We interviewed Clare Simpson, Product Director at Manchester based smart garment technology company Smartlife, about wearable tech and being a woman in a male dominated industry.
Could you tell us a little bit about your role at Smartlife and how your career has lead you into the tech sector?
I was always destined for tech. As a child I used to program for fun and I learned how to build my own desktop computers. I considered a degree in Computing but Psychology, the science of the human mind and behaviour, won the battle. The link between my interest in the two makes a lot of sense now in the age of AI!
In the workplace I started out as an IT Project Manager for Lloyds TSB, then an insight analyst, writing SQL and analysing large volumes of data to understand customer behaviour. I left Lloyds to take a Head of Analytics role for a direct marketing company, reporting to the CTO who maintained a strong emphasis on innovative technology to drive call centre performance.
My other passion is health and fitness, so when the opportunity to join a health tech startup arose I just couldn’t say no. My role at Smartlife is Product Director. As a small team of just 9 our job titles don’t really mean much and we all muck in to do what needs to be done. You’ll typically find me developing and testing garments, analysing test data, developing actionable insight, and guiding app development. On top of this I do all of the company’s marketing, and I support our CEO, Martin Ashby, in pretty much anything that needs doing, from financial forecasting and bookkeeping to business development.
Smartlife have recently embarked on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with the University of Kent. How did this come about and what attracted you to working with the School of Sports and Exercise Science (SSES) to develop your technology?
The KTP came about due to a chance meeting with Dr John Dickinson. We met on the set of a TV programme (that never actually aired) looking at what consumers might be shopping for in the future. I was really interested in John’s work on the diagnosis and treatment of respiratory issues in athletes and John was really interested in Smartlife’s sensor capabilities. Realising we had some mutual goals, and a first-to-market opportunity for a garment that gives feedback on breathing mechanics, we kept in touch. When the time was right we applied for the KTP, with invaluable support from Clare Witcher from Kent Innovation and Enterprise, and the rest is history.
What can you tell us about the work you’re doing with SSES?
We’ve embarked on a 24 month project to develop a garment that can diagnose and aid treatment of dysfunctional breathing and other breathing disorders. The current system of choice for diagnosing such issues is OEP (optoelectronicplethysmography), which involves placing a large number of markers on the torso and using cameras to look at how the chest and abdomen moves with each breath. A garment solution has advantages over OEP in terms of geography, time to administer and cost.
Our project was recently featured on ITV Meridian, which can be watched on YouTube:
Wearable Technology is a new and booming market. What makes your tech stand out from the crowd?
There are many great features of Smartlife’s tech but what really makes us stand out from the competition is how discreet and comfortable our garments are. We’re guided by strong design principles and have put lots of work into developing a high-performing textile sensor and extremely compact electronic brain, with absolutely no need for wires or hard components in the garment. We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved and how versatile and capable our solution is.
What impact, if any, does being a woman in a male dominated industry have on you?
I’m very used to working in a male dominated environment and I don’t recall my gender ever being a major problem for me at work (other than sometimes being my own victim of a typically female mindset when it comes to self-belief and taking opportunities).
Actually, I think being a woman can be an advantage sometimes. People’s stereotypes can make it easy to shock or impress them, which can help a woman stand out in the workplace. I’ve even been the subject of positive discrimination in a company run by a female CEO where my (male) boss wanted to be seen as promoting women in the workplace.
I don’t think of myself as different to anyone else and I don’t expect others to either, but when they do, I use it to my advantage.
The tech sector overall has a large gender gap – what do you think is contributing this and what can be done to close it?
As an analyst I couldn’t help but look up some statistics on women in the workforce and it supported my view that the gender gap is already narrowing and parental status has been a key contributing factor.
The gender gap is narrowing. Overall the employment rate for women is rising whereas it’s declining for men. The gender gap in the top 10% of earners is lower for under 30s (>45% female) than it is for over 30s (<38% female).
There is no getting away from biology. Only women can bear a child, and historically they’ve tended to be the primary carer. The under 30 age group is less likely to have children, and women with children are less likely to be employed than their childfree counterparts. In fact the employment rates for men and women without children are broadly similar (~80%).
In my view things are already changing for the better. Awareness is high thanks to recent media coverage of gender inequality and a multitude of organisations exist that support and promote women in the workplace (e.g. womenofwearables.com). Ensuring equal opportunity should be the priority and modern laws on parental leave will go a long way to establishing that. Companies should simply hire the best person for the job, regardless of demographic.
And finally what would your advice be for women who are interested in getting a job in tech?
Firstly, be authentic, listen to yourself and be aware of your own preferences. If you choose a career in an area you’re passionate about and a culture that fits your own values then it’ll never feel like work.
Secondly, don’t be afraid if you don’t have a relevant qualification or experience because every industry needs people with a wide variety of skills. You might be able to take an indirect route into your dream job.
Thirdly, don’t be afraid to take a chance. If you can cope with the worst that can happen then you might as well take the risk.