Category: Interviews

INTERVIEW: HOW HERA HUSSAIN HELPS WOMEN EMPOWER THEMSELVES THROUGH TECHNOLOGY

By day, she’s the Communities and Partnerships Manager at OpenCorporates, ensuring that data is used for social good. By night, Hera Hussain helps women to empower themselves through technology with the organisation Chayn.

Chayn is a small, volunteer-driven organisation which mainly works with women, primarily in countries such as India and Pakistan, who are victims of domestic violence.

Its team are developing a number of technology-driven projects to help these women in different ways, whether through open-source how-to guidesinformative websites or uplifting mental health campaigns. Hera, its founder, says:

“We use technology wherever we can to empower women.”

When Chayn was first founded in 2013, it was a “very lean start-up operation” with a budget of just £500, which was used to launch its website. All of its projects are open-source, collaborative and crowd-sourced from a global team of volunteers.

Why digital is powerful

Using the internet, it can reach and empower vulnerable women who may not leave the house very often, but will likely have a smartphone with internet access.

“That’s why digital is really powerful, because most women have access to a smartphone and internet.”

Not all of them, of course, but rather than try to tackle the complex issue of getting women online in the developing world, Hera and Chayn just make a difference where they can.

“You’ve got to pick your battles,” Hera states.

“So if the middle class has smartphones, then let’s go for that. It’s about targeting women you are able to help.”

Helping women escape abuse

Chayn’s resources on domestic violence aim to plug key gaps in the information available to women and give them simple, practical advice, such as how to save money if they want to leave home, or information on divorce laws in their country. So far it has helped 15 women from Pakistan to escape domestic abuse situations in some way.

The organisation has also recently started developing workshops which will teach women the basics of email, internet navigation and simple website-building.

Basic though it may seem, these are powerful technological skills which can open up a new world for women and give them marketable skills that they can adapt to their lifestyle, especially if they have children.

Empowerment pop-ups

“[Learning these skills] feels really empowering for them,” Hera says. “Getting them to set up their own website, even if it’s a WordPress site, is so empowering because many women grow up thinking they can’t do much; the fact that they can do something is life-changing for them.”

“It’s little things that add up to a big thing.”

Hera envisions these workshops taking the form of “empowerment pop-ups”, day-long workshops on key employment skills.

In the future, she also aspires to open an academy in which women who are leaving domestic violence situations learn how to build websites. “I think it’s a great profession for women,” she says.

“I think it’s great and I really want to see more women in tech.”

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JESS WILLIAMSON ON HACKATHONS, WOMEN AND INNOVATION

We caught up with Jess Williamson, director at TechStars, to talk about the importance of hackathons and why they often fail to attract female competitors.

We talked about wider issues of gender representation and what we can do to tackle it. Take a look in the video below.

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SUW CHARMAN-ANDERSON: WHY I FOUNDED ADA LOVELACE DAY

Ada Lovelace Day on 11 October is a day to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM, and shine a light on inspiring role models in an industry long dominated by men. As the date approaches, we caught up with founder Suw Charman-Anderson to learn how it came about.

She tells Project Ada she founded the day in 2009, “fed up” of going to tech conferences and seeing few women on the speaker lists – or even none.

“I knew loads of women in the industry, but so few of them seemed to get conference speaking slots,” she said.

Suw, who was working in the tech industry at the time, recalls the women in tech community online discussing the issue, in blogs, social media and comment sections:

“People would name women who they thought should be on stage, but that never seemed to move the dial.”

“No one else had that imagination”

It was this frustration that gave birth to the idea of a specific day for raising awareness of female tech role models, spearheaded by computing pioneer (and this website’s namesake) Ada Lovelace.

The 19th century mathematician and STEM trailblazer seems like a natural choice as a role model. Often described as the world’s first ever computer programmer, Lovelace is best known for her work on Charles Babbage’s mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine and was the first person to realise the machine’s potential, far beyond number-crunching, to create music and art:

“She envisioned computer science as we now understand it, and saw how useful a computer would be to future mathematicians and scientists,” said Suw, adding:

No one else at that time, in the mid-1800s, had that kind of imagination or foresight.

Success stories “hugely important”

Ada Lovelace Day is all about celebrating those who inspire us. Suw says role models are “hugely important”, and she’s backed up on this by research showing that women actually need role models and success stories more than men do.

The stories that we tell about other women inform the stories we tell ourselves about our own capabilities and futures.

In 2009, thousands took part in the first ever Ada Lovelace Day by blogging about a woman they admire. Seven years on, the day has grown into a fully fledged science cabaret evening: Ada Lovelace Day Live in London.

This year, speakers include design engineer Yewande Akinola, planetary physicist Dr Sheila Kanani, science writer Dr Kat Arney, developer Jenny Duckett, mathematician Dr Sara Santos, computational biologist Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani, and climate scientist Dr Anna Jones.

“Essential for girls to see”

“It’s an amazing opportunity to see the breadth of work that’s happening in the UK, something I think is often hidden away because the media are only interested in certainly types of STEM news stories,” said Suw.

The cabaret takes place in London, but Ada Lovelace Day events are being held worldwide. If you’re not close to one, Suw encourages women in STEM to celebrate simply by talking to their daughters, granddaughters or nieces:

It’s essential for girls to see that they have a future in STEM, and for women to see that they can progress in STEM careers all the way to the top.

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WHY GENDER DIVERSITY ISN’T ENOUGH IN TECH

Diversity in tech usually focuses on gender equality, but to be truly inclusive, the industry’s efforts can’t stop there.

Lola Odelola, founder of the Black Girl.Tech community, talked to Project Ada about why looking at gender is not enough:

Race and gender are not separate. I am both black and a woman and there aren’t days where I can choose to be one over the other.

Intersectionality is the concept that different identity categories like race, gender, sexuality or class are interrelated, not layers that can be peeled away one by one and looked at separately.

Colorless diversity

Silicon Valley giants have been racing each other recently to lead diversity campaigns and release workforce diversity figures, but critics say tech diversity focuses on just one identity. Slack engineer Erica Baker coined the term “colorless diversity” in a Medium post, pointing out that the Grace Hopper conference for women in tech had no black women at all as headline speakers – but managed to make room for two white men.

Lola agrees it’s important to be more specific about diversity. When the conversation is largely about gender, she says, it “can only really go so far”.

“The conversation is led by people who don’t have to think about race. In that sense, they’re privileged and when you’re privileged, it’s very easy to miss the effects of your privilege on others,” she says.

Black Girl.Tech is a community looking to take that conversation further. Describing itself as “a space for black girls and women to explore and learn”, BGT is now nearing its second birthday. Lola, who taught herself to code after attending a bootcamp, started it to address what she discovered when she began looking for a job in tech:

I heard the word ‘diversity’ being used a lot, however black women were missing from the conversation and from the teams I was seeing.

Black women entering the tech industry face specific challenges, according to Lola. Finding a job is the first hurdle. She has also experienced microaggressions in the workplace, as well as getting treated differently from other employees.

Better hiring practices

“People’s implicit bias comes into play a lot,” she says.

“The difficulty is knowing if this is due to racial bias, gender bias, being a junior or all three.”

To combat this, Lola wants to see tech companies improving their hiring practices. Introducing practices like blind hiring has proved effective to improve diversity in tech. Lola adds that being intentional about diverse hiring is important, to avoid racist undertones about applicants with minority backgrounds lowering standards:

Many people say they ‘hire the best person for the job’, but that implies that by actively seeking out black women or people from other minorities the bar is somehow being lowered, which implies that those people are not as qualified or intelligent.

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