The Key to the Women's Movement is Technology

2018-04-15

girl power emojis
Source: Women You Should Know

With 3,000 words, Susan Fowler sparked an uprising. The former Uber engineer’s essay recounting the sexual harassment, discrimination, and negligence she endured while at the ride-sharing company was shared thousands of times across social media and made its way through the 24-hour news cycle in blaring headlines. Amid the bonfire, Uber was left to deal with a flood of similar accusations, a fervent #DeleteUber boycott, and the ousting of top executives including its CEO. A year later, the flames have yet to be put out.

Put aptly by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the most visible face of female leadership in Silicon Valley, “Every tool and technology ever built has been used for bad and good. The goal is to minimize the bad and maximize the good.” Fowler’s story is a shining example of this. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook give women (and men) the power to share their stories, try their allegations in the court of public opinion, and organize en masse in movements – and hashtags. #MeToo! #WomensMarch! But the onus to do good doesn’t just lie with users. It’s with the builders as well. Technology designed with women in mind can help combat gender biases and address the most pressing issues women face.

Some tech titans have gotten the memo, albeit belatedly. Investing in women is not only the right thing to do, but good for business. Alexa, Amazon’s personal assistant now identifies herself as a feminist, no longer playing to sexist tropes like “Make me a sandwich”. The expansion of female character emojis announced by Google offers girls a better representation of who they can be: programmers, teachers, and doctors; not just salsa dancers and blushing brides. Last week, Twitter, Reddit, and Discord cracked down on “deepfakes”, banning AI-generated media that unethically swaps the faces of pornstars for those of non-consenting individuals.

But it’s not enough for firms with well-staffed PR and HR departments to retroactively think of women in response to backlash or as a diversity initiative. In national conversation, silence breakers like Fowler have defined clearly the problems. The gender pay gap. Women’s participation in politics. Gender-based violence. It is now our prerogative to build on their momentum by building the solutions. Gender equality should be core to every company’s mission from the onset.

Tech’s role in a post-Kalanick, post-Weinstein workplace is evident by the diverse number of start-ups (a quick Google search identified seven on the front page) that have popped up in response to sexual harassment concerns. Take AllVoices, a web platform where “anyone can anonymously report instances of harassment, discrimination, or bias (either witnessed or experienced firsthand) directly to their CEO and company board.” Claire Schmidt, a former VP at 20th Century Fox, cites conceptualizing the startup after speaking with survivors of sexual assault and harassment, HR professionals, and technologists to better understand the issues, and counts Fowler as an advisor.

Whether AllVoices is effective in appeasing employees’ fears of reporting harassment and keeping HR and upper management accountable remains to be seen. But in tackling complex, systematic gender inequities embedded deep within our culture, these startups are a steady step in the right direction. Practicing “user-centred design” means recognising that consumers aren’t sexless, and that products and services should be created intentionally with women and men in mind. Listen to what women have to say. Incorporate their concerns and ideas into the roadmap.

Now, this isn’t to say that technology is the end-all, be-all solution, or that it should be. Critics will be quick to point out that the industry is battling its own demons of a top-down “bro culture” that shirks and oppresses women. And although hard to picture for most of us who are reading this on our laptop or mobile screens, there is a growing digital divide in the U.S. Nearly 97 million Americans don’t use social media or have Internet at home, and these gaps disproportionately affect the marginalized – the poor, people of colour, the elderly, and rural communities.

For all its faults, the key to the tech sector’s triumphs is its workforce of entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and marketers. They’ve mastered an elusive skill – building products and services that consumers want, need, depend on. Exhibit A, the proliferation of mobile phones has made our work days longer, attention spans shorter, and perspectives broader. “Smartphone addiction” is a real pandemic, marked by an inability to put down our devices and an anxiety from approval seeking (you’ve liked and commented this, right?). Sprinkle in a knack for disruption, hyper growth, and raising hefty funds, the industry has perfected the recipe for changing behaviours and mindsets at scale. And as technology continues to innovate at hyperloop speeds and infiltrate every aspect of our lives, advances in machine learning, blockchain, and augmented reality make potential applications to fight gender inequities seem limitless.

So it’s time to get to work. For companies whose mission statements often include some underlying verbiage of “making the world better”, the tech sector should practice what it preaches. Technology should make women’s lives better too.