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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.

On the Internet of Women with Moira Weigel

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“Feminism,” the writer and editor Marie Shear famously said in an often-misattributed quote, “is the radical notion that women are people.” The genius of this line, of course, is that it appears to be entirely non-controversial, which reminds us all the more effectively of the past century of fierce debates surrounding women’s equality.

And what about in tech ethics? It would seem equally non-controversial that ethical tech is supposed to be good for “people,” but is the broader tech world and its culture good for the majority of humans who happen to be women? And to the extent it isn’t, what does that say about any of us, and about all of our technology?

I’ve known, since I began planning this TechCrunch series exploring the ethics of tech, that it would need to thoroughly cover issues of gender. Because as we enter an age of AI, with machines learning to be ever more like us, what could be more critical than addressing the issues of sex and sexism often at the heart of the hardest conflicts in human history thus far?

Meanwhile, several months before I began envisioning this series I stumbled across the fourth issue of a new magazine called Logic, a journal on technology, ethics, and culture. Logic publishes primarily on paper — yes, the actual, physical stuff, and a satisfyingly meaty stock of it, at that.

In it, I found a brief essay, “The Internet of Women,” that is a must-read, an instant classic in tech ethics. The piece is by Moira Weigel, one of Logic’s founders and currently a member of Harvard University’s “Society of Fellows” — one of the world’s most elite societies of young academics.

A fast-talking 30-something Brooklynite with a Ph.D. from Yale, Weigel’s work combines her interest in sex, gender, and feminism, with a critical and witty analysis of our technology culture.

In this first of a two-part interview, I speak with Moira in depth about some of the issues she covers in her essay and beyond: #MeToo; the internet as a “feminizing” influence on culture; digital media ethics around sexism; and women in political and tech leadership.

Greg E.: How would you summarize the piece in a sentence or so?

Moira W.: It’s an idiosyncratic piece with a couple of different layers. But if I had to summarize it in just a sentence or two I’d say that it’s taking a closer look at the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played in the so-called “#MeToo moment.”

In late 2017 and early 2018, I became interested in the tensions that the moment was exposing between digital media and so-called “legacy media” — print newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Harper’s and The Atlantic. Digital media were making it possible to see structural sexism in new ways, and for voices and stories to be heard that would have gotten buried, previously.

A lot of the conversation unfolding in legacy media seemed to concern who was allowed to say what where. For me, this subtext was important: The #MeToo moment was not just about the sexualized abuse of power but also about who had authority to talk about what in public — or the semi-public spaces of the Internet.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the ongoing collapse of print media as an industry, and really what people sometimes call the “feminization” of work in general, was an important part of the context.

When people talk about jobs getting “feminized” they can mean many things — jobs becoming lower paid, lower status, flexible or precarious, demanding more emotional management and the cultivation of an “image,” blurring the boundary between “work” and “life.”

The increasing instability or insecurity of media workplaces only make women more vulnerable to the kinds of sexualized abuses of power the #MeToo hashtag was being used to talk about.

Spotify, eBay set standard for fertility benefits, study finds

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The technology sector awards women and same-sex couples the most comprehensive fertility benefit packages, according to a survey by FertilityIQ, an online platform for fertility patients to review doctors and research treatments.

The company asked 30,000 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) patients across industries about their employers’ — or their spouse’s employer’s’ — 2019 fertility treatment policy, and allocated points based on their support for IVF procedures and egg freezing, among other services.

Silicon Valley semiconductor business Analog Devices and eBay led the ranking. The two companies offer employees unlimited IVF cycles with no pre-authorization requirement, meaning employees do not need permission from insurance providers before seeking certain medical services. Pre-authorization has historically impacted lesbian, gay or unpartnered employees from accessing care quickly or at all, FertilityIQ co-founder Jake Anderson explained

Spotify, Adobe, Lyft, Facebook and Pinterest were amongst the highest-ranked technology businesses, too.

