Tax the Robots

Saturday 13th May
Written by Lisa Hall 
This day event also featured Liverpool University's Will Slocombe, writer Matthew de Abaitua, Professor Mike Fisher, computer scientist Louise Dennis, North West TUC Regional Secretary Lynn CollinsBrhmie Balaram and James Farrar and of course...Ohbot the Robot! 

I must admit when I was asked to write a review for an event about technological developments, I was a little "Er…I guess so", quietly shrugging and thinking ‘What on earth do I know about technology?’ and more detrimental ‘How on earth is this relevant to my interests!’ How wrong I was. In a wonderfully inclusive panel discussion by leading ladies in the Liverpool tech industry, I came to realise exactly why I did not think this issue was for me and (light bulb moment) it really is!

Led by Jo Morfee, the director of Liverpool Girl Geeks, the panel of five unpacked some of the inequalities in the technological industry and also the opportunities to be had. With only 12% of technology jobs being taken by women, a prediction that this will dramatically decline to a mere 1% by 2040 if no intervention occurs, along with the fact that the average salary in technology in Liverpool is a comfortable £45k per annum, my ears were well and truly pricked.

On a mission to innovate, educate and motivate, Liverpool Girl Geeks was started in 2013 by Chelsea Slater. At the time Chelsea was the only female in an app company in town so she started a blog to spread the word about jobs to other women. In a wonderful example of organic evolvement, the blog turned into a Twitter feed which became a community and through interaction and requests for skill-sharing ended up as a full-blown company. Chelsea, now with an all-female team, gives courses, workshops and hosts events to inspire women and girls of all ages to learn about and get into technology. Indeed, as Joan Burnett from FACT echoes, the need for a diversity of ages as well as gender and race is vital if the industry is to remain relevant to society.

But why is it important to have women, women of colour and women of all ages engaged with technological research and development? And why is it important to encourage it? Shouldn’t people just follow their own interests without being persuaded? Right on cue, my questions are answered. "You can’t be what you can’t see", Joan clarifies and how do you know whether or not you’re interested in technology when its potential is largely hidden behind out-dated views and stereotypically masculinised images. Dr. Kate Black, an Engineering lecturer at the University of Liverpool, says when she first joined the department they asked her how they could attract more female engineers. "Perhaps start by getting rid of the missile in Reception and the replica of an engine", she quipped. Displaying the whole nuanced array of technology is important, she continues, in order to show its relevance to everyone’s lives.

An example which brought home just how relevant was given by Ngunan Adamu, Producer/Presenter at BBC Radio Merseyside. When an African American woman in the USA tried to have her picture taken by a camera she wondered why it wasn’t using the face-recognition technology and identifying her face. Incredibly, the training set the technology had been given to ‘see’ faces had not been coded with the information to recognise black skin tones and so did not distinguish her face in the picture. With machines only ever as good as the humans who input them, if there is a lack of diversity in technological industries it is easy for companies, and therefore equipment, to have blind spots. Moreover, with a diverse workforce in companies they are more likely to understand what kind of technological developments a broad range of people need and are looking for in their lives.

Nearly every job these days has some duties related to technology but, surprisingly, it is still not compulsory in schools. And with its reputation as being a ‘boys’ subject, girls are in danger of not taking such qualifications and therefore being left behind in the competitive job market we see today. Incidentally, 3 years ago there were no female Engineering lecturers at Liverpool University. Now there are 5. Out of 56. "So, you know", Kate smiles wryly, "times are changing". But unless the full creative display of technology jobs are seen and, significantly, unless women are seen to be doing them, it is likely that young women will unconsciously presume such positions are simply not for them.

Ngunan Adamu is on a quest to redress just such an issue and in an innovative way. Apart from hosting a successful radio show she is also the founder of iWoman Academy, a social entrepreneurial training academy which teaches women over the age of 19 about all aspects of radio and broadcasting.

"iWoman is about giving women from Liverpool a second chance", she told Edge Hill University previously, the university from which she received her PGCE in post-compulsory education. ‘Not just to learn new skills but to boost their self-esteem as well’. It is hoped that graduates from her course will go onto work on the iWoman radio show and help mentor new course attendees in the future.

With such inspiring woman heading the face of the North West technology industries and proving that skill-sharing benefits everyone, it seems that the hard-edged competitive reputation of technology could be surmounted by a strong and extremely vibrant culture of community.
The First Rebel Robot Rant was an experience. Hauntingly realistic, hilarious in parts but strange and wonderful. The robot was programmed by the children in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Primary School.