Saturday, June 15, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Hold the Right People Accountable Edition

I was planning a links post around the theme of various ways to make the tech world better- but then I went on a little Twitter rant about holding the men in power accountable for increasing the representation of women in high status fields, or in fact for increasing the representation of any under-represented group. And I realized that the only non-women in tech related link was an article from Bruce Schneier comparing the current state of the internet to a feudal society. That is a good article. You should go read it.

But most of the links in this post are about why women are under-represented in tech. My Twitter rant was sparked by an article by Linda Holmes about movies, and how the vast majority of the movies are about men. There was a section at the end of this post that set me off:

"Somebody asked me this morning what "the women" are going to do about this. I don't know. I honestly am at the point where I have no idea what to do about it. Stop going to the movies? Boycott everything?

They put up Bridesmaids, we went. They put up Pitch Perfect, we went. They put up The Devil Wears Prada, which was in two-thousand-meryl-streeping-oh-six, and we went (and by "we," I do not just mean women; I mean we, the humans), and all of it has led right here, right to this place. Right to the land of zippedy-doo-dah. You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says "win some, lose some" and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every "surprise success" about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock."

And that reminded me of how people expect women to fix our own under-representation in the the upper levels of the business world. As Avivah Wittenberg-Cox has been pointing out for awhile now, this is not really a problem we can ask women to fix, because the women aren't the ones who have the power to change the culture and how promotions are made. The people with the most power in that regard are the people in charge- who are mostly men.

It also made me think about a post by Elizabeth Yin about what female founders really face in Silicon Valley. As she points out in her post, part of the problem is that venture capitalists (much like movie executives, probably) base a lot of their decisions on pattern recognition, looking for opportunities that are similar to successful ventures they've backed in the past. And since there haven't been a lot of female founders, there haven't been a lot of successful female founders, and so on and so on.... a self-reinforcing cycle.

If you wonder how skewed the ratios are in Silicon Valley, take a look at this series of graphics from Mother Jones showing the severe under-representation of women and non-whites in tech.

And if you want evidence that the white men in charge don't generally see this as their problem, read the first comment on that last post. (Although, in general, reading the comments on any article about women in tech is a depressing undertaking, and I don't recommend it.)

Someone named Sebastian Meisinger asks:

"How is it a problem? If it is a problem, how did it happen? What do you propose we do to fix it?"

Why is this a problem? I think it should be obvious, but since it apparently isn't, here is my answer, in the form of a tweet I made earlier this week:

Sure, techies can and do fix problems that aren't directly relevant to them. It happens all the time. But the first step is for someone who sees and understands the problem to also understand what technology can do to fix it. The relative homogeneity of the people who understand what technology can do to fix problems leads to a relative homogeneity of the problems that get tackled. This is part of the reason why we have so many apps to fix the problems (or problem-like issues) of young, well-off men. (Another part is the pattern recognition tendencies of venture capital that I mentioned above.)

I was prompted to write that tweet by coming across the Black Girls Code initiative. I have since contributed to their fundraising campaign. We all suffer from the lack of diversity in tech. We should all try to fix it.

As regular readers know, I read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and I found some useful things in it. Sandberg herself acknowledges that the changes women can make themselves are only a part of the solution. I think it is high time that we start expecting the white men in charge to start owning this problem. They are the ones with the power to change things. Their companies and organizations will benefit greatly from the new ideas and different perspectives that diversity brings. Honestly, I don't know why boards aren't demanding management teams fix this problem. Think of the market opportunities that the tech giants are not addressing!

OK, actually I do know why most boards aren't demanding their management teams fix the problem. They are just as blinded by the lack of diversity as the management teams themselves are.

We often focus on the sexists. But I think we should also applaud the men who get it right- and there are plenty of them, in tech and elsewhere. So I'll end on an upbeat note, with two examples of the men in charge stepping up and tackling the problem.

First, from the tech world, there is the example of Etsy, which has a largely female customer base but was largely staffed by men. The CTO Kellan Elliot-McCrea, recognized the problem and decided to stop trying to solve it by poaching women from other companies. Instead, he invested in developing female junior engineers. And it is working.

And finally, Lt. Gen David Morrison, the Australian Chief of the Army, delivers an amazing take down of sexists in the ranks. Watching this clip makes me want to stand up and cheer:

(I found this clip via Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon)

There are men in power who get it. So let's start expecting all men in positions of authority to get it. Let's start judging them when they fail to tackle the problem. When they shrug their shoulders and say that the problem is that there aren't enough good women or people of color to hire, let's reply, Yes, but what have you done to try to fix that? Any one of those tech giants could step in and bring Black Girls Code to full-funding in an instant. Why don't they? Let's stop obsessing about what Sheryl Sandberg gets wrong on this issue and start pointing out what Mark Zuckerberg gets wrong.


  1. Go Lt. Gen David Morrison!! The Australian Army should be proud to have such a great leader.

  2. 'Show moral courage' - it is such an impressive piece to camera. In reading about the speech elsewhere, I came across this link to Lt Gen David Morrison's speech on International Womens Day this year. It makes interesting reading to see what actions are being taken to improve the attractiveness of a career in the army. A link is here:

    Right at the end he refers to being a member of a group set up under the Australian Human Rights Commission called "Male Champions of Change" I'm not entirely sure what they do, but it's certainly an impressive list of men.

  3. As the daughter of a retired U.S. Army officer, I KNOW that there are leaders in our military who not only agree with Gen. Morrison, but are just as passionate about fairness, equality, and decency. I want to be able to hear from them as easily and clearly as I can hear from him.

  4. Anonymous5:43 AM

    As a black woman in the UK, who has just decided to learn coding and try to step into a hitherto alien world for me. Your post is spot on. Critical mass change can only be achieved with all our inputs not just leaving to the women.

  5. People in a department I know well used to sit around and wring their hands about the deplorable diversity stats in the department - why don't we have more people of color? why don't we have more women? and on and on and on. And I always wanted to say: "Stop being racist. Stop being sexist." (I used to hear breathtakingly sexist things at departmental meetings.) Solution! Whenever a group acts like it's a mysterious problem with no solution - as though the people of color and women are supposed to appear from the woodworks and present themselves to solve the white dude's problem - I am very skeptical of their commitment to fixing the problem. They didn't want to find a solution; they wanted to put on a play called "We care about diversity. We are good people." and perform it for each other. (They did the same thing with making t-t faculty feel more welcomed. My response: Welcome them! It's not complicated. I did actually make the latter suggestion to someone and he seemed so confused by what I was saying, like he couldn't quite work through it.)

  6. "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept." Damn. I love this guy. Thanks for posting the video.

  7. I really wanted to sign up for this women-only programming course, but the timing is not right for me now :)

    I love that they are tackling this by training more people. They require a technical background, but not specifically coding.


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