To kick off Series 14, we are joined by two titans of tech, Russ Shaw, Founding Partner of London Tech Week and London Tech Ambassador for the Mayor of London and an advisory member for Founders4Schools, and Dr Sue Black, technology evangelist, digital skills expert and Professor of Computer at Durham University.
In this two-part interview, we discuss the importance of allyship, getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and the fantastic story of the campaign to save Bletchley Park! We also learn about where each guest is specifically focusing their time to drive greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the technology industry, and explore how to fill the current skills gaps being faced by the industry.
Russ Shaw CBE
Russ is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates. He originally founded Tech London Advocates in 2013 to ensure an independent voice of the technology community was heard, but with a focus on the private sector. Since then he has been championing London as a global tech hub and campaigning to address some of the biggest challenges facing tech companies in the UK. Global Tech Advocates, founded in 2015, is now present in 17 hubs around the globe, with over 12,000 members. In 2019 Russ launched the inaugural GTA Festival, taking place in China and bringing the international network together for the first time. Russ was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2021 for services to technology and to business in London. He is a founding partner of London Tech Week, a London Tech Ambassador for the Mayor of London and Advisory Board member for Founders4Schools and the Government’s Digital Skills Partnership. In 2019, Russ was recognised as a 'Tech Titan' in the Evening Standard's Progress 1000 list of London's most influential people.
Dr Sue Black OBE
A multi award winning Computer Scientist, Technology Evangelist and Digital Skills Expert, Professor Sue Black was awarded an OBE for “services to technology” in the 2016 Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. She is Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist in the Department of Computer Science at Durham University, a UK government advisor, thought leader, Trustee at Comic Relief, social entrepreneur, writer and public speaker. Sue set up the UK’s first online network for women in tech BCSWomen in 1998 and led the campaign to save Bletchley Park, home of the WW2 codebreakers. Sue’s first book Saving Bletchley Park details the social media campaign she led to save Bletchley Park from 2008-2011. Sue has championed women in tech for over two decades, founding the #techmums social enterprise in 2013 and the pioneering TechUPWomen retraining underserved women into tech careers in 2019. Passionate about technology as an enabler Sue didn’t have a traditional start to her career. She left home and school at 16, married at 20 and had 3 children by the age of 23. A single parent at 25 she went to university, gained a degree in computing then a PhD in software engineering. Sue now has 4 children and 6 grandchildren.
Series Fourteen, Episode One Transcript
Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equity, inclusion and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. We wanted to do a really special start to series 14 so in August I caught up with two of the greats in the technology industry, Russ Shaw CBE, and Dr. Sue Black OBE. In this special episode, I explore with each of them where we must focus in order to fill the tech skills gaps, where they see the potential and the pitfalls. And we talk about allyship and even how to address the realities of toxic cultures. We get to learn so much more about where they are focusing their time to drive greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the technology industry.
Our first interview is with Russ Shaw, the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates. He originally founded Tech London Advocates in 2013 to ensure an independent voice of the technology community was really heard, but with a particular focus on the private sector. Since then, he has been championing London as a global tech hub and campaigning to address some of the biggest challenges facing tech companies in the UK. In 2015, he founded Global Tech Advocates, now present in more than 27 hubs around the world with more than 30,000 members and growing. In 2019, he launched the inaugural GTA Festival, taking place in China and bringing the international network together for the very first time.
He is a founding partner of London Tech Week and London Tech Ambassador for the Mayor of London and an advisory member for Founders4Schools on the government’s digital skills partnership. Unsurprisingly, he was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List in 2021 for services to technology and to businesses in London. Russ, welcome to the show.
Russ: Great to be here. Lovely to see you, Julia.
Julia: I’m intrigued. What is it you’re focused on rights now?
Russ: There are three key areas that we as a global tech community are focused on. First and foremost is around tech for net zero. The planet’s burning, and we know that we need to do much more to drive a sustainability and circular economy agenda. Second is around emerging technologies, from blockchain to quantum, to the metaverse, to robotics. There’s so much going on in terms of emerging tech and how to help people understand where it’s all going. Third, and I know this is where we’re going to talk more specifically, is around diversity and inclusion. It’s one of the key priorities for us as a community.
