Chelsea Slater leads InnovateHer, a UK-based social enterprise whose mission is ‘Get girls ready for the tech industry and the tech industry ready for girls’. They work to encourage teenage girls and non-binary youth to explore careers in technology through online educational programmes. They also work with organisations to help them become more diverse and inclusive, so that the next generation can thrive in these workplaces when they get there.
We teach young girls that they have an opportunity to shape their future by learning digital skills. We work with industry role models to dispel some of the gender stereotypes, providing our students with positive examples of diverse people in careers that they have never been exposed to before. We build their resilience and self-belief too, because the workplace can be tough for women.
There are unfortunately many barriers for women and other underrepresented groups when entering and progressing in the world of tech, many of which I’ve witnessed firsthand. It often starts when we’re young, through a mix of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping that affects how we perceive the industry and our options to work within it. When I was young (and through no fault of my parents) the “house computer” was put into my younger brother’s bedroom, probably because that was how they were advertised in the 80s, and because it was the “normal” thing to do. This meant that my brother got to explore what a computer was and what it was capable of, and it became “something that boys do” in my mind. At school, teachers didn’t discuss careers in technology with me either. The closest thing I got was food tech, which was learning how to cook. It wasn’t until I got into university that I really started to explore the digital space, which then I fell in love with!
At InnovateHer we speak to many young girls who say that teachers have directly told them not to take the computer science GCSE because they will be the only girl in the classroom. One of our students had to go and study computer science in a boys school across the road from hers, which must have been terrifying, but she was determined and is now studying computer science at degree level.
Where there is resistance, it often comes from negative attitudes towards change, and the traditional mindset of leaders. We are all living in a patriarchy, and suffering the consequences of all of the entrenched attitudes that come with that structure. My generation and the next are saying “no” to these traditions and structures and paving new ways of working and living that are helping more people to work on their own terms, so change will no doubt come alongside this.
We see how purposeful young people are living, driven less by huge salaries and more by flexibility, autonomy and trust, so businesses really have to find new ways of doing things, or the next generation won’t be joining them
There is a huge digital divide and it is widening. The UK’s most vulnerable young people living in the most disadvantaged areas have been massively affected by the pandemic due to the lack of access to devices and internet access, meaning that their access to education has vanished overnight. This inequality is deep-rooted across many communities in the UK and particularly in Liverpool, where InnovateHer is based.
Private school students in the UK are twice as likely as state school students to be accessing online lessons every day. Similarly, working class students were spending less of their time during lockdown studying, and have seen a more significant drop off in the quality of their work. When young people and their families can’t access the internet, which many schools are now using to deliver their whole curriculum, it leads to increased crime and social and mental health issues, as well as a much higher chance of that young person not gaining meaningful employment.
We also recognise that some young people have different barriers to using the internet and whilst they may have access, their surroundings can often be uncomfortable, unprivate and disturbing, meaning that the quality of education is low and the likelihood of any learning happening decreases.
Prior to the pandemic and through our face-to-face work, we saw students drop out of an InnovateHer programme due to caring responsibilities, so having the ability to access our programmes online is vital moving forward. We can offer increased flexibility online, so students can study at a time that suits them, which we hope will help with completion rates. InnovateHer’s focus this year is to use the internet to build an online platform so that our programmes are more accessible during the pandemic and beyond. We’re doing this alongside partners that can support with device supply and internet access.
Giving young people the opportunity to learn digital skills in school (which I would argue needs to be delivered across all subjects) would raise aspirations and fulfil the huge digital skills gap which the UK and the rest of the world faces.
This would then lead to organisations being able to employ more diverse people (as there would be a bigger pool of candidates), which ultimately means better products and services being made which are fit for purpose. People would feel valued, they would thrive in work and life because nobody would be left behind. Women wouldn’t be excluded and would be treated like equals, older people would be able to access vital services like booking medical treatments and managing their bank accounts online. Services would be easier to use, we would be given time — which I would argue is the greatest gift, meaning we have more time with our friends and family. People would be able to connect, live anywhere in the world and help anyone in the world who needs it.
Anyone without basic digital skills and literacy will get left behind. They will be pushed further into poverty as a consequence of not being able to shop around for better deals or access basic services online. They are excluded from conversations and forums where decisions are made. For a citizen to participate in society full internet access is a must, but also the education and training provision to make sure they know how to make the most of it.
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