Issues about divisiveness countered by visibility and inspiring newcomers
This week has seen the inaugural Emerge mini-conference. The three-day event has showcased industry talent through a number of workshops, interviews, panels and talks – all by women – aiming to encourage more women into design and technology and further inspire those already immersed in it.
Keri Lambden told us that she set up Web Heroines after finding herself at a conference where she was "pretty much the only female in the room"; she said: "I got talking with other women who shared my enthusiasm for setting up an organisation specifically to engage and inspire more women into the design and tech industries." Now three-strong, the Web Heroines team created Emerge to bring together people from all over the world through online talks and workshops, augmented by a live panel debate at the British Library, to discuss issues surrounding women in design and tech, along with celebrating the amazing talent in the industry.
Lamden told us it was important to create a women-only event, due to so few women being in design and tech: "The UKRC reports just 12 per cent of women in the UK workforce. The design/tech industry is so creative, innovative and supportive – something we wanted to share with women who, perhaps, don't work in the industry but have an interest. Also being in a minority, sometimes women just want to get together, talk to each other and get a woman's point of view on how they approach the UX for a mobile app or how they start a new web design project."
'Us and them'
Rachel Andrew, founder of edgeofmyseat.com, spoke at the event's first day, and told us she's not generally a fan of women-only events, because they can encourage an "us and them" attitude; however, she said it was also important to ensure women working in technology are visible: "I think that is what Web Heroines and the Emerge conference are trying to achieve, which is why I wanted to be involved. And the conference was open to women and men to attend, and my talk was aimed at anyone who was interested in launching a product."
Andrew said she looks forward to a day when "we don't need to showcase successful women to ensure that young women and girls know that this is a viable career option for them", but until that day comes, she told us it was "important for those of us who are part of that minority group of 'women in tech' to ensure we are visible."
Web designer and speaker Sarah Parmenter told us she had similar thoughts regarding Emerge: "Women-only anything can always be questioned as to whether it's helpful or causes even more of a divide. I just want the best speakers at a conference – whether it's all male, or all female – to provide value and ensure I'm learning something." However, she considers Emerge something different, because it's designed to "encourage women into an industry rather than segregating those already within it".
Inspiring a generation
It was this desire to inspire that, Parmenter said, led to her involvement in Emerge: "I took part in an 'inspirational women' day for a local school last year. They picked me as an inspiration to young female students. I was able to tell my story of how I became involved in the tech industry and why." She told us it was clear few of the female students had entertained the idea of working in the industry: "And I loved the feeling of opening some doors and showing them it's something girls and women can do and be successful at, despite the numbers still showing the industry is male-dominated. I wanted to do the same with Emerge: inspire and encourage women into an industry they might not have thought had a place for them."
Lamden told us this was precisely her thinking behind Emerge, and she hoped it would benefit both women and the industry as a whole. "Emerge is about showcasing talent and presenting role models for women of today and the future. The feedback we've had from the online sessions has been phenomenally positive. Women are telling us that they've decided to take the leap and start their own businesses, get into conference-speaking themselves and add new strings to their bows, such as learning how to design for mobile or get into coding CSS with Sass," she said. "By bringing women together at the British Library, we're starting dialogue, new friendships and hopefully new collaborations. As for benefitting the whole industry, research shows that having a balance of women in the workplace improves productivity and innovation. Although this industry is already enormously creative and exciting, we're imagining the possibilities of even more."