When inspiration strikes

Double inspiration today! Oh, happy days! After the enormous clouds of the past few days, inspiration lovingly came to me, with a double helping, today. Result? Hope restored.

It is one of those very much underappreciated life giving forces, inspiration. At least that’s how I see it. I was feeling very low yesterday, with the UK election results leaving me dazed, and the country largely confused, it seems, under a cloud of uncertainty, with the added threat of the woman-hating DUP getting into bed with the Tories just to allow them to have a slim majority.

But now that the inspiration struck, I am starting to see some sunshine through the parting clouds. In their desperation to form a government, the Tories might be willing to compromise on some hard-won human rights of women and gay marriage, but it will likely only result in diminishing their already dwindling support in the long run. If that’s how they want to play it, selling out on women’s rights just to gain majority, they will have to be prepared to reap what they sow. Women’s rights are not bargaining chips! I am just a tiny bit surprised that Theresa May cannot see it, considering that she is a woman herself. So much for the theory that having a female Prime Minister is a good thing for women by default, that people have been trying to feed me since she’s taken on the role! Theresa May is no feminist, she said it rather clearly herself. Now we have proof that cannot really be denied.

But this post is not about politics, I digress as it’s taken so much of my energy and mental space in the last few days. And then a welcome strike of inspiration this morning brightened up my day! Thankfully, dark days can have that positive aspect to them. Sunshine comes out eventually and it can even seem to be shining more brightly than before, after a few long days of heavy clouds!

I take inspiration wherever I can get some. And sometimes it can come from unexpected places, so I enjoy going on a little inspiration ‘hunt’ every once in a while. A few weeks ago, I went to a screening of a film on women in tech. And as much as the documentary, Balancing Tech, does expose just how dire the state of the industry still is for UK women, it has also inspired me to take unexpected action, precisely for that reason!

The film screening was hosted by the London office of IBM, which is not my normal kind of hangout, and I couldn’t even remember where I got the invite from! And so I found myself, in a bit of a random fashion, in a room full of extremely well-dressed techy women, wondering if I was in the right place. Just for a few minutes though, until the event started. The documentary turned out to be quite informative, especially considering that it is only a short 20 minutes.

But more to the point, the panelists were exquisite! The lineup was hugely diverse, although admittedly all women, with plenty of knowledge and extraordinary experiences to talk about. I couldn’t quite make up my mind as to which question to ask, but I actually got the opportunity to raise two! And the panel really loved my first point, as they spent at least 5 or so minutes addressing it, giving me so many useful tips that they took up about two pages in my notepad! In fact, I was so fired up by the event’s insights that I had to email the Feminist Library team right away, that night. And we’re already planning a new programme of events at the Library, helping women and girls get trained up on useful techy skills!

I couldn’t help but do something! I mean, did you know that, in the UK, less than 16% of tech graduates and 17% of jobs in the industry are done by women?! And that, by 2020, there will be an expected 1 million+ new jobs in the tech industry, and yet the formal educational system is still producing a shortage of around 20,000 skilled workers for the sector every year! The educational establishment can’t keep up with the growth of the tech sector, and yet it still discriminates against women going into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)!

It seems like an absolute no-brainer to me! If the industry is facing a massive, and widening, skills gap, and it still suffers from an incredible shortage of women, it is about time it has cleaned up its act! And yet, some stereotypes are harder to break than one might think, it appears. It would seem that, considering it is the 21st century, women would not be facing much discrimination getting into IT. Yet, the event also highlighted the many old fashioned attitudes professional tech women still battle with, even at very high level of experience and achievement.

And so, I figured, what better place to train up women in tech skills than the Feminist Library! Producing skills is one thing, but women going into such a male-dominated industry, need to be also ‘battle’ ready. People often say that women in certain professions need to have a ‘thick skin’ in order to survive, which basically means grin and bear it. No! We do not need to face discrimination and pretend like nothing is happening, with big smiles on our faces, but to the contrary – we must challenge stereotypical behaviour, if we’re going to help the industry become more of a welcoming place for women to be at a better rate than it has been so far! Don’t get me wrong, men need to clean up their act too! And the industry needs to try harder too. But it takes a feminist attitude to challenge stereotypes, and effectively make the industry a better place for women as quickly as possible.

And I do realise that the approach does have its flaws. That it might not work for everyone. I don’t think women should be forced into positions that they don’t feel comfortable in. One friend, who works in tech herself, said to me that she is not sure she would want to encourage her daughter to work in an industry that is so male-dominated, as she would fear her child facing harassment. But as much as it pains me to hear that, I don’t think that’s the heart of the issue. The industry is less likely to change its sexist nature if the shortage of women in it persists. And I would never encourage women to do something that they are not comfortable with. It’s more about showing them what is truly possible, at last really breaking the stereotype that women are just not good at math. And then letting them choose – once they truly know all their options.

