Smack in the middle of Leeds International Festival, this year’s Empowering Women with Science and Tech conference promised a vibrant day of inspirational talks, passionate discussion, and tech-fuelled togetherness.
I arrive at New Dock Hall to discover a buzzing audience beginning to take their seats. Accents of pink and orange bring the room to life, with giant helium balloons hovering protectively over tables and streamers swaying under the pull of the air conditioning.
Today’s host is acclaimed TV presenter, June Sarpong, who takes to the stage with a huge grin and a rousing cry to her audience of aspiring young woman, tech-savvy professionals and engaged, intelligent creatives. It’s time to redefine the worlds of tech and science under a female lens – and I can’t wait to get started.
First to the stage is Kimberley Bottomley, Head of Customer Experience at hardware start-up, Cocoon. “Only 17 percent of tech roles are held by women.” she tells us, echoing the gap waiting to be filled in one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. Then, it’s a sharp plunge into the history of UI and UX, the importance of problem-solving, and how design – and the role of the designer – is constantly evolving. And as for women getting into these roles? “If not now, when?” says Kim.
Heralding from Finland and with a plane ticket for South Korea booked the very next day, Linda Liukas enters stage left in a whirlwind of creativity and colour. The computer programmer and children’s book author tells us how stories have the power to make sense of the world, explaining how her bestselling book, Hello Ruby, gives children the tools to solve problems and learn tech skills. “It’s about self-agency, self-belief and self-efficacy,” she says. “Empowering children with robust ideas, and making the world ready for innovation.”
Now, it’s time to welcome Sky’s Head of Technology and founder of today’s conference to the stage. Natasha brings energy and warmth to the room, exploring the perceived gap between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills, and debunking the idea that communication, confidence and empathy are less business-critical than technical ability. She tells us about ‘Get into Tech’, a free coding course from Sky, which has placed 35 women in professional tech roles in its first year. “Where are the role models?” she asks, looking round at a sea of upturned, engaged faces, “this conference is about setting up a space for role models.”
Belinda Parmar OBE
CEO and founder of the Empathy Business – formerly known as Lady Geek – Belinda Parmar continues to emphasise the power of empowerment, authenticity and belonging in the path towards professional success. She tells us about the components of empathy, and how more empathic companies are proven to have higher earnings, growth and productivity. “Sometimes,” she says, “technology fuels the empathy deficit. It’s time to look at the system and the culture – not just the individuals within it.”
Taking her seat opposite June Sarpong for an ‘in conversation’ style interlude, Sarah Beeny offers up words of wisdom on confidence, leadership and why getting up after a fall is the most important thing. Sarah used tech for the first time in the development of My Single Friend, the successful dating app that targets the friends of potential matches. She talks about the importance of strategic thinking, telling us how she found a balance between rigid planning, goal-flexibility and enjoying the journey along the way. Her predictions for the future? “Tech will become simpler,” she says. “It can’t replace people – we need more single-function tech that allows us to do one thing at a time.”
Up next, it’s an inspirational journey into the power of science, and how technology, healthcare and bionics are combining to turn disabilities into superpowers. Sammy Payne founded Open Bionics when she was just 23, and the company has gone on to design and make some of the world’s most advanced bionic arms. They’re super sleek, capable of performing all the gestures of real human limbs, and – thanks to open source 3D printing tech – will soon be available on the NHS. Perhaps most amazing of all is the way Open Bionics design bionic limbs based on fictional superheroes, replacing loss and difference with uniqueness and joy.
Professor Sophie Scott
Sticking with the themes of science and happiness, neuroscientist Sophie Scott, joins us to explore the science of laughter and its power to help us connect, communicate and thrive as human beings. Her talk focuses on how laughter can manage emotional states, encourage play, and help us empathise. It’s the perfect continuation of today’s emerging story: how emotion, empathy, communication and connection are all paramount to success – whether that be in tech, science, or anywhere in between.
Doctor Suze Kundu
Nano-chemist, Suze Kundu brings beams of energy to the stage in her headline slot as the last speaker of the day. She tells us first about her inspiring work on artificial photosynthesis, which sees her working on cleaner, cheaper fuel that uses sunlight to create energy, before taking a step back to look at the bigger picture for women and STEM subjects. “Women find it difficult to talk about the things we do well,” she says, encouraging her audience to banish imposter syndrome, work on self-belief and learn to be ourselves. She acknowledges that, while working in a male-dominated world can be isolating, role models are key to growth and success. “Everyone is a role model,” says Suze, “it’s time to get what you’re doing out there, and share it.”
And so concludes a day of powerful insight and carefully crafted inspiration from female experts doing what they do best at the top of their industries. With a heart full of empowerment and a head full of the connected ideas to channel it, I leave this year’s conference ready to learn, empathise and laugh with the future of science and tech.
Read Kate’s review of the Empowering Women 2017 Conference: