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June 25, 2019
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Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

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Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

California may mandate a woman in the boardroom, but businesses are fighting it

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California is moving toward becoming the first state to require companies to have women on their boards –assuming the idea could survive a likely court challenge.

Sparked by debates around fair pay, sexual harassment and workplace culture, two female state senators are spearheading a bill to promote greater gender representation in corporate decision-making. Of the 445 publicly traded companies in California, a quarter of them lack a single woman in their boardrooms.

SB 826, which won Senate approval with only Democratic votes and has until the end of August to clear the Assembly, would require publicly held companies headquartered in California to have at least one woman on their boards of directors by end of next year. By 2021, companies with boards of five directors must have at least two women, and companies with six-member boards must have at least three women. Firms failing to comply would face a fine.

“Gender diversity brings a variety of perspectives to the table that can help foster new and innovative ideas,” said Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, who is sponsoring the bill with Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego.”It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s good for a company’s bottom line.”

Yet critics of the bill say it violates the federal and state constitutions. Business associations say the rule would require companies to discriminate against men wanting to serve on boards, as well as conflict with corporate law that says the internal affairs of a corporation should be governed by the state law in which it is incorporated. This bill would apply to companies headquartered in California.

Jennifer Barrera, senior vice president of policy at the California Chamber of Commerce, argued against the bill and said it only focuses “on one aspect of diversity” by singling out gender.

“This bill basically mandates that we hire the woman above anybody else who we may be fulfilling for purposes of diversity,” she said at a hearing.

Similarly, a legislative analysis of the bill cautioned that it could get challenged on equal protection grounds, and that it would be difficult to defend, requiring the state to prove a compelling government interest in such a quota system for a private corporation.

Five years ago, California was the first state to pass a resolution, authored by Jackson, calling on public companies to increase gender diversity. In response, about 20 percent of the companies headquartered in the state followed through with putting women on their boards, according to the research firm Board Governance Research. But the resolution was non-binding and expired in December 2016.

Other countries have been more proactive. Norway in 2007 was the first country to pass a law requiring 40 percent of corporate board seats be held by women, and Germany set a 30 percent requirement in 2015. Spain, France and Italy have also set quotas for public firms.

In California, smaller companies have fewer female directors. Out of 50 companies with the lowest revenues, 48 percent have no female directors, according to Board Governance Research. Only 8 percent of their board seats are held by women.

The 2017 study said larger companies did a better job of appointing women, with all 50 of the highest-revenue companies having at least one female director and 23 percent of board seats held by women.

“The main issue is still that a lot of companies headquartered here don’t have women on their boards,” said Annalisa Barrett, clinical professor of finance at the University of San Diego’s School of Business. “We quite often like to think of California as progressive and a leader on social issues, so that’s kind of disappointing.”

Barrett publishes an annual report of women on boards in California. Public companies are major employers in the state, and their financial performance has a big impact on public pension funds, mutual funds and investment portfolios. “Financial performance does really impact the broader community,” she said.

The National Association of Women Business Owners, sponsor of the bill, says an economy as big as California’s ought to “set an example globally for enlightened business practice.” In a letter of support, the association cites studies that suggest corporations with female directors perform better than those with no women on their boards.

One University of California, Davis study did find that companies with more women serving on their boards saw a higher return on assets and equity, but the author acknowledges this may not suggest a cause-and-effect.

TechCrunch Include Office Hours with Betaworks in New York AND SF

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Betaworks is hosting TechCrunch’s Include Office Hours for the month of May. For the first time ever, Include Office Hours will be bi-coastal – held in San Francisco and New York on the same day at 2pm local time at each location. On Tuesday, May 29th, Partners Peter Rojas and Matt Hartman will be meeting with startup founders in SF and NYC, respectively. Founders can apply here.

TechCrunch started the  Include program in 2014 with the aim of utilizing its networks to open opportunities for underrepresented and underserved founders in tech. One of the principle elements of this program is the Include Office Hours program. Throughout the year, TechCrunch parters with parters at various VC firms to connect with founders in private 20-minute meetings. Founders will get critical feedback and advice on various aspects of their business.

Founders from various backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Underrepresented and underserved founders include, but are not limited to veteran, female, Latino/a, Black, LGBTQ and handicapable founders.

The May Include Office Hours will be hosted by betworks on May 29th from 2-4pm local time in each city. “Betaworks is a startup studio and venture capital fund focusing on building and investing at in engineering and design driven consumer technology products.” Apply here.