“I think a lot of people see the tech sector as being unenlightened when it comes to family values but it’s still the sector that makes the fertility benefits the most widely acceptable,” Anderson, a former consumer internet investor at Sequoia Capital, told TechCrunch.

FertilityIQ’s fertility benefits survey results.

Despite an initial outpouring of skepticism, Facebook and Apple became leaders in the fertility benefit category when they began paying for their female employees to freeze their eggs in 2014. Since then, smaller firms have opted to beef up those benefits to stay competitive with their much larger and richer counterparts.

“The Lyfts, the Airbnbs and the Ubers of the world, who clearly need to compete for those companies for talent, have effectively matched those companies dollar-for-dollar despite a much smaller war-chest,” Anderson said. “These companies that are worth 1/1000th of these bigger companies are effectively going toe-to-toe to offer whatever women need.”

Anderson and his wife, FertilityIQ co-founder Deborah Anderson, noticed improved benefits in 2018 from companies implicated by the #MeToo movement, such as Vice Media, Under Armour and Uber.

“Silicon Valley is notorious for talent moving around on you but it’s probably not coincidental that some of the companies that were in the spotlight in the #MeToo movement have added really generous benefits,” Deborah Anderson told TechCrunch.

Uber, for example, now pays for its employees to complete two IVF cycles but still requires pre-authorization.

One in 7 Americans struggle with infertility and the rate of IVF procedures only continues to increase, with the latest data indicating a 15 percent year-over-year growth rate. IVF costs roughly $22,000 per cycle, per FertilityIQ’s survey, a cost which has similarly increased 15 percent since 2015.

That’s a whole lot of cash for a fertility patient to dole out. If companies foot the bill, they’ll have a better shot at retaining talent.

“Best we can tell, there is no question that employees that get this benefit and use it are more loyal and more likely to stick around,” Jake Anderson said. “The company that helps you build your family is the company that you remain committed to.”

Lively raises $6.5M to bring its comfortable and inclusive lingerie to brick-and-mortar stores

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Roy Raymond opened a little store called Victoria’s Secret, now one of the most popular lingerie businesses in the world, because he was embarrassed to buy lingerie for his wife in department stores.

The brand was founded on the premise that men needed a safe space to buy lingerie for women and women needed a larger variety of sexy, angelic bras and other intimates to wear for men.

But it’s 2018. Women, today, buy lingerie for themselves. They want to be comfortable and functional and beautiful all at the same time.

“[Victoria’s Secret] was always about the angel and the fantasy and a lot of push up and wire so women’s bodies could conform to a marketing campaign,” said Michelle Cordeiro Grant, founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer lingerie startup Lively, and a former Victoria’s Secret senior merchant. “Inspiring women to be Candice Swanepoel is not feasible for most women in the world. I wanted to create a product that is for women and by women.”

Recognizing the gap in the market for bras that don’t stab you with underwire, she built Lively. To date, the company has raised $15 million in venture capital funding, including a $6.5 million Series A investment from GGV Capital, NF Ventures and former Nautica CEO Harvey Sanders announced today. 

“Previously, women had two rows of products in their drawer. One row they wanted to be seen in … and the other row was ones that were more basic and comfortable — but no nobody wanted to be seen in them.”

Though she began work on Lively before the #MeToo movement, Cordeiro Grant says it pushed the business forward in a big way. In the last year, the size-inclusive startup has seen 300 percent growth. What began as a direct-to-consumer company selling $35 bras and underwear has expanded to offer swimwear, activewear and loungewear. Physical retail is next.

“Women have been ready for a conversation like ours,” she said.

The startup is using the capital to open brick-and-mortar stores, a trend among other e-commerce businesses. The first of several stores in the pipeline, a 2,700-square-foot location, opened in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood this July. Stores in Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas are also on the docket, as is a partnership with Nordstrom that will have Lively selling a limited distribution of intimates across 11 stores beginning next week.

Lively competes with several other brands of direct-to-consumer lingerie and activewear, including ThirdLove, AdoreMe, TomboyX and Outdoor Voices.

 

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