Greg Wright; How the #techmums initiative is opening opportunities for new generation of women

Eve Roodhouse, head of economic development at Leeds City Council is a big fan of the Techmums project. Picture Tony Johnson.
Eve Roodhouse, head of economic development at Leeds City Council is a big fan of the Techmums project. Picture Tony Johnson.
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EVERYBODY deserves space in the fast lane of the digital economy.

The Leeds Digital Festival, which opens later this month, has become the biggest event of its kind in the North of England.

There were more tech events in Leeds than San Francisco during last year’s festival, a sign that the city really is at the forefront of digital innovation.

The event’s supporters, such as Eve Roodhouse, Leeds City Council’s chief officer for economic development, believe the economic benefits of the digital revolution must reach out to areas beyond the city centre.

It’s important, for example, to ensure that people who may have taken a break from the world of work, or have long term child-care commitments, are kept up to date with advances in technology.

A report from the think tank Centre for Towns provided a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead. It concluded that the region’s burgeoning digital sector is being stifled by poor transport links and patchy broadband connectivity. So it’s heartening to salute the work of Techmums, a project that is making a difference to the lives of women in the Armley, Seacroft and Dewsbury Road areas of Leeds.

The programme is a pilot that was funded by Leeds City Council. It’s a bold initiative which aims to ensure that mothers in the city have the opportunity to learn new digital skills.

Leeds was the first city outside London to deliver the learning classes as part of the #techmums clubs initiative, a free 10-week course which covers everything from online safety and social media to basic coding. It’s been credited with opening doors to jobs and further education for a growing number of women.

Techmums was founded by Dr Sue Black, whose story shows how technology and education can change the lives of women and their families. At the age of 25, Ms Black was a single mother living in a domestic violence refuge with three children and few formal qualifications.

She enrolled on a university access course which led to a place on a computer studies degree. She has since gained a PhD and set up the UK’s first online network for women in tech.

She also led the campaign to save Bletchley Park and was recently appointed professor of computer science and technology “evangelist” at Durham University.

Techmum clubs were held in Leeds from January to March this year, and by all accounts, were a stunning success. A number of digital and technology companies in Leeds have already pledged their support for the programme and the council is looking to develop and expand the project from September.

Sue Black’s inspiring story shows what can be achieved when people are given the chance to broaden their horizons.

A blog on her website, describes how she returned to education as a single mother of three children.

She recalled: “The first time I walked into the classroom I nearly died from shock. I had bushy dyed black hair and was dressed in a mini skirt, a black leather jacket and black Dr Marten’s boots. “

“Almost everyone else in the class was male and dressed in a suit. I was horrified, but managed to find a space to sit down and try to contain my nerves. The teachers were great and soon put me at ease.

“I loved those classes. After several years of no real learning or hard problem solving type thinking my brain absolutely soaked all of it up.”

With mentoring and years of hard work, Dr Black has become a respected academic who wants to ensure other women are not denied opportunities to develop because of circumstances beyond their control.

She launched the #techmums initiative last year in response to the alarming statistic that only 17 per cent of technology sector employees are women.

To quote Dr Black: “As a single mum, I brought my own family out of poverty through tech education, so I know its power first hand.”

Investing in a woman’s education creates a positive ripple effect that can last for generations.

So let’s toast the techmums, along with their mentors and supporters, as they embrace the digital future.