How women step up in life through technology and confidence

In this uplifting #ICTforWomanity interview, we talk to Dr Sue Black who has over 20 years technology and digital skills teaching experience, along with successful social media campaigning and women and leadership expertise.

Sue created #techmums, an e-skills accredited program of short, hands-on workshops that introduce mums to online security, social media savviness, essential computing skills, app and web design.

In this interview, Sue says why and how she started “Techmums”, and what happens when women are given opportunities with technology.

Womanity: Sue, how do you summarize your work and what is the common thread between all your endeavours?

Dr Sue Black: It’s about my passion and love for technology and for empowering women, most of the things I have done relate to tat. I started by studying computing, did a degree then a phd, set up an online network, the first UK network for women in tech, in 1998, when it wasn’t quite so popular. I championed the women who worked at Bletchley park, the code breakers. The work that was done there during WW2 potentially saved 22 million lives. The women who worked there who got me involved in the first place and it led me to run a campaign to save Bletchley Park.

“I’ve got to raise awareness about the women who worked here.” — Dr. Sue Black on saving Bletchley Park.

I work with mums, empowering them around technology, helping them to making changes not only in their own life, but their family and in turn, promote themselves as women in tech role models. It’s all around technology, women and empowerment

“We teach mums coding so they’ll be more familiar with computing and technology. This will empower them and their children, too”

Womanity : It sounds like you are replicating your own journey by enabling other women to have a taste in it.

Dr Sue Black. Absolutely. It’s funny because it didn’t occurred to me when I set up Techmums, up until about 3 years later. I am connecting back in with who I was as a 25 year old, as a single mum with three small kids, bringing them up in a council estate in Brixton, London, on my own, trying to create a better life for us all. I put the TechMums programme together, with basic IT skills, app design, web design, how to use social media, how to keep yourself and your family safe online, a bit of coding, and python. I put all those things together, because I thought that gives you a broad range of skills and understanding around technology. They might come in not knowing much about it, or maybe one or to things, and by the end of the programme they are much more confident in technology in general. They are confident about connecting to other people using technology or setting up their own business using tech. Or it is about going back to education, going for a job or trying to get a better job. We can give them these skills which enable them to change their lives in a positive way.

Womanity: What assumptions do organisations need to challenge around technology and women in order to move on and be better at what they do?

Dr Sue Black: In general companies tend to first think of men, when they think about technology. Going back to the sixties, it was mainly women who did the computing. It’s not about just how it ended up that is how things should be. We can challenge that by showcasing women who have achieved something. We need to showcase these role models, looking at who is on our board, who is in control, creating pathways and try to change perceptions about what tech is, what it does look like. So many things need to happen. It is part of our culture, which is “vaguely” misogynist…

Womanity: It’s like a family tree, but women have been a bit erased. They should claim that space back. We need to put them back in.

Dr Sue Black: Yes absolutely. Look at Dame Shirley. She is absolutely amazing. She came to the UK as a 6 year old kindertransport child refugee during the Second World War. She built up a company called Freelance Programmers, starting as a consultant when she had a baby — in those days, you had to leave work when you had a baby. She ended up employing more than 300 women working on programming. One of their projects was about producing the software for the Concorde’s black box, the flight recorder. That is a high level “kickass“ software!

She had to start employing men when the sex discrimination act came into force in the UK, in 1975. But until then she employed almost only women.

Womanity: What else can we do to keep more narratives of women online, stories of activists, scientists, politicians, millions of anonymous women, without being submitted to trolls, harassers and the whole sexist machinery?

Dr Sue Black: A part of it is about working together, networking with each other, so that when someone does get attacked, there are other people coming and supporting them, so that that they don’t feel they are on their own, a kind of grassroots level action. Organisations and platforms, when these conversations occur, really do need to think hard about how they can support people who are being attacked and challenge the people who are doing the attacking. We need to keep conversations going around that, to work out what is the best thing to do.

Womanity: A combination of movement building, better protocols for protection and safety, and a continuity of self care for individuals and organisations…

Dr Sue Black: It is basically online bullying. Take the same principles as when it is happening at school — it is where a lot if it starts — support the person being attacked and reprimand the people doing the bullying.

Womanity: What was an unexpected suggestion by a #TechMums participant, that opened up new perspectives for you or the programme?

Dr Sue Black: What really surprised me in a positive way, is the story of Amina, a Techmums participant, who came to me after a TechMums pilot class about the cloud and Google Drive, creating emails, documents, spreadsheets… She said TechMums changed her life. Yet she had only come to us for 2 hours by that point! She was running a school uniform shop in Whatley Market in the East End of London. To get her samples across to her customers, she would have to pack the uniform samples and take them to the customers’ sites. Because we had shown her how to send an attachment with her email, she realised she could take photos of the garments and email them across, which would save her lots of time. I visited her last summer and she said she has now 10 times the amount of customers she had when she started TechMums. It is great to see that even a small amount of information can make a big difference in one’s business.

Womanity: So it’s about knowledge, awareness, connections…

Dr Sue Black: ….and confidence building!

Womanity: That is interesting because you are showing me that bridging technology with off-line activities is paramount to have a good package.

Dr Sue Black: Yes!

Womanity: Our Womanity Award winners Luchadoras are replicating the Take Back the Tech campaign in Mexico, engaging young women’s collectives into being equipped in digital safety, connect to one another, build networks, become producers rather than just users of technology, and reclaim the internet to co-design a space free of gender violence. What would be your two pennies worth, which would help them grow their impact?

Dr Sue Black: My next steps would be to find other organisations that share the same ethos and the same understanding, tapping in other networks.

Womanity: What questions do people never ask you, you wish they did?

Dr Sue Black: Something about world domination maybe? [laughter] We really want to get to 1 million TechMums by 2020, so I am focusing hard on getting to as many mums as possible and empowering as many women as possible. I really do want to change the world and I can see how we can change the world for the better. I do believe that empowering women is paramount in making positive change happening in the world. That’s my focus. I want to make that change as quickly as possible.

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Womanity: Thank you!

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