Julia: We’ve talked before at many, many events about the need to bring talent into the tech industry, certainly I talk about it a lot in the field of financial services. Let’s start with women, but we are going to go much, much further. The diversity and equity and inclusion conversation, as all our listeners know, extends right the way across the community. But if we could perhaps talk about the role of women and also your views on the importance of focusing on returners.
Russ: Yes, first and foremost, the role of women in the technology sector is vital and it’s vital for our future success. I often say to folks, look, a sector that’s 80% white men is just not going to be sustainable in the longer term. We’re not going to build the world leading products and services that we need for the technology sector. And I do spend a fair bit of my time, we have in our community, we have a variety of working groups. Our two largest groups are our Women in Tech and our Black Women in Tech groups. I spend a lot of time with those leads, really trying to understand what are the specific issues, how do we support from a grassroots point of view what’s going on to help women and black women to build careers in the tech sector? How do we get behind female founders to make sure that they’re getting the investments that they need to go into their startups and scale ups?
That to me is critical. The frustration, as you and I have spoken about, is the needle is just not moving fast enough. The latest Atomico report, something like 2% of all founders are women, and then I think if you drill down on that, I think it’s 0.2 or 0.3% are black women. So as we say in America, Houston, we have a problem. How do we fix this? I think the good news is the awareness levels, and people are really trying to commit to fixing the issue, but it’s just not moving fast enough. I’m also seeing frustration build that we’re not moving that needle as quickly as we’d like. I feel that way too. We could be moving much faster in this space.
Julia: What advice would you give the listeners to think about where to focus their attention? Because there’s obviously so much that can be done. I know you’ve been sort of through the Global Tech Advocates and through the London Tech Advocates really thinking about community grassroots approaches.
Russ: My message to women, to black women, to people with disabilities, to people from the LGBTQ community is bring the ideas, the suggestions together and we can really push that message out. Bring the best practises. The most simple ones are the most effective ones that are out there. You talked about women returners. One of our partners is Credit Suisse and I didn’t know enough about working with women returning into the workforce. They have a great programme called Real Returns. So I’ve immersed myself in trying to understand that better, but then to share what they’re doing with other organisations, to say, look, you don’t have to do something massive. It would be great if you did, but you don’t have to. But just taking simple, practical steps that say you’re getting behind women who are returning into the workforce.
You’ve got a programme, people can apply for it. You’re supporting it in different offices around your network. That’s fantastic. Bring those voices together. Let’s share some of the ideas and best practises. A lot of what I do in our community is to put the spotlight on who’s doing what well. What are some of those great ideas where we can shout out about different organisations to say, look, they’re really walking the talk when it comes to working with women returning to the workforce or getting black women into more senior positions or people working with disabilities? That is what I spend a lot of my time doing. We now have great platforms where we push those messages out to share more about it. I also speak to the media a lot, I speak to government leaders a lot to say, you have an important role here to amplify this message as well.
Julia: When you talk about making these programmes available across the organisations and also across the network as well, it’s wonderful to hear you talk about taking this out into regional offices as well. I wonder to what extent we are at risk of those in the headquarters benefit from network, but actually one thing where it leads across what you do is it’s the coverage and it’s the scale that really makes a difference as well.
Russ: It is. And I’ve used my own organisation as an example. This summer I was in Washington, DC and I had the opportunity to meet Gina Raimondo, who’s the US Commerce Secretary. She convened a group of leaders, something called the Select USA Global Women in Tech Initiative. I joined the round table and I was teased because I was the only bloke at the table. But what I did bring into that discussion were examples, not just from our London group, but from our Netherlands group, our Nordics group, our Bay Area group, in terms of the practical things that they’re doing to support women in tech. The secretary came up to me afterwards and she was teasing me a little bit, but she said, “We really value the practical things that you’re doing globally and how you’re sharing them across the network.”
That I think is really key because when I speak to people, and often it’s white men, saying to them, this is not rocket science. You have your sales targets and if you miss those sales targets your board is going to beat up on you. But are they doing the same if you’re not moving the needle on diversity and inclusion? Are you being challenged and taken to task? Most of them aren’t, sadly. But for those who are starting to feel more of that pressure, and I’m glad they’re feeling it, it’s what can they do? How can they step up? Whether it’s just taking a simple programme, but my message to them as well is, how do you lead by example? How do you demonstrate to your entire organisation, whether it’s 50 or 100 or 50,000, that you’re truly behind this? Too many, and Julia, you and I have spoken about this, too many do a lot of talking, but they’re not really walking the talk. But for those men and those white men who are really doing something specific, that’s great and that’s what we need to shout about.
