Around 50 women from different walks of creative life arrived to listen to 13 guest presenters at our Get Connected: Digital Women UK‘s first anniversary event on Tuesday 30 September at Lift, Islington in London.
One by one, women filtered into the main hall. Virtually all entered solo. Casual greetings were exchanged. By the time the presentations had begun, friendships were being formed.
Jacaranda Books, CompletelyNovel and The Body Narratives hosted stalls. DJ Chillz, who I stumbled across on Twitter after watching Hustle of a Female DJ, said yes to my unexpected email request to come along and spin some of her classy tunes.
Last year, the day before Julie Tomlin and I launched Digital Women UK at City Hall, courtesy of Jennette Arnold, Assembly Member for North East London, this outcome felt like a distant aspiration. Instead of brimming with confidence, an hour before officially announcing our intentions, we were nervous. Very nervous. What were we doing? Did we know what we were doing? Were we ready to make this commitment and make it so public? Thankfully the nerves disappeared as quickly as they arrived as the answer each time was, yes, yes and hell yes.
A year later, at our first anniversary celebrations, seemingly contrasting voices and topics were being heard. Academic and novelist Sunny Singh highlighted the harsh realities of online racism and sexism along with a timely reminder of troll slaying and the influential role of pre-digital female activism.
Campbell X and Foluke Akinlose’s Digital Clinic Live session took questions from the floor, including one on the pros and cons of LinkedIn versus Twitter. “LinkedIn is Facebook for grownups,” said Campbell to much laughter.
Neela Debnath eloquently informed everyone how to make their blogs relevant and the latest legal challenges they faced “as bloggers are now getting sued”. She also stressed the importance of having a clear unique selling point to make your blog stand out and to enable your voice to be distinctive.
The ability (or inability) to make money through digital publishing, the persistent lack of diversity – and how to secure an agent – batted back and forth between CompletelyNovel’s Anna Lewis and The Literary Platform’s Joanna Ellis.
While under the warm and watchful eyes of acclaimed poets Jacob Sam-La Rose and Malika Booker, the attendees were encouraged to find a metaphor to express a line of poetry on our Twitterfeed and were then exposed to a series of funny, blistering and atmospheric poetry performed with great style and charm.
Long-time Digital Women UK supporter Jude Kelly OBE, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, had to be out of the country on business, so couldn’t attend the event. To compensate, she invited us to film her presentation in her office. While watching the film, you would have thought she was in the room with us. Speaking without notes or an autocue, she expressed passion, enthusiasm and clarity in her commitment to digital engagement for women globally through her WOW Women initiative and the Web We Want campaign.
Kelly reflected on an important and worrying trend – the decline of women programmers. “Why is it that when digital first came on the scene I think there were 35 per cent women coding. Now it is about 2 per cent. Does it matter? If you are making up a language and constructing that language around the way you think and the world that you understand, should that coding be in the hands of men almost to the exclusion of women? I feel uncomfortable about that.”
Another worrying trend is the challenge facing women in UX (user experience). Chiefly their ability to progress their careers while trying to stay true to the UX vision of serving the user amid the demands of a commercial environment. This dilemma was tackled with such emotion and honesty from the Ladies that UX London panel of experienced digital pioneers – Clare Munday, Sophie Freiermuth, Femi Adesina and lone male Matthew Curtis – the audience couldn’t help but respond in kind.
Adesina was direct in her view that the focus needs to be on the job at hand and to never lose sight of that. “The easiest way to not be effective is to get distracted by the ‘isms’ in the working environment,” she explained. “And I’m no diversity expert”, she added without irony. Adesina also made a profound observation: that there have been no real inventions in the last seven years. “Only innovations” which isn’t, she claimed, the same thing. You could have heared a pin drop at the realisation.
Freiermuth emphasised the value of mentoring, teamwork and developing women, and got the audience to question if working within a company was the best use of their skills. All of the UX panellists had come to the same conclusion regarding their own careers. They all now work for themselves.
Throughout the day, during the many Q&As, mini networking breaks and the Jacaranda Books sponsored raffle, the audience was active and interactive. Questions poured forth. Advice and expertise were offered freely.
Feedback was positive: “What an inspiring day,” offered journalist and writer Laura Smith. “To be in a room with so many creative, proactive, positive, original-thinking women, all willing to share their knowledge and experience was a rare and wonderful thing. It made me look at the digital world in a new way, and also understand more about what might have been holding me back.”
With everyone full of ideas and birthday cake, our thoughts turn to 2015 and where we will be in a year’s time. If this event is any indicator of what we can achieve (and attract) without official funding, other than the modest support of our host organisation Words of Colour Productions, the future is looking bright.
By Joy Francis, co-founder, Digital Women UK
Photo credit: Tasha Jarrett