This year marked the ‘Year of the Woman’ – the centenary since the Representation of the People Act legalising women’s right to vote. Such an occasion invited celebration of the progress made over the past 100 years, and reflection on what we still need to do.

Throughout 2018, Sussex Innovation began to address and act on gender issues through a series of inspiring events; working towards a space that empowers women entrepreneurs starting out, and during their journey. This new ethos was inspired by our 21st birthday celebrations last year, as staff and members came together to celebrate our achievements. During this joyous day, one thing became very clear – how few women, and particularly how few female founders, there were in our community…

The statistics around women in business are as disheartening as the eye-opening gender disparity at our celebration. Crunchbase’s longitudinal study counts 54,702 global companies that received their initial funding between 2009 and 2017. Of these businesses, 8,821 – just 16% – have at least one female founder. This underrepresentation of female entrepreneurs is attributable to an inherent bias in society, displayed through the gender pay gap. While the Equal Pay Act prohibits paying people who do the same work different amounts based on prejudice, the pay gap arises due to the huge disparity of women to men in senior roles. We could spend hours listing the reasons for this, but Impostor Syndrome is one definite culprit. The lack of confidence and anxiety over joining a classically ‘male’ space is a reality for some female entrepreneurs. To tackle this, we shone a mirror on our company to see how we can better nurture and empower female innovators.

“I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves” – Mary Shelley

What better place to start than International Women’s Day, a global call to push for gender equality by celebrating women’s achievements? Daisy Wood, Community Manager at Sussex Innovation Centre, approached all the female staff in our building in person and handed them invitations to a social gathering. The day was a great success, building on the visit of Dr Helen Pankhurst to the University of Sussex earlier that month. The author, activist and ambassador for CARE International delivered an inspiring talk, made even more poignant as it was delivered by the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, a pivotal figure in the history of female liberty. A dedication board in our reception area featured nominations from the community of women who inspired them.

Inspiring women

We also began sponsoring Girls In Tech, a global non-profit which aims to banish gender disparities in high-tech industries by educating and empowering women. The UK Tech sector is one of the most male-oriented industries, with women making up just 17% of employees, and only 17% of start-up founders. From our involvement in this event, the seed for our first ever Hackathon was sown!

On the week of Ada Lovelace Day – marking the birth of the world’s first computer programmer – Daisy and our Insight and Research Advisor, Dr. Chloe Peacock organised ‘SINC_HACK>17%’. Taking on this traditionally male space, we set the task of finding innovative and creative solutions to six key areas; the underrepresentation of women in the media and popular culture; the number of women in senior management; the numbers of female school leavers entering into STEM subjects in higher education; unconscious bias and sexism towards women in the workplace; the numbers of female entrepreneurs and female founders; and maternity leave/back to work support. Local sponsors – particularly Healys LLP – and food and drink providers helped keep everyone well fed, equipped, entertained and stocked with stationery!

The participants were formed into teams of creatives, developers, freelancers, students and researchers working together over an intensive 12-hour period. The winning team focused on unconscious bias and sexism towards women the workplace, designing a reporting tool and dashboard for businesses to record feedback from employees and identify recurring issues and challenges. This information can then by analysed by an external body, to recommend solutions to their specific areas of concern. Alternatively, these statistics can be used in media campaigns, to report for equalities departments, and in recruitment and skills planning exercises.

During the Hack, support staff held bitesize talks on elements of business development including creativity, business modelling and storytelling. With the help of our members Fat Fish Games and Momentum4, we also offered mini coding sessions to teach our less experienced participants the basics, and an introduction to emotional intelligence tools for the workplace. It was as much a day to set women on the path towards a tech career as it was to celebrate those already involved in the industry. The winning team have won a discovery meeting with members of our senior support team to further develop their idea.

Hackathon winning team

“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back” – Malala Yousafzai

Over at Sussex Innovation Croydon, the spirit of 2018 was in full flow. On the 1st of November we hosted Silicon Valley of South London: Women in Tech, an event celebrating female entrepreneurs and influencers in the thriving tech hub of Croydon. The room was filled with more than 50 women of all ages and backgrounds – and more than a few male allies – as three inspiring women give their unique perspectives on how to promote women in tech.

Holly Leverson, Recruitment Lead at Croydon-based email marketing firm Dotmailer, spoke about her company’s approach towards minimising unconscious bias throughout the recruitment process, in an effort to tackle gender disparity. Holly shared her stark observations of misogyny in the workplace, as well as a few horror stories of gendered language and assumptions used by recruiters. Her experiences were met with a resounding recognition and understanding in the room. The discussion following the talk centred around why less women enter tech roles, with a consensus forming that the issue must be tackled during school. Young girls are still pigeon-holed into ‘gendered’ studies, and we must empower our future female entrepreneurs as well as the current ones to help dismantle gender disparities.

Dr. Chloe Peacock gave a talk about our promotion of opportunities for women within Sussex Innovation. As well as discussing some of the activities held to celebrate International Women’s Day, Chloe talked about her personal experience of mentoring the 2018 StartUp Sussex student enterprise winner Molly Masters, as she went about launching her product Books That Matter, an intersectional feminist literature subscription box. Supported by Daisy Wood, Chloe concluded her presentation by discussing their observations and lessons learned from running SINC_HACK>17%. Together they conveyed how the event brought to fruition Emmeline Pankhurst’s conviction that to make change, you must act – ‘deeds not words’. During Q&A, several of the audience talked about how they felt energised to go out and find a hackathon to participate in; a very positive outcome.

Finally Sarah Akwisombe, a ‘Croydon born and bred’ entrepreneur and Instagram influencer told her story. Her entrepreneurial journey took in music production, starting a label, running a crowdfunding startup, all the way to launching an interior design blog and becoming the social media ‘power user’ and trainer that she is today. Throughout Sarah’s talk it was obvious that the key ingredient in her success was her confidence, assertiveness and willingness to try new things. Rather than feeling underqualified for any of her roles, she decided to take each new challenge and meet it head on. Sarah and a few of the other parents in the room spent several minutes discussing strategies for equipping young women with the same mindset.

Women in tech evening

“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish” – Michelle Obama

Next year we plan to carry on building on all the action of the past 12 months. We’ll be holding a female founders’ drop-in clinic for ambitious local business women to have one-to-one support from members of our team. We have also lined up our next Silicon Valley of South London event for January. This time, as well as celebrating women in the tech industry we are focusing on the gender pay gap. We have lined up a variety of speakers; founder of CDO Partners, Morgan McCarthy will be showing us how to visualise data and use it to identify issues regarding gender pay imbalances. We will also be welcoming Sarah Luxford, Executive Director at Global Resources and co-founder of TLA Women in Tech, London’s movement for gender equality in the tech industry. She will be discussing the current state of the gap. Finally, inclusivity and diversity consultant Roianne Nedd will be sharing her insights into organisations working towards diversity, attempting to increase transparency and shrink the gap. You can find out more and register your interest here.

In the history of social movements, words and actions are pitted against each other – you’re either an Emmeline Pankhurst, or a Millicent Fawcett; a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X. However, bringing words and actions together makes an all-encompassing movement. To really make a change, we must promote discussions as well as actions against social barriers.

Here at the Sussex Innovation, we will continue to do deeds, and not just words, to empower women in business. So hopefully those dismal statistics mentioned at the start of this article can start to decrease.

If you would like to know more about future events at the Sussex Innovation centre, please click here.