The Sheffield Women in Tech (ShfWiT) Meetup is an open and inclusive community, designed to recognise and celebrate the thriving tech scene in the city, and the women working in it. The monthly events have continued to happen throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, attracting regular attendees as well as new faces. We caught up with the organisers of ShfWiT to find out why it began, how it has developed and what the main principles are that underpin the meetups. Thank you to Mel Kanarek, Emma Marshall, Rachel Ferla, Laura Smith, Anna Bollinger, Melise Jones and Sarah Lowi-Jones who all contributed to this post.
Why did you start the ShfWiT meetup?
Emma: Mel and I attended an “overly pink” women’s meetup that we felt didn’t empower or represent the women we saw in tech every day. We wanted something that spotlighted the positivity we could see, so Mel gathered an initial group of amazing Sheff women and we started from there.
Mel: Apart from a mutual allergy to fluffy meetups, it felt wrong that Sheffield had a thriving tech scene but no Women in Tech group. It was something I’d wanted to get going for a while and credit needs to go to Sarah Lowi-Jones at Sheffield City Council who sponsored our first lunchtime get together in early 2018.
Are the original meetup organisers still involved?
Emma: Most are, but it’s a flexible group and expands and changes depending on the time each individual organiser can devote to it. This is really important to us; we all have busy lives to juggle and we wanted to avoid any additional guilt that goes with adding something else onto the “to-do” list that you just can’t squeeze in.
What did you do to get the meetup off the ground? What was attendance like for those first few events?
Emma: The initial meeting was presentations of our own experiences followed by lots of intelligence gathering from the attendees about what they would like to see. I think we had 50 attendees initially and attendance has been pretty solid ever since (we’re limited to 40 people at Sheffield Technology Parks, who kindly host us) with some regulars, but also lots of new faces.
Group response: We did the first meetup at Kollider’s original space at Barkers’ Pool on 25 April 2018. It was really well attended – we had a couple of speakers to kick things off and then we had lots of conversation starters around the room so people could tell us what they’d like the meetup to become. There were robots and games to play with too, and Barnsley DMC sponsored the refreshments.
What were the key principles you built the events on, and have these changed?
Mel: I would say that we’ve always aimed to be very open so that everyone feels welcome and we’ve tried to encourage people who maybe haven’t gone to meetups before. We recognise that people have lives outside work and we strive to accommodate that. We set out our principles on the website early on, and these haven’t changed.
Emma: As well as being open and friendly to attendees we wanted to encourage speakers to feel comfortable with the environment and we’ve welcomed both experienced and new speakers over a wide variety of topics. We’re very grateful for the generosity of everyone who has stood up at the front, I’ve personally learnt loads and benefited from the sharing of experiences. Thank you to everyone who’s presented and been part of making it happen!
Group response: We have done a lot of other things outside of the meetups, including attending careers events at the two universities, talking to students and to school age children and organising activities for Ada Lovelace Day. We also have things we want to do, like mentoring for people working in the industry and more skills-focused activities; we want to inspire the next generation.
How have you developed the ShfWiT meetups?
Mel: We try to come up with speakers and content that responds to the needs and interests that people have expressed, as well as occasionally introducing things that people might not know about. We alternate topic-focussed meetups with an informal gathering (Tech Tea) because people said that sometimes they just want an opportunity to meet and chat with other women in tech, without having a formal agenda. I don’t think we’ve made any significant changes but we have worked hard to make the meetups as accessible and inclusive as possible. We know that we can always do better at that, so we’d welcome any ideas and suggestions.
Group response: We are always trying to give people the opportunity to contribute, to talk about what they’re thinking and be part of the conversation, not just listening to the speakers. We’re here for the community.
Sheffield Women in Tech has continued to host events virtually throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. How did you approach these events in terms of the structure and format?
Mel: I don’t think we changed anything much, apart from making sure the format was workable on Zoom.
Emma: In our physical meet-ups we have badges indicating how much you’d like to be involved so everybody feels comfortable with their level of engagement. We’ve applied the same principles to Zoom, so there’s no pressure for a camera to be turned on or even to speak if you’d prefer not to.
Laura: Our format hasn’t changed, as Mel said. Our Tech Tea, which is less formal and more fluid usually, was a worry at the beginning to take to Zoom, because it is harder to have the flow of conversations when you wait for one person to stop. Breaking out into groups can be difficult as well, but actually it worked. Our attendees talked about what was affecting them and everyone rallied to show support and help find solutions. So while video chats can be limited, we don’t think that it stalled the purpose of our meetings.
What do you think the ShfWiT community has found most valuable about the meetups during lockdown?
Melise: I would expect that continuity of good speakers, topics and delegate participation – all things ShfWiT should pride ourselves on!
Mel: I think people appreciate the continued connection and we’ve also had some good wellbeing conversations.
Group response: We were the first group to go online through Sheffield Digital. The response to the first event showed us that people still really wanted to participate. We have also found that the chat function on Zoom gives you an additional layer of engagement and more ways for people to interact.
What is your plan for future events?
Emma: we try not to plan too far in advance so that topics are fresh and current. We have a backlog of ideas to choose from, generated by past attendees of our events, but we’d still love to hear from more people about what they’d like to see or even if they’d like to present.
Melise: I’ve just joined the ShfWiT Ops Group and we’re meeting soon to discuss this very thing!
Group response: We have a TechTea in June and a meetup in July which may be a hybrid event – both at a physical venue and online at the same time.
What do you think of Sheffield’s meetup scene, and how has Covid-19 likely to have changed things?
Melise: I think Sheffield is spoiled for choice for meetups…there’s something for everyone. I do miss attending in person and the interaction of hugs & handshakes. During lockdown, I’ve attended several meetups – but have turned down just as many. The primary reason? Screen burn-out (webinar fatigue), because my business development day job for The Curve demands loads of meetings via various collaboration apps.
Laura: It’s hard to compare pre-Covid and now – the situation is so different. The need to support each other has been a lot higher during Covid-19. But the impact of video chat has been great at keeping people feeling connected. Meetups online have helped us continue to talk about the experiences and how we are feeling. Some of those conversations are just a bit different at the moment. But it’s important that everyone does talk and support each other.
Anna: I like that this has increased the accessibility of meetups and I want to maintain that. One of the biggest challenges for our demographic is often childcare responsibilities, so being able to attend online is a big plus.
Thank you again to everyone who shared their thoughts for this post. You can find out more about the Sheffield Women In Tech Meetup, including upcoming events, on the website and you can stay up to date by following the meetup on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.