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June 25, 2019
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sexism

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.

Why women are coming forward about harassment and discrimination

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It’s been the talk of the summer in Silicon Valley. CEOs at Uber and SoFi lost their jobs after whistleblowers came forward, alleging sexism and harassment. Powerful venture capitalists, including Dave McClure from 500 Startups lost their jobs after women, including Sarah Kunst, accused him of making inappropriate advances when seeking a job at his venture firm.

Workplace harassment isn’t new, but we’re talking about it more than ever. So what’s inspiring these women to speak up?

Kunst, who joined us on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, said that she felt encouraged after watching other women share their stories. “Seeing women like Elen Pao, seeing women like Susan Fowler come forward tell their stories, be believed and realizing that that’s what it took.” She said that she first tried to address the situation privately, but it wasn’t resolved.

Kunst, who’s a founder and CEO at Proday, says that too many work environments aren’t receptive to a discussion about these problems. “If you’re a manager…and no one has ever come to you with an issue about being harassed or feeling discriminated against, you are not encouraging open communication in your company,” she said, suggesting that these issues are common enough that they’re happening everywhere.

She was joined on the panel by Kim Scott, a former Google exec who now advises executives at companies like Dropbox and Twitter. She also authored the book, “Radical Candor.” Hilary Gosher, managing director at Insight Venture Partners and board member at Parity Partners was on stage as well.

“For so long women were told you’ll never get a job, you’ll blow up your life if you come forward,” said Scott. She advocates “teaching people the importance of bringing it up early. Not making a big deal of it is going to prevent these big explosive blowups later.”

Gosher believes that “people aren’t going to change unless they’re forced to change.” She said that the dramatic Uber situation should be a warning for other leaders. “Some of the boards like Uber turned a blind eye for many months until things became very obvious.”

The conversation was largely solutions-driven, focusing on what men and women can be doing to improve work environments, making them an inclusive place for everyone.

Click the link above to watch the full conversation.

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