company it is today. “It was just a community thing, a Twitter account and a shit website. I remember putting that together and was well proud of it, but now, looking back, it’s not,” Chelsea laughs with refreshing honesty as she recounts the early days of the business. “Then it merged into training girls and women up because they were coming to our events inspired and wanted to learn the skills. There wasn’t anything offering to teach them coding in Liverpool, so we thought we’d do it.”
From here Girl Geeks expanded its outlook, providing coding and UX courses to young people between 12 and 16. The expansion brought about other opportunities, which Chelsea and Jo rolled together under the new banner of InnovateHer. This recent merging of Girl Geeks and the new brand feels like a very big step in the right direction for women and girls in the tech industry in 2019. “Liverpool Girl Geeks has grown up, we like to say, into InnovateHer,” Chelsea says. “The mission now for InnovateHer is about getting girls ready for the tech industry and getting the tech industry ready for the girls.”
Their new programme now consists of two elements: an eight-week programme that teaches digital skills in after school sessions led by industry mentors, and the company membership. “The company membership allows us to work really closely with companies on their diversity, recruitment and working policies,” Jo explains. “There’s no point in telling these girls to go and get a job in tech if the spaces aren’t inclusive for them.”
“We’re still running the coding courses for adults this year, too, because it works really well with our company membership,” Jo explains when I ask what they are doing to help adult women in the industry. “We run a day-long Introduction To Coding course and we’ve also just partnered with Northcoders to provide a financial aid package for women who want to come on our course for the 12 weeks but can’t afford it. They don’t pay anything to go on the boot camp until they get into employment afterwards – 97 per cent of them get jobs within 15 days, so it’s a really good journey to go on. Working with 12-16 year olds is a long-term strategy, so it’s also good to keep progress going with the adults.”
“We have our monthly meet ups, too, which are aimed at adult women and men,” Chelsea explains. “We make sure we have diverse panels and we have a lot of men coming to them now. We want men to get on board with the mission because they are the ones who normally own the company or are in a senior position. There is no way we can tackle the issue without including men, but we have to think carefully about how we do that so we can still put forward our message and still have a predominantly female community.”
I went along to their March meet up to see what goes on and it really did feel like a community of people, regardless of gender, all there to talk openly about tech. Sharing knowledge is key, and is something Chelsea and Jo have put at the forefront of their message. It’s all about empowerment and supporting girls on their path to a digital career which is still unfortunately not encouraged in a lot of schools.
“There are only 42 per cent of schools offering computer science at GCSE in Liverpool. Only eight per cent of pupils take it and of that eight per cent the amount of girls is very low,” Jo explains. “Computer science isn’t the answer to everything, but it is a good path, which is why we focus on that on the 12-16 programme.”
These shocking statistics really show how underrepresented tech and digital subjects are in schools and highlight just how important InnovateHer’s work is. I ask if they have any success stories that have come out of their programmes and they laugh, not knowing where to start. Jo tells me how there was a 17-year-old girl called Jess who applied for one of their web development programmes with the intent of creating a blog about fashion, and now wants to work in cyber security. “She wants to work for MI5, is now studying computer science and enters national cyber competitions with another girl she met through our network. The experience just normalised it for her, that it was OK to be a geek!”
“It changes mentors’ lives, too,” Chelsea comments. “A lot of our mentors say they get a lot out of our programme, it’s just so empowering and rewarding. A girl, Sophie, came to us wanting to be a mentor because she struggled with bullies in high school. The memories of that were quite strong, but because of the fear she wanted to face it by going back into school. She has excelled in it: she is so much more confident and has come out wanting to make more changes.”
InnovateHer has also managed to work with companies in Liverpool to increase their recruitment of women, and they are beginning to expand their mission to other cities including Warrington, Wigan and Manchester, with London on the horizon. “We just want to make as much of an impact as we can. Our mission is to make sure there is no talk of gender, and over the next few years we are going to work on getting our current programmes to the highest quality possible.”
The ultimate goal for this equality approach is for gender to not be an issue, for us not to be having this conversation in a few years’ time because the industry will be gender balanced and women and girls will have the same opportunity as everyone else. “We don’t want a business eventually,” Jo laughs. “But we can’t solve the issue on our own; it’s too big of a job for one grassroots organisation, it’s a societal problem. I can’t see there ever not being a need, but hopefully I’m wrong.”
“We can’t be what we are trying to be without people,” continues Jo, “so the more people that get involved in any capacity and help spread our message is how we work. Without that then we would be nothing.”