Meet the Liverpool-based social enterprise tackling traditional tech tropes
For Chelsea Slater, cofounder of InnovateHer, getting into tech wasn’t a straightforward journey. After finishing a marketing degree and joining an app company as the only female employee, Slater began to wonder where all the women were.
The reasons for the lack of women in tech are clear: it’s a combination of culture and the curriculum. In Liverpool, where InnovateHer was founded in 2017, 40 per cent of schools offer computer science as a GCSE. Only nine per cent of students take it, and of that percentage, the amount of women is predictably low.
With that in mind, Slater set about creating a local community called Liverpool Girl Geeks which, in 2017, evolved into a social enterprise called InnovateHer. The organisation aims to strip away sexism in tech through two programmes: one for businesses and one for schools.
A two-pronged approach
Based in the Baltic Triangle, Liverpool’s digital centre, InnovateHer’s mission is to get girls ready for the tech industry and get the tech industry ready for girls.
“We run an eight week school programme for 12 to 16 year old girls, and we teach them tech skills through a number of different themes. During the eight weeks, we take them out into industry, and let them see what the environment is like and build their confidence,” says Slater.
“We also work with member organisations on diversity and inclusion through events and workshops throughout the year. We help them with recruitment, leadership, and culture, and they help us in return through funding and by giving us mentors and space.”
InnovateHer members include development company Bruntwood, retailer Shop Direct, Liverpool Football Club, and the Co-Op, which is the business’s longest standing partner and northern neighbour. In October, the social enterprise also announced a new partnership with PlayStation.
“Our partnership with PlayStation will take us national, from Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham down south into London and Guildford. PlayStation are supporting schools because gaming is one of the worst sectors in terms of technology for women, but it’s one of the most exciting and engaging ways to get into tech. Young people understand gaming, they play games, and that’s how we can inspire them.”
Striding into the South
Outside of the North, Slater sees massive potential to connect with new tech businesses, discover new funding opportunities, and deliver their programme to more schools. On the other hand, she also expects to face far greater competition. However, no one business can solve such a deep rooted problem.
“We need more people, and not just women, skilled in digital. The curriculum is really poor for digital and tech. I don’t think teachers understand it, and they aren’t getting enough training. Parents aren’t aware of the opportunities that are out there, which is what we’re always trying to showcase.”
As technology changes the traditional job market, encouraging diversity in digital will be crucial. If tech professions are only occupied by white, middle class men, then societal hierarchies will become even more embedded. InnovateHer wants to address the problem by becoming a national platform for tech inclusivity.
No more box ticking
“To change the culture around sexism, companies need to identify that it exists,” Slater says. “They need to understand what is happening internally, and gather data on all of their employees in terms of diversity – not just gender. They need to support everyone.”
By joining InnovateHer’s corporate programme, organisations take the all important first step of acknowledging that they need to improve their diversity and inclusivity. At the same time, they fund the schools-based initiative so that more females can access tech skills for free.
However, businesses don’t always turn their ambitions into action. At InnovateHer, membership organisations have to prove that they have followed through on inclusivity initiatives or risk being dropped from the programme.
“We noticed that companies were looking at diversity and inclusion to just tick a box, or to say that they were working with a company like us. Now, we’ve implemented the diversity and inclusion health check to look at business culture, leadership, representation and fairness,” says Slater. “At the end of the year we see if they’ve made a change. If they haven’t, they won’t be members anymore. We want to see actual internal changes. They have to commit.”
While Slater recognises that organisations won’t become bastions of diversity and inclusion overnight, she expects members to make measurable improvements.
More geeks – not just more girls
InnovateHer has a strong focus on female inclusion and education, but the company’s mission goes beyond gender. Artificially intelligent technology like facial and voice recognition has struggled to interact with females and other underrepresented groups because of narrow training data. Without socially representative developers using varied data, products and services will continue to favour certain societal groups.
“We need more girls to be geeks because we want better products and services for everyone… Not just girls,” says Slater. “We need more diversity, people of different ages, backgrounds, and races. We need them in the room making decisions so that our future is better. It’s not just about being fair, it’s about making better solutions.”
InnovateHer’s expansion shows just how important the drive for diversity has become, particularly in light of technological bias in image and voice recognition systems and the ongoing challenge of convincing girls to engage with STEM subjects. It also raises the profile of northern tech communities, proving that the UK technology scene isn’t always set against London’s skyline.
Interested in innovative northern technology startups? Sign up for our free newsletter here.