Julia: We talk a lot on the podcast about the importance of enlightened leadership. I mean, the world is shifting constantly. My personal opinion is that the laws and the rules and the training we’ve had about leadership in the past aren’t always entirely applicable right now. People are working in hybrid models. People are using technologies that are changing at such a pace that actually we don’t always have the privilege of following structures that might have applied 10-15, even five years ago.
Russ: I think on that point, I mean, the world is changing and more companies, more corporates and more investors are being pressured by what we’re calling ESG, Environment, Society and Governance. They’re not going to get the investment, they’re not going to get the support that they need unless they’re demonstrating that they’re really getting behind ESG, which a key component includes diversity and inclusion. That macro environment, I think, is a real plus. But now they have to sit down and say, how do we do this in a practical way? And how are they measuring the success as they implement initiatives and programmes? That’s where I sense things are still a little bit all over the place and we’ve got to get a much better handle on the practical things that companies can do to move that needle step by step.
I’m an advocate, personally, of targets and quotas.I know a lot of people don’t like that. They don’t think it’s appropriate. But if you’re not going to have targets and quotas, what are you going to do? How does a board hold a CEO accountable if they’re not changing the composition and makeup of their workforce to reflect more women, more people from the black community, more people from the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities? It’s something that we have to demonstrate successfully.
Julia: You mentioned that a lot of people sitting in those powers of authority, we all know are largely men. Now that is, we are seeing focus on that. We are seeing change on that, we’re seeing awareness about that. And we could have a whole discussion about is that changing fast enough? But I do want to hone in on one thing, which is really important, about the power of allies, and particularly male allies. Now, clearly you are a massive male ally and an amazing role model in the industry, but I’ve also heard you talk to other men, encouraging them to step up and to take on that mantle, if you like. I’d love to hear your thoughts about why it matters and what advice do you give.
Russ: It matters hugely, first of all. I think there are different ways of looking at this. I want to bring in a quick story and then I want to talk about male allyship. During London Tech Week this summer, we did a D&I round table with Secretary of State Nadine Dorries. We had lots of advocates around the table representing our various D&I working groups. A word that came out of that session, which I’d heard about, but people kind of seized on it, was this word patriarchy. To me, it’s a very negative term, but there is a male, and let’s be clear, a white male patriarchy that’s out there in a number of organisations. It is hard to change that, so you have to, coming on to this point about male allyship, reach out and break into those patriarchies and say to the CEO, the Managing Partner, whatever, look, it feels comfortable. You recruit from the same bodies. You’re doing the same thing, time and time again.
What can you do that just takes a step away from that, that really signifies that you’re serious about this? There’s lots of male allies that are out there who’ve done this, and are very comfortable doing this. I remember a few years ago when I went to, it was a Transport for London event. There were 75 people. It was all about black leaders in transport. I was the only white male in the room. When we did our Global Tech Advocates Black women in Tech event a couple weeks ago at Google, there were 240 people there. I was the only white male in the room. Somebody came up to me and said, “How do you feel?” And I said, “Well, if you asked me that question a few years ago,” I said, “I would’ve felt really strange.”
How do I feel now? I feel great because I feel very comfortable in this type of environment, but I didn’t initially, because it can be intimidating. Flavilla, who set up our Black Women in Tech group set it up because she was the only black woman in a room of 75 men and said, this can’t continue. I say to male allies, you have to get out of your comfort zone. If you’re a CEO running a big company, you’re out of your comfort zone a lot. You’re in new markets, you’re launching new products, that’s uncomfortable. Now think about it from a culture of leadership point of view. Go to a Black Women in Tech event, listen to the stories, talk to people about what it feels like for you and what it could feel like for them. Take those steps and then maybe advise or mentor a young black woman or a person who’s got neurodiversity issues.
Just put yourself in their world for 30 minutes or an hour. See what it’s like and build that empathy for what it’s like for somebody from a different diverse background. The first couple of times, it feels strange, of course, it does. But as you do this more and more and hear the issues, people will feel comfortable going up to you, sharing their great ideas, because that’s where you want them to come from. But they’ll also complain and moan, which they should do, about the frustrations that they’ve got. Put yourself into their shoes at an event or whatever and that’s how you start this. It’s those steps.
