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Samantha PayneFashion Louise Ford

Samantha Payne is paving a future for girls in tech

The co-founder of Open Bionics talks to us about how we can get more women involved in the tech industries and how toys might be the key to challenging its bro culture

In collaboration with Barbie, Girls Like Us opens a window onto five women who have made their dreams a reality. Through this series of features, we hope to inspire a new generation of girls to conquer challenges and follow their own paths.

To be a girl in 2016 means anything is possible – with women in industries such as fashion, music, and film proving just that, starting a revolution and creating a name for themselves on their own terms. However, despite huge steps forward in many career paths for women, within the science and tech industries there’s still a huge, undeniable disparity between the sexes in terms of equal opportunities.

That’s by no means to say there aren’t strong, empowered female role models working to ensure a better future for girls interested in science, technology, and more specifically bionics. Samantha Payne is the Chief Operating Officer of Open Bionics, a company founded by Payne and her co-founder Joel Gibbard in 2014. Through 3D printing, she is pioneering affordable, aesthetically pleasing bionic limbs for amputees. Not only is Payne building more accessible technology for those that really need it, but she is also committed to creating a more equal workplace for girls wishing to enter into these fields.

From calling out the lack of women in conference lineups to recommending her female peers for opportunities, Payne is a woman that truly embodies our Girls Like Us series — made in collaboration with Barbie, and shining a light on inspirational women working to change the landscape of their chosen professions. Below we sat down with the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder to discuss education for women, how science can be a creative profession and challenging the bro culture of the tech community…

Backtracking a bit, how did you get to the point at which you’re at today?

Samantha Payne: I have a degree in Journalism. As soon as I left university I had a job working for an arts charity, working with wearable tech projects helping young girls at risk of sexual abuse — helping them create a piece of technology which would raise awareness to their peers of what an abusive relationship looks like. So I was working on that project, I was freelancing as a tech journalist and I also had a job marketing tech startups.

I was already in this really strong ecosystem that Bristol has. So I was already really interested in the new technologies people are building in Bristol, and was already embedded in the community – it was really exciting seeing other people raise money and build projects and go through their research and development. So I just really wanted to be part of it and to build something.

Would you consider what you do to be creative as opposed to purely scientific?

Samantha Payne: It’s very creative. Whenever you’re building a product it’s a very creative experience and a very creative process. You stick with an idea, then you test your idea and then you iterate on it and you improve it. You have to really think about the problem with a new angle, otherwise you’re not going to be offering a solution that’s new or interesting.

“What about if a young girl has a real keen interest in science and technology, but she doesn’t see in any of the school brochures young girls in chemistry sets? She’s not going to aspire to be that role if she can’t see herself in that role” – Samantha Payne

What can we do in terms of education to encourage more young women to take up scientific subjects and pursue careers in science?

Samantha Payne: One, toys. Things that kids can play with that encourage an interest in electronics or encourage an interest in software like the Games Developer Barbie. At school we should have – and this is already happening as well – software classes are being taught and coding classes or clubs. The more accessible and the more creative you can make the project, the more fun and interesting it is for the children. To really inspire young kids sometimes it’s good that you’re not addressing a problem. Technology start-ups are now about building a product that serves a need and a want. The projects should just be fun, arty, and allow children to experiment and get really creative with building something.

Barbie became a Game Developer this year; do you think this will encourage more young women to consider careers in the tech industries?

Samantha Payne: It is essential for brands like Barbie to be really responsible in how they’re marketing to these young girls because they have such a huge influence over what these young girls think about themselves through playing with these toys. So the Game Developer Barbie for example, the doll with the red hair – she’s wearing trainers, carrying her laptop with a real code on-screen, that’s really cool. You get young girls thinking about coding and making games, and maybe freelancing or working from home or working remotely and becoming your own boss. It’s super essential. Everyone benefits from it. You suddenly get a new generation of entrepreneurs or a new generation of software engineers and scientists and it’s all through toy engineering.

You mentioned Bristol is booming with tech start-ups, but has there always been an obvious gender divide within the industry you work in?

Samantha Payne: Yeah, absolutely. There are fewer female founders, there are fewer females in technical roles. Usually, the core engineering teams in companies are always male dominated. As a company, we make a conscious effort to really check our bias. It’s very easy for someone who thinks they don’t have a bias to actually have a subconscious one, so myself and my co-founder educated ourselves around all these different types of biases a person can have when you’re going through an interviewing process.

We purposely post jobs to women engineering job sites, women in tech job sites and women in tech networks. We make a conscious effort to find that talent that is untapped, because when tech startups post for jobs, they post in the usual, generic places. They don’t really go for the niche websites where women hang out.

How can we encourage more women into technology as an industry?

Samantha Payne: If we want to see more women in engineering, the question is, are women being held back from these job roles? And if so, what is holding them back? What about if a young girl has a real keen interest in science and technology, but she doesn’t see herself in any of the school brochures young girls in chemistry sets? She’s not going to aspire to be that role. I feel like that really holds back a lot of young girls from going into science and tech concentrated colleges — and then there’s the problem once you get to university  you have often male dominated classes.

It can be really difficult being the one woman on your course, and then if you have a bad experience in your university class. You finish and you get your engineering degree — but you hated the makeup of that class so much and culture of that class, you aren’t going to enter into that industry. I have friends that are female engineers that are often excluded from activities outside because they’re called ‘lads social nights’, it can be very isolating. So what that’s doing is signaling to her, is this what the rest of my careers going to be like? Am I going to be the only woman on this engineering floor? Am i going to be entering a ‘bro culture’ in these engineering companies?

“If we want to see more women in engineering, the question is, are women being held back from these job roles? And if so, what is holding them back?” – Samantha Payne

On a personal level, what are some steps we can make to make the tech industries a more equal place?

Samantha Payne: I always call inequality out when is see it. So if I go to a conference and it’s an all-male panel I will call it out on social media. I will @ the organisers and I will be like ‘this is 2016, this isn’t acceptable anymore. This isn’t just about women either, it’s about different ethnicities. There are other voices who deserve to have a platform. This is as much down to men who notice it to call it out. I feel like that’s really powerful, having the support from our male colleagues. It’s one thing just being critical online, but I feel like that’s not helping the problem. I always try to be proactive.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

Samantha Payne: The most rewarding part so far has been doing user tests with young amputees. The families have been looking for a bionic hand that their kids will love for ages, because obviously families just want to make life as nice as possible for their kids. So when they say how the kids react to this new kind of bionic hand, it’s very heartwarming and feels good. It feels like we’re finally getting somewhere. That’s been the most rewarding part so far. I feel like the most rewarding point of my job will be when we have our product CE marked, tested on amputees and ready to sell.

Who has specifically inspired you in terms of your career?

Samantha Payne: I get inspired by every time I meet a new woman in technology. I’m inspired by the women that I’ve met who have built really amazing companies. They’re super inspiring because of what they’re doing and that they’ve done it all by themselves. They show great tenacity and leadership and they don’t take any rubbish. They’re really strong leaders. I find that very inspiring, being around a strong leader.