Geek is the word

An all-women organisation in Liverpool is determined to close the gender gap within the technology sector and inspire young women to take up careers

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In the UK females currently make up just 17 per cent of the tech workforce. By 2040 it is estimated that only 1 per cent of the tech sector will be female. In Liverpool, two female-led companies are leading the push to change the industry’s gender imbalance.

“My advice for young girls is don’t listen to anyone that says you can’t do it or it’s too hard.”

Chelsea Slater started Liverpool Girl Geeks in 2013. The 28 year old moved to Liverpool from Wrexham in 2008 to study. After completing a BA in marketing and multimedia at Liverpool John Moores University, she went on to complete her masters in digital marketing at Birmingham University, before coming back to Liverpool to take a job in the digital sector.

“I was working for an app agency and although I have never experienced any sexism in the industry I wanted to get more women into it because it’s really cool and I loved it. It wasn’t intended to be a business. We just started putting on events to inspire women, which turned into workshops and other stuff like confidence-building sessions. It just started to grow and grow and the creative industries in Liverpool really got behind us.”

In the last year alone, Liverpool Girl Geeks has raised over £100,000 in private and public funding, and grown an online and offline community of more than 10,000 people. As it celebrates its fifth birthday the company has partnered with the likes of the Co-op and PlayStation to deliver workshops on everything from robotics to physical coding.

Currently, girls comprise only 20 per cent of computer science entries at GCSE, and 10 per cent at A-level, with 30,000 fewer girls taking any computing qualification at GCSE or above now, compared with 2014. In July this year the World Bank released a report called Women Wavemakers that ranked the UK’s information and communications sector as one of the most male-dominated in the world.

Seeing the need for change Slater launched InnovateHer with co-founder Jo Morfee, in January. It aims to establish a network of school-based academies to tackle the skills gap in the tech sector, which is currently estimated to cost the UK economy £63 billion in lost GDP.

InnovateHer aims to improve the digital and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – skills and employability of young girls, and encourage greater equality and diversity in technical roles. Slater was recently at the Studio, a school in Liverpool, for InnovateHer’s free monthly workshop.

The workshop was being delivered by Farm Urban, which operates from the basement of the school, where a number of different growing technologies, vertical farming equipment, produce pods, mushroom production units and insect farms are on display.

Farm Urban was established by Liverpudlian Paul Myers and Jens Thomas, two scientists with a shared interest in everything from permaculture to quantum mechanics. It aims to link scientific research with local production.

After splitting the 11 to 17 year olds into groups of four to six, Myers began: “We don’t give you instructions as you have to learn to solve problems yourself. You have to ask the right questions to get any help.”

The aquaponics system the girls were asked to build uses fish waste to fertilise soil and grow food, while the plants growing above the tank help filter the water for the fish, creating a closed-loop system suitable for an urban environment. Each group was given several items of plastic that Paul assured everyone could be found in your nearest Ikea. After half an hour each group had to pitch their design for 30 seconds to the rest of the group.

Myers explained how the system helped encourage his daughter Bella to eat more salad and drink healthy smoothies. “At first she wasn’t having any of it, but she took an interest in the system I was developing at the time, which I had put in our kitchen. She named the fish and wanted to feed them, then smell and taste the leaves of the salad and herb plants growing on the top. This made me realise the power aquaponics has to connect people to their food and make them a part of the growing process. The more connected people are to good food the more inclined they are to eat it.

“Learning by doing is far more fun and effective. Finding answers to questions by working together as part of a team and learning to ask the right question is really important. How we feed the growing population with diminishing resources is a real world problem for everyone so one most people can see the importance of.”

After recently launching in Manchester, InnovateHer has delivered programmes in 12 schools already this year. Slater believes that working with year 8 girls is especially important for their GCSE choices.

Although it has received support from lots of the northern councils in Manchester and Wigan, Liverpool has been less forthcoming with support, despite Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram being an advocate for the scheme.

“The problem is, Liverpool is yet to have a digital education fund like other councils do, which is a real shame because we want to support more schools in the city,” said Slater. “My advice for young girls would be don’t listen to anyone that says: ‘You can’t do it, or it’s too hard.’ Give it a go – there are so many good opportunities.”

As shown by Kimberley Billingsley, who attended the Get Your Head Around Code course in December 2016 and Javascript course in January 2017. She now works as a genetic researcher working with bioinformatics and big data.

She said: “I have moved to Washington DC now with my PhD and I’m working at a government research centre doing genetic research. So I’m learning a lot more coding. The courses were great and gave me lots of confidence to progress.”


Data points

Annabelle Robinson, 16, from Wirral, who is studying for a BTEC in IT and has been attending the workshops since 2015, said: “Coming to the workshops really gives me inspiration. I get to make new friends and help the younger people that attend.”

Sophia Martin, 13, from Liverpool, who is home schooled, said: “It was good. We had to work as a team to problem solve, and everyone has been really friendly.”

Ruth Turner, 15, from Chester and also home schooled, said she had already watched a YouTube video about aquaponics before she came. “I didn’t know I could make all this. I learned it could be used more in homes, schools and hospitals.”

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