I think the male allies that you and I come across have done that and feel more and more comfortable. Now my role is I go to white men and say, “Come on, come with me, come to this event. It’s only an hour. See what you can learn and experience.” And I’d say 99 times out of 100, it works. Every now and then somebody just feels really intimidated and won’t go back. But this is a big picture game. Let’s go after the bulk of the white men who need to make that change. I think those are the practical things that can be done.
Julia: Of course, every leader knows you have to just ultimately get comfortable with the uncomfortable. This is what we do all day. This is what we do every single day. Actually, if we are overly comfortable, then take the step. I love that it’s just simply a single step that will take you into a different world, but an important one. The importance of listening and really absorbing, as opposed to imposing or appropriating. See, that’s another kind of behaviour that I’ve seen a little bit of, which is people assuming that those communities want to be spoken to in a way that other communities may want to engage. And of course, the use of the expression BAME is outdated.
Russ: Oftentimes Flavilla or Suki or whoever from these groups will invite me to come and speak. Sometimes I’ll say, look, I’m just here to listen. If you want me to say a couple words at the end, I’m happy to do so, but I’m equally happy just networking with the folks who are there and feeling like they can come up to me in a safe space and share what’s on their mind. If it’s a great idea or frustration, you learn over time what’s appropriate and you can’t do that from day one. You’ll make mistakes and be ready, you’re going to put your foot in your mouth and I’ve done it a couple of times myself. But poke fun at yourself and then apologise if you need to and then move on and say, I’m learning on this journey with everybody else. But if we don’t do this in a collaborative and integrated way, it ain’t going to happen.
Julia: And it is a journey, it really is a journey. There’s not a perfect state. We know the future states will benefit certainly. Every single step along the way is progress, which is phenomenal. Russ, it’s been a joy to have some of your time. I know how busy you are. I wonder if I can ask you a parting question.
If I may, which is a question I ask every single guest, which is my deep-seated concern that as we go through very interesting socioeconomic times, I’m concerned that actually the conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion may well fall down the board agenda. I would love to hear your compelling reasons why it must remain high.
Russ: Funnily enough, I actually don’t think it will. In fact, I actually think it’s going to stay at or near the top. And the reason for that is every organisation I speak to, startup, scale up, corporate, the number one issue that they face is around talent. Even in our uncertain economic times, in the UK today, there was just a report I read recently, there’s 1.2 million job vacancies. In the tech sector in the UK, there’s over 100,000 tech vacancies. There is a hunger for talent and there’s a hunger for diverse talent. More and more people are saying, diverse talent is what we need to do to make sure that we become a more robust, dynamic organisation.
Because that talent equation is so top of mind for boards, for CEOs, for founders and entrepreneurs, I’m optimistic that the D&I agenda is going to stay, if not at the top, very near the top going forward, because we have to solve for the talent issues that are out there. That’s not going away over the coming months and years, that’s going to be with us for a very long time. I think it will be top of mind for many people. I’m an optimist, as you can tell, but it’ll be at the top.
Julia: Russ Shaw, it’s always a privilege to spend time with you. It’s always very inspiring and I know that we could talk for hours about this, but your passion for the DE&I conversation shines through in every single word and every single action. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Russ: Thank you, Julia. Great to be with you on such a critical topic. Thank you.
Julia: What a discussion. It was wonderful to hear Russ’s thoughts, insights, and optimism. And it really gave me some ideas to take into the second interview in this special technology episode. I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Sue Black. She is a multi-award winning computer scientist. She’s a technology evangelist and a digital skills expert. She is a professor of computer science and the technology evangelist in the Department of Computer Science at Durham University. But more than that, she is a UK government advisor, not surprisingly a thought leader, trustee at Comic Relief, a social entrepreneur, a writer, and a public speaker. Sue set up the UK’s first online network for women in technology for the British Computer Society, called BSC Women, back in 1998. You may also know her because she led the campaign to save Bletchley Park, home of the World War II code breakers.
Sue has championed women in tech for more than two decades, founding the #techmums social enterprise in 2013 and the pioneering TechUPWomen, retraining underserved women in tech into their careers back in 2019. It’s not surprising that Professor Sue Black was awarded an OBE for services to technology in the 2016 Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. She’s here today. So Sue, welcome to the show.
