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Sue Black talks to Workingmums.co.uk about how she founded #techmums to help mums understand technology and change their lives.
At 25 Sue Black was a single mum of three with no job and only five O levels, living in a women’s refuge. Now after years as a university lecturer she has started up an organisation that aims to help mums acquire the skills that could change their lives and give them access to the digital revolution, as they did hers.
She had been working for a record company when her oldest daughter was born and planned to go back, but she had only been at the job one year and 51 weeks. At the time you had to have been in a job for two years to ensure your job was kept open for you on return from maternity leave. Then she got pregnant again and had twins, leaving her with three children under two. Shortly after her marriage broke down. She was in the women’s refuge for six months before being moved to another part of London and, when her daughter started school and she found a playgroup for her sons she was able to sign up for an access course in maths. The classes were two evenings a week, for which she got a babysitter, but she had coursework to do during the day. “It was hard, but wonderful. I had not been using my brain for a while and it expanded my mind. I loved it,” she says.
It was a one-year course and after that Sue began a degree in computing at South Bank University because it was the nearest to her home and allowed her to do the school run. Even so for the first year until her twins were in after school club she missed half her lectures. While she was doing her final year research project a supervisor asked if she would be interested in a PhD position in his research centre. She took seven years to finish the PhD, mainly because she took on a lot of teaching as she needed the money for her family, but after four years she applied for a full-time lectureship which gave her “a proper income” for the first time. “It was twice what I would have got before I started my studies,” she says. Since then she has risen up the academic career ladder, from lecturer to senior lecturer to leader and in 2006 landed a job as head of department at the University of Westminster. Nine years ago she also had another daughter.
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Over the course of the years, though, she had grown frustrated by the way the general public viewed computing. “Technology is the most exciting area and provides lots of amazing opportunities for everyone, but if I talked to people who were not in technology there main reaction when I said what I did was to think I was very boring or a boffin. It was always negative,” says Sue.
She wanted to do something about it and help the UK get more tech savvy. “Over the last few years technology has developed so much and opened up so many opportunities, particularly for women. It has levelled the playing field and allowed people to link up with others,” she says.
She decided she needed to target a particular group so she started with children at her youngest daughter’s school. However, she soon realised that she wouldn’t get very far very quickly if their parents were negative about computing. So she got the idea to target mums. “It ticked all my boxes. By helping mums to understand the opportunities technology opens up we can change how they see things and change how families and how communities see things,” she says.
With two other mums she knows from her daughter’s school – one a former head of marketing at Warner Bros and the other a former programmer at the Bank of England – she started #techmums. A friend put her in touch with a head teacher in Tower Hamlets who agreed to run a free pilot programme last summer using their pupil premium money. While the workshops for children had lasted one day, the team decided to hold two-hour sessions for mums over five weeks while their children were at school. “We wanted to do it in an area where we could make the biggest difference and Tower Hamlets has the lowest average life expectancy for women in the country,” says Sue.
She emailed those who expressed an interest in taking part with information about herself and a photo of herself with her children so they knew what her background was and how technology had changed her life.
Introduction to technology
The programme gives women an introduction to app design, social media, Python coding on Raspberry Pi’s and more. It is being extended to Surrey where parents will have to pay for it themselves, although Sue has been using crowdfunding to cut costs.
Already there has been some success. A few weeks ago one of the mums on the pilot programme got a job directly because of her experience on the #techmums programme and her training in using social media.
Sue’s plans for the future include recruiting trainers, so providing jobs for mums, and eventually rolling the programme out nationwide. The support is ongoing too. People who have gone through the workshops can join an online community where there are ongoing resources.
“I really want to help mums and change their lives, give them more confidence and understanding of technology and the business opportunities it offers,” says Sue. “Technology is the key to helping women to achieve what they want.”