Plus, it’s not just the environment of the industry that would change with more women in it, but also, quite likely, the nature of its products! With more women in app development, for example, the likelihood is that the technology produced would become more geared towards women’s needs, helping them solve their other problems!

I almost went without mentioning this, but I think perhaps wrongly so, considering that I don’t think that it is a widely known fact that although the gender pay gap is still evident in the tech industry, it is generally smaller than in other areas, and the baseline salaries are much larger for both men and women, at all levels. I can’t help but wonder whether my early career choices might have been different had I known that about 10 years ago. I’m not saying that it’s too late. In fact, I don’t believe that at all, but it is quite possible that my bank balance would have been much healthier now, had I know that then.

Last but not least, the event helped me break some of the tech-related stereotypes stuck in my own head! I used to be one of those women who always say ‘I’m not very techy’ – despite evidence to the contrary! In the short few weeks since, I have gone on to start working on implementing a new database for the Feminist Library, developing the tech training programme, as well as to embark on a programming course to enable me to run trainings like that! Not techy? Well, I am never going to look at my own skills in quite the same way again, that’s for sure!

How does all this relate to the café blog, you might wonder? Apart from the initial bit about the life giving force of inspiration, that is an incredibly useful thing to remember when setting up a business, the Balancing Tech experience has given me some new ideas for new ways to develop the Angels & Witches project. I’m still doing my research into this, so not going to say much more on it now, but do watch this space for more info coming soon!


Soft launching again and again, until a space of our own is found…

I have been getting really good at living with frustration since the journey of A&W started. Finding a space for a café in London is quite a challenge, especially if it’s your first business, and you don’t have the kind of disposable budget that Starbucks and Costa do! Especially if the business is a feminist café…

But thanks to that, I have discovered that prolonged frustration can be a good motivating factor! Particularly, if you’re determined enough that something IS going to happen!

Obviously, something’s got to give, sometimes. And so I gave up on the idea that I would have my SPACE for the feminist café within 3 months – as was initially the plan in my head. It’ll probably take longer, in fact, it already has. Much longer.

But that is not reason to give up. Nobody said it was going to be easy. In fact, just the opposite! I just didn’t want to hear it at the beginning…

Despite my initial insistence on sticking to, what seemed to be at the time, THE plan, I also had to eventually admit that it would be smart to soft launch the café idea, before everybody gives up on me, thinking that I had given up! I haven’t! It’s just taken longer than I anticipated…

And so soft-launch it was. Despite my prolonged mental effort against the idea. And, in fact, it was fun! We first started in Brick Lane’s Backyard market at the beginning of this year. Now it’s on to something a bit more local – we’re going to be at the Leytonstone market @ St John’s on the third Saturday in June. With some fresh ideas. Come and say hi if you want to know more about the new secret Angels & Witches ingredient!

As it turns out, sometimes doing something like that – a thing that your brain has been negatively geared towards for a very long time – before actually doing it – can be quite a good thing! Educational for sure. I have learned a lot when testing my idea in front of people. Who would have thought, right?!

Having the stall in Brick Lane was an amazing feedback opportunity. I got quite excited about people’s reactions to my stall. People were positively intrigued by all the different aspects of it – the logo, the motto and the veg muffins! I actually thought, by the end of the first day, that I should have had a hidden camera with me – the expressions on people’s faces when they saw the beet muffin were priceless! Although I doubt that would have been completely in line with my ethical café stance… Nevertheless, it was useful to have that experience. And it warmed my heart to see people smile brightly at the sight of my stall!

Now on the next stage. Leytonstone market should be quite interesting too. And in a different way, because it is much less trendy than Brick Lane, and much more local. Let’s hope that the reactions are just as positive. Fingers crossed!

I do have to admit that the space problem still bothers me, since I am yet to find a solution! Especially since I’ve been involved in the Feminist Library project and the Reclaim Holloway one too, and I know just how precious those feminist spaces are, and how rare… Still – even more reason to keep on pressing on with the idea!

As difficult as it has been to pin down anything resembling a reasonable price, in terms of a space for the café in London, I have not given up hope, and I keep on trying new, inventive ways of getting around the issue. in fact, a space – proper feminist café space – might be closer within my reach than I think these days, after so many failed attempts. After all, aren’t we always just one good idea away from succeeding in whatever it is that we’re trying to do?! Although the jury is still out on this one right at this moment.

I am currently getting more and more pulled in into the world of architecture, which is new and exciting to me. Feminist architecture, obviously!

When I first found out about the concept of live community architecture from this feminist architects collective, I was ecstatic! Perfect, I thought! Finally something that’s going to solve this massive missing building issue for me! I am yet to find out a route into the architectural world that will help me answer the question of whether that is actually the case.

But at least, at last, hope has been restored!