Sue: Thanks very much, Julia. It’s such a pleasure to be here.
Julia: I’m so excited to have you on the show because every time I see you, I’ve got a million and one questions for you, now I get to ask you. To start on the first thing, now I set up an incredible broad spectrum of things you’re doing at the moment and things you’re focused on. What are you particularly focused on in 2022?
Sue: Well, I guess continuing in the same theme of what’s become my career around technology. I guess, evangelism. I mean, that is part of my title at Durham. Really helping people to understand how, I’m sure as you believe too, diversity and inclusion is so important. If we want to in the tech world create products and services that are fit for purpose for everybody, we need the teams building them to be diverse and inclusive. I’ve been working around that area for, like you say, the last 20 years. But it’s been very interesting to see over the last few years, how it’s really come to the fore and how businesses are really starting, at least, to take it seriously. Most things I do kind of come under that umbrella. You mentioned TechUPWomen, so focusing on TechUPWomen.
That’s retraining women, particularly from underserved backgrounds into tech careers. Our first TechUPWomen cohort, we managed to get, I think, 54% women of colour, 46% women with disabilities, 40% women parents, I think something like 28% LGBTQ+. We really focused on supporting and encouraging women from diverse backgrounds to come together on the programme.
And not just as the students, but also the women that were coming in to teach, to support and to give inspiring speeches and be part of the programme all the way through, like Donna Herdsman, who I think’s been on your show before. So many amazing women out there. That’s one thing, also #techmums, you mentioned, that’s the social enterprise I set up in, I think, 2012, 10 years ago already. We started that again after the pandemic, because we are working at the level with mums that aren’t used to using computers even, to help them realise the benefits, the opportunities there are in technology, to being online, to understanding the online world in terms of keeping their families safe, but also what jobs are out there.
And so working on supporting our new CEO Fareeha Usman, who’s running #techmums now for us, and our first cohort graduated in Northumberland recently went up for the graduation, which is always amazing, seeing these mums who have really blossomed really through the programme and much more tech savvy now. And then also I’m leading on diversity and inclusion for a project called the Transfer Project, which is working to transform the foundation industries. That’s been interesting because I didn’t know what the foundation industries were 18 months ago. Industries like glass, ceramics, metals, cement. And so that’s been a steep, but really interesting learning curve for me, learning all about the foundation industries. And now working hard with my team at Durham to really do something game changing across the foundation industries around diversity and inclusion. And we’ve just really started working together as a team, so that’s the sort of exciting thing to come and don’t quite know what we’re going to be doing yet.
Julia: When we talk about ESG, we talk about environment and social governance, we talk about sustainability pathways. And of course the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in these foundation skills and careers is going to drive us through a pathway of innovation to come up with smarter methods of production, smarter ways in which to build, if you want to be on a very basic level, which is incredibly important, and to know that your work in diversity and inclusion is really foundational there, is so important (forgive the pun!) but it’s so important.
One of the things that comes up a lot and where I feel we’ve made quite a lot of progress, but I wonder, I’m quite curious about this, is around the importance of female returners to the workplace, and particularly, and I think obviously your work with #techmums. I’m just wondering your observations about how that is changing, obviously from lived experience. I don’t know if this is a bit of a stretch too far, but I’m also really fascinated by the women of Bletchley Park. Tell us a bit more about that.
Sue: I first went to Bletchley Park in 2003. I was there for a British Computer Society meeting. I went to the meeting and then I walked around and bumped into these guys who were rebuilding Alan Turing’s bombe machine, because all the machines that been used to industrialise the code breaking process during World War II had all been destroyed and all the plans were destroyed pretty much as well. So no one really knew what happened, and of course it was all kept secret. And everyone that worked there, those 10,000 people, all signed the Official Secrets Act, but nothing leaked out at all, hardly, for such a long time.
After meeting these guys and talking to them about what they were doing, they said, “Why are you here?” I said, “Oh, I’m representing this group of women in computing.” And they said, “Did you know that more than half of the people that worked here were women?”I was like, “No,” because I’d walked around the museum and there wasn’t much at all about women. I hadn’t really thought about it. I said, “How many people worked here?” And he said, “More than 10,000.” So that day I found out that about 8,000 women worked at Bletchley Park. I was blown away because there wasn’t much representation of that at Bletchley, or when I looked online, there either. I managed to get some funding to record an oral history of the women who worked there. And then it was at the launch of that project that I found out that Bletchley Park might have to close because they were having financial difficulties.