Meet the participating partners:

Matt Hartman, Partner

Matt Hartman is a partner at betaworks ventures. Prior to joining betaworks, Matt built ReferBoost (licensed to Apartments.com), and was at Hot Potato (acquired by Facebook). He began his career building the technology platform for Trammell Crow Company (acquired by CBRE) and is the inventor of Patent #8189781 related to the protection of digital images.

Matt studied Cognitive Science and Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania and holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.”

Peter Rojas, Partner

“Peter Rojas is a founding partner at betaworks ventures, a seed stage venture capital fund based in New York and San Francisco. He also co-founded several startups, including Weblogs Inc. (acquired by AOL in 2005), where he created and was editor-in-chief of both Engadget and Joystiq; Gizmodo (formerly Gawker Media, now part of Univision); music discovery service RCRD LBL; and gdgt, a social commerce platform (acquired by AOL in 2013). Prior to betaworks ventures he worked at AOL as VP of Strategy and later as Co-director of Alpha, the company’s experimental products group.”

 

If you are Partner/Managing Director of a firm and are interested in hosting an Include Office Hour, email neesha@techcrunch.com.

Apple diversity head Denise Young Smith apologizes for controversial choice of words at summit

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Apple’s Denise Young Smith sent an apology to team members at Apple today over comments she made at the One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia.

Last week, while attending a summit in Bogota, I made some comments as part of a conversation on the many factors that contribute to diversity and inclusion….I regret the choice of words I used to make this point,” said Smith in the memo.

As the company’s Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, Smith has been the tip of Apple’s D&I spear during an era of increasing pressure on big tech companies to improve their inclusiveness. Smith came under fire from diversity advocates and commentators over a specific statement she made during a panel she was on alongside activist DeRay Mckesson and Michael Hastings, which was moderated by Aamna Mohdin of Quartz.

TechCrunch obtained Smith’s email to her team, which reads as follows:

Colleagues,

I have always been proud to work for Apple in large part because of our steadfast commitment to creating an inclusive culture. We are also committed to having the most diverse workforce and our work in this area has never been more important. In fact, I have dedicated my twenty years at Apple to fostering and promoting opportunity and access for women, people of color and the underserved and unheard. 

Last week, while attending a summit in Bogota, I made some comments as part of a conversation on the many factors that contribute to diversity and inclusion. 

I regret the choice of words I used to make this point. I understand why some people took offense. My comments were not representative of how I think about diversity or how Apple sees it. For that, I’m sorry. 

More importantly, I want to assure you Apple’s view and our dedication to diversity has not changed.  

Understanding that diversity includes women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and all underrepresented minorities is at the heart of our work to create an environment that is inclusive of everyone. 

Our commitment at Apple to increasing racial and gender diversity is as strong as it’s ever been. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but there is much work to be done. I’m continually reminded of the importance of talking about these issues and learning from each other. 

Best,

Denise

The focus of the blowback was a segment of Smith’s panel that came as a follow on discussion related to an earlier question about whether black women were a priority for her in her role. Because a lot of the resulting discussion on the web has been based on snippets of the conversation, I’ll present a chunk of the dialopg here, to give more context. I’ll bold the bit that seems to have caused the most controversy.

Aamna Mohdin: I wanted to touch on something that you said, Denise, that it’s not only just about numbers in Silicon Valley, but you’ve taken on a new role in Apple for inclusion and diversity, and a lot of that is going to be about the numbers. And I just kind of wanted to know whether black women is a priority for you in this new role? 

Denise Young Smith: I’ll say this. So first of all, it’s a new role, but it’s not. I’ve been black and a woman for a long time…I have been doing this work, I have been playing this role for a very long time. I have been a first, I’ve been an only, when I was at the same conference that I just referenced, there were numbers and numbers of black women together — successful, professional, astonishing black women, and we were sharing stories and every single one of us could share the same stories about being in a room, in a meeting and someone would assume you were the assistant, the secretary, that you were not the manager, you were not the boss and that your staff person that was three levels below you was your boss. We all shared those stories.

Denise Young Smith: Aamna, you also asked me about my work at Apple, or in particular, who do I focus on? I focus on everyone. Diversity is the human experience. I get a little bit frustrated when diversity or the term diversity is tagged to the people of color or the women or the LGBT or whatever because that means they’re carrying that around…because that means that we are carrying that around on our foreheads.

And I’ve often told people a story– there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation. The issue is representation and mix and bringing all the voices into the room that can contribute to the outcome of any situation. So I focus on everyone, but I also focus on allies and alliances because to DeRay’s point, there’s an incredible amount of power in those who have platforms or those who have the benefit of greater representation to tell the stories of those who do not. So whenever we can accomplish that, then that is a win for everyone. And I think that is something that people, that we all tend to… particularly those who protest things that we are fearful about, we can all win in this story, and so that’s what I try to focus on at Apple.

