The Leeds festival encouraging women to get involved in science and technology

The acclaimed Leeds International Festival returns later this month and features a major conference highlighting the work of women in science and technology. Heather Saul reports.

Lauren Laverne was among the big names at last years festival. (Ben Bentley).
Lauren Laverne was among the big names at last years festival. (Ben Bentley).

For better or for worse, technology is an inescapable presence in our lives.

Getting users to switch off occasionally is now a bigger challenge than getting them to switch on.

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Yet despite being such an all-consuming force, just 17 per cent of people working within computing technology in the UK are women.

Sarah Beeny is one the guests at this year's festival, which gets underway this month.

The Empowering Women with Science and Tech all-day conference at this year’s Leeds International Festival hopes to change this by reshaping our understanding of what a career in science, technology, engineering and maths actually looks like.

The festival was launched last year to great acclaim and has quickly established itself as the UK’s leading metropolitan festival of new ideas and innovation that celebrates local creativity and international culture.

The annual event which returns later this month, brings together high-profile guests as well as original performances, new music, seminars and discussion.

Organisers say the goal is to bring people together and promote and exchange new ideas. The empowering women in tech conference does that by showcasing a panel of female speakers’ career journeys and their influence on the digital domain. Natasha Sayce-Zelem is the Head of Technology at Sky and tech festival director. Her goal is to encourage women to sidestep into a technology career by using transferable skills they may not know they already have, as she did.

Sarah Beeny is one the guests at this year's festival, which gets underway this month.

Ms Sayce-Zelem started out as a freelance music photographer, photographing the likes of David Bowie and Rage Against The Machine, before segueing into TV and then digital development.

Her own foray into a technology career was “pretty scary”. “I wondered if I was making a massive mistake.” She never looked back. Now she wants employers to shape the next generation of talent by bringing in “diamonds in the rough”: the candidates with these transferable interpersonal and communication skills who can be trained up.

Working in tech is about more than just coding, something this event is designed to highlight. Last year, BBC Radio DJ Lauren Laverne was a guest speaker after co-founding The Pool, an online platform targeted at women, in 2015.

This year they have property presenter and online entrepreneur Sarah Beeny talking about her successful websites My Single Friend, a dating site launched in 2005, and Tepilo, an online estate agency.

Ms Sayce-Zelem’s aim is to effectively give technology a rebrand to tackle the alienation that may deter some women from working within it.

“We need a diverse workforce to help shape the current and future direction of technology so it meets all of our needs. I always try and showcase speakers that you wouldn’t naturally associate with tech.”

Beeny insists she is not a “tech fan” as such. But launching her sites proved to be less of a challenge than she expected. “I actually think founding an online business is much easier if you are a bit of a tech luddite as if it works for me then it works for anyone.”

The biggest hurdle? “Getting more than the first page of profiles! After that it felt like we were running to catch up, but I worried for the first day or so what would happen if we only ever got three people to sign up. I did promise a lot of favours to people to sign up their single friends...”

This month, the median gender pay gap was revealed as 9.8 per cent across UK businesses with more than 250 staff. This gap is exacerbated in the tech industry by the overwhelming number of men in senior positions, and it takes seed at school. Just 10 per cent of students who completed an A Level computing course in 2017 were female.

An enduring problem is a lack of awareness of how creative tech actually is, says Ms Sayce-Zelem. “A lot of what we do is around people and problems. As a team, we have to creatively problem solve.”

The process is so creative she believes the science, technology, engineering and maths acronym STEM could be replaced for STEAM: “In all of those, the arts are so important.”

Improving awareness is also about promoting women STEM role models in media, TV and film, she adds. While dramas like The Social Network have highlighted leading male figures in Silicon Valley, few celebrate leading women.

“I know a lot of women who got into law because of Ally McBeal. They enjoyed relating to a lawyer and found the different facets of her job really interesting. Having a few more of these roles written for women in films and tv could be a really progressive step forward in awareness.”

Her own role models include Anne-Marie Imafidon, the co-founder of Stemettes, a social enterprise which aims to improve the representation of girls and women in STEM industries, and astronaut Helen Sharman, a speaker at the festival. “Most people won’t realise she was not only Britain’s first female astronaut into space, but she was Britain’s first astronaut into space. People focus on Tim Peake and his amazing achievements, but Helen was there doing it first.”

The discussion of what it means to be a woman in tech needs broadening urgently, she adds. “There are a lot of women who become alienated: they don’t feel they belong in the women in tech ‘gang’ because they don’t code and they think it is exclusively around coding.”

Getting 17 per cent closer to 50 is about creating more awareness of the vast range of roles available, she says. “Not everyone is going to want to be a coder, and that is alright.”

Beeny points to her own success as a marker of how creative thinking can open a door to the tech industry. “I think it’s great to show that regardless of where you come from and your qualifications, if you see a gap in what you need or want on the web then, with drive and enthusiasm, you can fill it.”

The all-female panel is compèred by June Sarpong, author of Diversify, a collection of research examining diversity and inclusion across society.

Neuroscientist Dr Sophie Scott will talk about the science of laughter, and Belinda Parmar, who runs the Empathy Business, will discuss the power of empathy and its place in business and the technology industry.

“We know statistically on average women have higher levels of empathy,” she says. “However, what we don’t know is whether it’s because women are socially conditioned to be more sociable and pleasing of others.

“I’ll be talking about how gender can divide us and empathy unites us and I’ll be talking about what I think the future looks like in terms of how we can have more empathy in the way we recruit and in the products themselves.”

Leeds International Festival begins on April 28. For more details visit

Some festival highlights

Leeds International Festival is back for its second year, starting on April 28 with a fortnight of events to excite, entertain and inspire.

Featuring more than 50 events with over 40 speakers in 15 days, and an eclectic mix of activities to inspire and promote the discovery of new ideas and innovation, the festival offers something for all ages and interests in venues throughout the city centre.

From the first Briton to go into space, to music from the UK’s only blind orchestra and a celluloid trip down memory lane with Leeds United, these are just some of the highlights of this year’s festival that is attracting visitors from all over the country.