That was in 2008, I think, and then I started a campaign to save Bletchley Park after that. So it’s the women that drew me into the history of Bletchley Park, but then found out that they needed help.
I think over the years, and I met loads of women veterans who are all just what you’d want them to be, super smart still in their eighties and nineties, usually really good, dry sense of humour, happy to come, or some don’t want to talk about or didn’t want to talk about anything that happened at park at all, because they said, “I signed the Official Secrets Act. I’m never going to talk about it.” So it’s understandable. And then others that if you had a chat with them and particularly a glass of wine or something, they’d come out with these little anecdotes of things that they’d done.
Once I was at the table for dinner with some of the women veterans, and I said, “Have you got any stories about what you did socially?” One of the ladies said to the other lady, “Oh, do you remember that time we nicked the vicar’s bicycle to go to a dance?” And I just thought, yes, they were like 18. 18/19/20. First time they’d left home, 8,000 women altogether not being able to talk about what they did at work or even talk to each other at work really about what they were doing. So then they socialised to the max and kind of got up to all sorts of hijinks, I suppose you’d call it. It reminded me a bit of St. Trinian’s, that kind of thing, just absolute characters and absolutely wonderful women.
Julia: It’s interesting hearing you talk about the dynamics of age. One of the things that industry talks a lot about at the moment is the importance of returners, particularly in the female career pathway if you look at it that way. Thinking about your work with #techmums, I’d love to hear more about how you got into that as well and also what you think about in terms of returners programmes.
Sue: I think it’s a good idea to have returners programmes. I think, thinking back to my mum’s generation, women had to leave work when they got married or had a baby. And that was it, that was the end of their careers. We’ve definitely moved on from there, but we’re not where we should be, I don’t think. I set up #techmums really because I wanted everyone to understand the benefits of just even basic digital skills. But my idea of digital skills is not maybe what most people think of as digital skills. With #techmums, 10 years ago, I put together a programme which was app design, web design, social media, how to stay safe online, a bit of coding and Python. To me that wasn’t to teach mums all of that stuff, it’s to show them they can do it, they can do those things.
They’re not something that only an elite group of people can do. It’s something that everyone can do to a certain extent and I think understanding that is very empowering. The #techmums programme now I think is 10 or 12 weeks, two hours a week. But back then it was just five two-hour modules that I’d put together. And even then, for mums going through that content, they kind of blossomed as they went through the programme, it was just amazing to see. We started off in Tower Hamlets in a school with, I think something like 60% or 80% of kids on free school meals.Mums coming in, not quite knowing what to expect, and just to see them then designing their own apps and then finding out that actually, they didn’t know, but that idea they had, someone else has done that already, and they probably made a million pounds from running the company that they do. Helping them to see that the sort of ideas they were having were really good ideas and that they could develop their own apps. They were able to come up with great ideas that were really helpful through to then helping them set up their own websites and getting them doing a bit of coding. They come into the coding class and they’re like, “Oh, dear.” They’re really scared. I don’t know. Just worried about looking stupid, I think. And so I tried to break it down to make it as easy as possible. Just getting them to run a one line Python programme and then get them to edit it and see they can now run a programme. They can edit it to print out, I don’t know, hello, Sue or something, instead of hello, world.
Then realising they can do that and then kind of building it up from there. I think there are lots of things around technology that particularly women, I guess, any underserved communities, you can help people feel very empowered quite quickly if you teach things in the right way. But I think a lot of the time things are not taught in that way, they’re taught in the traditional 1940s or whatever it is. The school teacher knows everything and has to impart their knowledge. If you’re a student, you are like an empty vessel. I was really trying to, I guess, turn that on its head and empower mums. We’ve had some great results of that. That’s #techmums that’s been running for 10 years now. Then some of our #techmums have been gone on to our TechUPWomen programme, which has been really great for me to see that.