The phrasing is very poor. On the face of it the meaning is that there really is no need to look beyond any sort of seeming homogeneity within Silicon Valley’s tech workforce (which is mostly white and overwhelmingly male). Instead, the phrase appears to allow for Apple to make diversity and inclusion hiring decisions based solely on diversity of thought. There’s nothing inherently wrong with diverse thinking, but treating it with primary importance eliminates the many benefits of a racial-and-gender-diverse workforce and many see it as, frankly, a complete cop-out in trying to solve a very real problem. 

“Diversity of thought” has long been a lever used by critics of the concept of D&I work to push back against meaningful diversity efforts. Already this week, some critics of the concept of inclusive diversity work (racists, men who believe they are inherently superior, etc) were pointing at Smith’s comments with an air of smugness — likely not her intended effect.

The thrust of Smith’s email is that she realizes the mistake in using this example, and just how damaging it could be to the perception of Apple’s D&I work. Apple’s overall numbers – 9% black, 12% Hispanic, 19% Asian and 56% white, are still poor. The picture gets slightly dimmer yet when you consider that the majority of those non-white employees are in Apple’s retail workforce, and are not employed in technical or leadership positions. Even so, Apple is among the top performers in tech overall — which shows you how rough the situation still is — and is gaining slowly.

Smith has been at Apple a long time, and was promoted first by Steve Jobs to a position leading Retail HR and then again by CEO Tim Cook earlier this year to be the company’s first VP of Diversity and Inclusion. Smith also pioneered Apple’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College fund, which supports students enrolled in HBCUs with $40M in funding to foster and hire students coming from these colleges.

Interviewing.io hopes to close the engineer diversity gap with anonymous interviews

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Take out your name, resume and any other identifying information then hop on the internet and show your skills to a recruiting manager. That’s the way Interviewing.io does it to ensure a truly blind interview for big tech companies like Facebook and Lyft.

And, says cofounder Aline Lerner, women and minorities are flocking to the platform for that reason.

“We are seeing an influx of female and other minority users because of the anonymity and not having to deal with stereotypes,” Lerner tells TechCrunch.

Most of the major tech companies have been criticized for their lack of diversity in the engineering department. Google most recently came under fire when one of its engineers suggested women were not biologically capable to handle the role.

About 20 percent of users on Interviewing.io are female, according to the company. Not a huge number, but it’s still higher than the overall percentage of women working in software engineering jobs in Silicon Valley.

The bigger piece of the pie — 40 percent — are non-traditional engineers, meaning older folks and those who didn’t graduate at a top university.

Interviewing.io levels the playing field for these workers by allowing them to log on, pick a time slot and start anonymously practicing their skills for evaluation in front of a live recruiter. The person evaluating them on the other end doesn’t know anything else about the person trying out other than whether or not they are able to complete the task assigned.

Assuming all goes well with the evaluation, the person hoping for a job might then be asked to come in for an interview — of course, they’ll likely still need to meet with the company face-to-face but the startup eliminates at least one major hurdle for minorities and the marginalized by getting that interview based on merit rather than privilege.

Lerner, who worked as a software engineer before starting her own recruiting firm, knows all too well the struggle women face in the job hunt.

“One of the main issues is companies rely on recruiters whether in-house or otherwise. They’re doing the best they can but they often don’t have the technical backgrounds so they have to look at other things like a resume or what school the person went to,” Lerner said. “In light of a dire engineering shortage, that strategy doesn’t make much sense.”

Recalling her early days as a line cook where jobs were based on your cooking skills and not where you came from, Lerner thought up a more anonymized way to level the field and make it easy for recruiters to verify top-notch talent through an anonymized system.

Now, says Lerner, about 3,000 engineers sign up to look for jobs through Interview.io and she’s been able to get Facebook, Lyft, Twitch, Yelp and other well-known tech companies to turn to her platform to bring in good engineers in a system that might weed them out otherwise.

The startup recently pulled in $3 million in seed money led by Susa Ventures, with participation from Social Capital, Ulu Ventures, Kapor Capital, TenOneTen Ventures, Manifest Investment Partners, and others.

Lerner says she plans to use the new funds to continue growing the company and to launch a new university platform, out today, which will enable recruiters to find young, eager college talent

“We just want to create a system where anyone can show what they can do,” Lerner said.

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