Holly Rafique, Head of Digital at #techmums, discusses the importance of encouraging mums to embrace digital skills and get involved in digital inclusion programmes.
There are countless organisations and initiatives aimed at achieving this, ranging from addressing the gender imbalance when selecting further education, through to making it easier for women to return to work after a career break. These are all commendable activities, and yet the figures don’t seem to be changing.
In a recent report by PwC, only 27 per cent of young women said that they would consider a career in technology and only three per cent said that technology was their first choice of career. The reality is that women fill only 17 per cent of all the jobs in technology. Some of that is just a matter of time, so we should have patience to see the results of better inclusivity and awareness in school children, but in part it seems that society is treating the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying problem; women and girls do not see where they fit into the technology sector. There remains the perception of a white male playing computer games; even when we know the stereotype isn’t the truth, it is still hard to dispel it.
At #techmums, we want to change this; we want to rewrite the narrative to ask “how can we bring technology into more women’s lives?” By reframing the problem this way, we can immediately widen our audience to include all women and all households. We are not insisting that women abandon other industries and passions but, instead, we are encouraging them to think about how they can use new technologies creatively to enhance what they are already passionate about.
Embracing digital literacy
For many of us, the internet is an integral and pervasive part of our lives in modern society. We rely on it to support and enhance our lives in an increasing number of subtle ways. It allows us to work remotely and flexibly, promoting a better work-life balance and making a career a more feasible possibility. We stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues who might be abroad or outside our immediate locale. For those of us with communication difficulties, it gives us an alternative to the dreaded phone call. We can monitor our expenditure and are not restricted to the products and prices in our local neighbourhoods.
Digital literacy is now as important a skill for this generation of children as the ability to read and write. They don’t even recognise these devices as computers any more; internet connectivity is as natural to their generation as free-flowing water and electricity is to ours. When we turn on the tap, we expect there to be water, when we turn on a light switch we expect there to be light, when our children turn on a device they expect it to connect to the internet.
The internet has opened up our worlds and, with the amount of time we spend using technology, you would expect everyone’s trust and confidence in it to be pretty high, not to mention it leading to equal opportunities for everyone.
Except it’s not. It is a sad truth that far too many households are still struggling to engage with technology. Recent data privacy scandals, hoaxes and media hype have lead to fear rather than enthusiasm. Furthermore, most people see their role in technology as being consumers, not creators, subsequently feeling at the mercy of technology.
At #techmums, we believe there is one person in the household who can change all this but who is too-often overlooked: mum.
Our mission at #techmums is to empower women, their families and communities through technology. The average mum usually puts her children first and is only engaged by technology initiatives in terms of getting her children engaged. We work to change that and show every mum that technology is also for her and that she can benefit so much from having an understanding of technology.
The confidence conundrum
Many mums suffer from a loss of confidence after having children; no matter how many books you have read or classes you have attended, there is nothing that can quite destroy your confidence like your own tiny little baby who will not stop crying no matter what you do.
Then as they grow and you hit new parental challenges, you increasingly feel that you have no idea what you’re doing; you are constantly bombarded with conflicting advice on the ‘right’ parenting approach so it’s not surprising that a large proportion of mums feel powerless. For those mums who were working before having children, they are likely to have missed the introduction of all-pervasive technology in the workplace and now feel that they can’t catch up.
These days children pick up digital skills very quickly, with a large number of mums already feeling that their children know far more about technology than they do. Parents want to protect their family from online dangers but they lack the skills to do so and they know it; they become so terrified that a knee-jerk reaction of restricting access to technology seems to be the only option.
Challenging the patronising rhetoric
Patronised by a world that uses phrases such as ‘mumpreneur’, ‘mom jeans’ and “it’s so easy even your mum could do it”, the whole image of a mum is not dynamic, exciting or intelligent. Hard-working and frazzled certainly, but mums are rarely portrayed as capable and connected. We’ve seen at first hand how a woman’s whole attitude and posture changes when she discovers that she is far more knowledgeable and capable than she originally thought. When you take all these issues together, it’s easy to see why many women have a negative attitude to technology and don’t embrace digital solutions in their home.
The beauty of upskilling mothers is that you touch at least two people’s lives – the mum and the child. Children increasingly need access to technology for their homework; they can quickly be left behind if their home is negative towards the use of technology. In addition, parents hold a lot of weight around children’s aspirations and attitudes. Children need their parents to act as their digital guides; someone whom they can trust to teach them to navigate the online world. A child needs to know that their concerns will be met with an understanding attitude and an informed response.
Despite family dynamics moving towards a better balance, in many families the mother is still the parent that children interact with the most. Mums tend to organise extra-curricular activities, playdates and camps, and if they don’t understand the benefits of technology then it’s far less likely that they will arrange technology-based activities for their children. Future jobs will almost all require an element of digital awareness, so when parents engage with technology they are furthering their children’s social mobility and career aspirations.
Spreading the knowledge
Empowering women in technology clearly has a positive impact on the community through increased diversity in the workforce. Not only are diverse teams generally more successful but they are necessary to tackle any unconscious bias in solutions (particularly in artificial intelligence) and to ensure products meet the needs of all members of society. Many products are designed by all-male teams so that the different needs of women are unconsciously missed.
Beyond the obvious benefits to communities, educating mothers will also lead to a more sensible community response to potential threats. A lack of understanding leads to fear and hysteria, particularly when the sensationalised news headlines are the main source of information. Incidents such as the recent ‘Momo hoax’, supposedly challenging children to self-harm, and fears over computer game addiction can be far better handled when the women in the community have confidence in their own understanding of technology and its associated risks.
#techmums are connecting with mums through a number of digital outreach programmes. In 2018 we launched #techmumsTV in partnership with Home-Start UK and Facebook as a live-streamed chat show to demystify and normalise discussion of technology. The key concept of #techmumsTV was to celebrate young mothers, how they are using technology in their everyday lives, how they are running businesses from their phones and to positively tell their stories, with the other aspect of #techmumsTV being to upskill viewers about online safety, financial technology and increasing knowledge around the technology sector. By using social media and Home-Start centres, we were able to reach demographics of mums who are particularly hard to engage with through other methods.
Our new initiative for 2019 is the #techmumsclub, an informal gathering of 20 mums where they are introduced to a wide range of topics from blogging and web design to app design and coding. We currently have five clubs running at various host partner’s across the country and have two more launching after Easter. We work with the 20 mums across a 10-week period, with sessions lasting two hours, usually within the school day. We support partners with facilitator training and provide all course materials and online support throughout the programme.
#techmums is also working with the University of Leeds, FutureLearn and Black Tech UK to produce a series of online courses to bring 21st-century workplace digital skills to those who don’t usually engage in online working.
By giving mums the foundation digital skills that they are missing, we can help them to pursue their passions and become the positive role models that their children will need as they venture into their digital future. We are confident that these three programmes will bring technology to more women and in turn get more women into technology.
Holly Rafique is Head of Digital at #techmums.
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