Several of our #techmums, I think from Newcastle and Leeds, went through our first TechUPWomen programme. The whole idea with TechUPWomen is, I’ve heard from people working in the tech industry, in HR, CEOs, CTOs, that they advertise their jobs and no women apply or 2% of women apply and they don’t get through the interview process or blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard that for years and years. And it’s always annoyed me at the back of my head, like there must be another way to do something about this. Because there’s loads of women with lots of potential, it doesn’t make sense to me. And then at the same time, I’ve met so many women, and again, coming from under served backgrounds in all sorts of ways, who probably want to work in tech but don’t quite know how to get into tech.If you do a web search it’s not very clear what you need to do to work as a software engineer, for example. I mean, these days you’ve got boot camps and stuff, so things are changing a bit. But only four years ago in 2018, there wasn’t really that much around and particularly focused on women there wasn’t. And so this funding became available from Institute of Coding and I went to a meeting where they were talking about the funding and I just thought, here’s an opportunity for me to really do something. Because what they wanted was programmes to get more diversity and inclusion in tech careers. I thought, well, why don’t we solve A and B? So solve this issue of there’s loads of women wanting to work in tech and loads of companies wanting to employ women in tech. Why don’t we create a programme that works with industry partners, finds out what it is they want people to do, and then create a programme that starts from computer science 101 and retrains women directly into those careers?
That’s basically what we did. We came up with a programme. We asked the industry partners, what are the top five job roles that you’re trying to employ people, women into? The top four for our first run through were software engineer, data scientists, agile project manager and business analyst. We created a programme which started everyone together and then gradually went into four streams of those four job roles. Then the industry partners all interviewed the women at the end of the programme. We finished the first run through just before lockdown, so that wasn’t very good timing. But more than 50% are now in jobs in tech and are winning awards, which is amazing to see, when you see people go through that transition, I guess, and doing amazing things, which is really wonderful. One of the things we really focused on was making sure that the people teaching on the programme were representative of the cohort going through.
Because we had more than 50% women of colour we aim to have, and I think we did have, more than 50% women of colour teaching and talking to the women or as mentors or as keynote speakers on the programme. We had four residential weekends to get everyone together. It’s basically an online course, but we wanted to get everyone kind of bonding with each other, into body support networks. Everyone had a mentor, because I know that any online programme I’ve ever started, and don’t I think I’ve finished any of them, to be honest.
It’s quite hard to keep yourself on track through. Made sure that there’s lots of support for everyone. Really help build confidence with technology and just really get everyone to have fun as well at the same time, I think. Having fun is really important and it sounds not very businesslike, but I just think if everyone’s having fun when they’re doing stuff, they carry on doing it. Both in the workplace and when you’re studying, I think if you can make it fun, then why not? We aim to do that as well.
Julia: So funny, the fun thing is the thing we slightly apologise for, because the alignment with business need, it is understanding frameworks that talent need in order to become educated. But also recognising that there’s a really important piece in the middle, which is that the role models, the allies and the teachers are reflective of the talent that’s being taught. Therefore you change the status dynamic in so many ways, but the whole point about the enjoyment of learning. I’m a standup comedian in recovery, the way I describe myself these days. One of the reasons why I love it and why I think it’s so important is because it drives energy, positive energy into the workplace and into events and also into teaching and learning that people go, I’m loving this, I’m enjoying it.
What are the areas we’re overlooking? What are the communities that we’re missing, particularly in the conversation about social inclusion?
Sue: Being at Durham University, we are really keen, particularly with our new vice chancellor on widening participation. I’m one of those people that left school at 16 and came back in at 26,I know what that’s like to a certain extent into education. Durham itself is very rich or wealthy as a city, but on the outskirts of Durham city, there’s lots of deprivation because of all the mines being shut down in the eighties. There’s lots of villages where not many people have got jobs. There’s not a lot going on. I’m talking to people at Durham about that as part of what do we do in terms of widening participation? I guess my first focus has been on women and then over time really thought hard about, race and disability, LGBTQ+, but then social class as well and access to education and access to role models and that kind of thing.
I think if people aren’t online and don’t feel confident online, don’t know what’s out there online, and also haven’t got much money and haven’t got people around them that are going out to work and earning lots of money, that’s a difficult situation to be in. I’m thinking about, with other people, not just me, what can we do at Durham to target those kind of underserved populations in those villages and really try and make a difference? So that’s one thing that’s on my mind that I really want to do and focus on next.
Julia: Everybody’s talking about social inclusion, but actually it’s a case of going social inclusion isn’t just the social perimeters of what you see under your nose. Actually, you need to put the work in and go further. It’s fascinating. I would love to have you back on to talk about how that’s been going. It’s really important because, as you know, on the podcast we like to call out areas where we need to be very attentive to, and because we believe the skills are going to be found. I talk a lot in the industry about my deep-seated concern that we don’t have the tech skills we need today, let alone tomorrow.
Sue: Yes, absolutely.
Julia: What I want to say is the answer is literally under our noses and beyond. We just have to think differently. I wonder if I could just change the conversation in a slightly different direction. And again, it’s something that does come up quite a lot, theres been various surveys and various conversations about, well, I’m just going to call it the toxic culture of tech. Cultures of mostly male-driven, male ego, testosterone heavy organisations. I would love to get your thoughts on, is that your experience? And actually, as we bring women into that, how do we make sure the women are protected, but also want to stay and have a role to play in changing that culture? I’d love your thoughts on that.
Sue: Absolutely. Well, so I think it’s not just tech. I mean, I think a lot of the time when we get groups of people that are all very similar, we get groupthink and group behaviour, which ends up being skewed towards something that’s not that great. In terms of the sort of “bro culture”, I think if that started off for various reasons and probably because those guys were, I don’t know. It’s come from, California and middle class white American males being the ones going into tech at a certain point. Which has not been the case all along, because just look at Dame Steve Shirley and F International. There’s some amazing examples of the opposite in a way. I think that all-male young privileged male culture has ended up pervading tech and how tech’s seen from the outside.
Like I was saying earlier, we really need to think hard about if we want to create products and services, which is basically what we do in tech, that are fit for purpose for lots of people around the world, they’ll be from all different sorts of backgrounds, all different sorts of cultures.
If we’ve only got those kind of people working in the companies, what they’re producing will not be fit for purpose. And so I believe as we in general, understand more and more about the importance of diversity and inclusion and people feeling included at work and having diverse teams in all different sorts of ways, then the companies that stay like that, their products and services aren’t going to be as good. Basically at some point they’re the ones that are going to be going out of business. If you think about companies that have not succeeded, that have gone bust recently, if you have a look at their boards, quite often they’re all-white middle class males, probably in their sixties or a massive majority.
I think if we’ve got that kind of groupthink within companies, particularly at a higher level, those companies aren’t going to be fit for purpose themselves in time. It’s going to be the companies that now really take diversity and inclusion very seriously to their core and think hard about their culture, which means the person at the top supporting and talking about their support for the culture, but also them encouraging projects and ideas from a grassroots level to be taken seriously and taken on board with people from diverse backgrounds. I think those companies that are really allowing their employees to blossom, so I’m saying blossom again, but allowing their employees to blossom because they feel included and supported and valued at work, then to come up with these amazing ideas, which the culture is really encouraging. Those are the companies that are going to be successful in 10-15 years time, I think.
Julia: I’m quite deeply concerned that as we navigate really quite tough times, the diversity, equity and inclusion debate or importance could drop down the corporate agenda a bit. I would love to hear your compelling reasons why it must remain high.
Sue: Diversity and inclusion is a strength for organisations. I think the organisations that really take it seriously are going to be the ones that are successful in two years’ time, five years’ time, 10 years’ time, because we’re operating in a global marketplace. If you have employees that are empowered, that come from diverse backgrounds, that feel included, that are empowered to talk about their ideas to each other about how to make products and services better within a company, if you’ve got great support from the CEO at the top, then those are the types of companies in all sorts of areas that are going to be the most successful because they’re really harnessing the benefits of inclusion and diversity rather than seeing it as a tick box exercise.
Julia: Cannot think of a better way to finish the show, really. Professor Sue Black, thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been great to have you on the show.
Sue: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Julia: And as always to all our listeners, thank you so much for joining us. I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion as much as I have. Please tune in again for another episode very soon.
Cynthia: This episode of Divercity Podcast was produced by Roshan Roberts on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. You can find out more about the guests on this week’s show on our website, divercitypodcast.com, and that’s diversity with a C, not an S. Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates. All our episodes are available in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app. If you enjoy Divercity Podcast, remember to share on social media and give us a rating or review. It really helps promote the show to a wider audience. Finally, our Twitter handle is @DivercityPod. Thanks for listening.