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June 25, 2019
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women in tech

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.

Meet GV investors at the TechCrunch Include March Office Hours

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GV (formerly Google Ventures) is partnering with TechCrunch Include to host Office Hours for underserved and underrepresented founders on March 5th. From 10:30am – 12:30pm, GV investors Dave Munichiello, Graham Spencer, Laura Melahn, Brian Bendett and Barkha Gvalani will meet for one-on-one sessions with founders. Apply here.

In 2014, TechCrunch launched the Include program, which facilitates opportunities for underserved and underrepresented founders in tech through our vast network and resources. Include Office Hours is one of TechCrunch’s initiatives. TechCrunch partners with VC firms to give founders access to investors for guidance as well as product and business model feedback. Investors host private 20-minute one-on-one meetings with founders, roundtables or lunches.

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

The March Include Office Hours will be hosted by GV (formerly Google Ventures) on March 5th from 10:30am – 12:30pm PT. Founded in 2009, GV is a venture fund based in California with more than 300 investments. Apply here.

Meet the participating investors:

Dave Munichiello – General Partner

Dave is a general partner at GV and leads the team’s investments in data, platforms and infrastructure. Prior to GV, Dave built and led enterprise software sales and operations teams for highly technical products, under pressure in rapidly changing markets.

As a senior executive at Kiva Systems, he helped grow the enterprise-enabling robotics and software platform to $120 million in annual revenue before it was purchased by Amazon. Dave’s career prior to Kiva included management consulting for The Boston Consulting Group and leading teams as a Captain in the U.S. military’s most elite units. His military leadership roles ranged from running a high-tech organization in Europe to serving as an aide-de-camp to the four-star general responsible for U.S. forces in Europe, Africa and Afghanistan to deploying with elite special operations teams worldwide, ensuring they were enabled by the world’s most advanced technologies.

Dave is a combat veteran and former paratrooper.

Graham Spencer – Managing Partner

Graham Spencer is a managing partner at GV. He was an engineering director at Google following the 2006 acquisition of JotSpot, which he co-founded with Joe Kraus. Graham was one of the original six founders of Excite.com and was the chief technology officer of the company until its sale to @Home.

In 1999, Graham left Excite@Home to co-found DigitalConsumer.org, a 50,000-member nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to protecting fair-use rights for digital media. Graham is also on the board of the Santa Fe Institute.

Laura Melahn – Investing Partner

Laura joined GV in 2011 and is a partner on the investing team. Previously, she established GV’s marketing function, working with their portfolio on branding and growth.

Laura named Calico, Alphabet’s company aiming to slow aging and counteract age-related diseases. Prior to joining GV, Laura was a product marketing manager at Google, where she worked on Search, Maps, Analytics and the brand. She developed the Street View snowmobile for the 2010 Winter Olympics and helped bring Search Stories to TV. Previously, Laura conducted research at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and in the University of Oxford biochemistry department.

Brian Bendett – Investing Partner

Brian is a partner on the GV investing team focusing on investments in platforms, machine learning and infrastructure.

Prior to joining GV, Brian managed projects at Google across people operations, finance, marketing and corporate development. In a former life, Brian worked in private equity and spent time in Washington, D.C. supporting the White House Council of Economic Advisers and the Office of the Vice President.

Barkha Gvalani – Engineering Partner

Barkha works on investing operations, product management and analytics at GV. She also helps portfolio companies scale their operations through analytics, data-warehousing, and business intelligence.

Prior to joining GV, Barkha worked extensively with Google’s Ads and Hardware finance teams solving their hard data problems. She was also chief of staff on the team overseeing Google’s financial systems strategy. Before Google, Barkha worked at Tata Consultancy Services, where she specialized in the leasing business and consulted for GE Commercial Finance.

If you are a partner/managing director of a firm and are interested in supporting underserved and underrepresented founders, email neesha@techcrunch.com.

The Chasing Grace Project chronicles the joys and challenges of being a woman in tech

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It’s Equal Pay Day today, marking the date women had to work full-time this year to match what men made working full-time last year. The actual date is mostly symbolic, and while it’s been narrowing, the gender pay gap is real. Earlier this month, I had a chance to see the first episode of the Chasing Grace Project, a new documentary series that aims to chronicle the joys and challenges of being a woman in tech.

While the series will cover a wide range of topics, ranging from being female founders to online harassment and male allies, executive producer Jennifer Cloer, who is driving this project together with producer Gary Schillinger, told me that she doesn’t want the series to be just about “doom and gloom.” It’s meant to show the resilience of the women the team interviewed for the series, too.

Cloer, who founded her own tech PR firm and previously worked for the Linux Foundation, started the project late last year and has spent virtually every Friday for the last few months interviewing women from all parts of the tech industry across the country.

The general idea behind the project is to make the issues real. “What if we could put real stories of everyday women on camera where people could see them, hear them, feel the emotion and see the body language?” said Cloer.

“The stories don’t shy away from adversity. They might even be uncomfortable for some people to watch because the don’t want to admit that there’s a problem,” she added. “But we know that there’s a problem.”

Because Cloer and Schillinger are still working to get a distribution deal for the series (and finishing the remaining episodes), the episodes aren’t currently available online. The filmmakers have already scheduled a number of screenings at different companies, though, and are actively promoting the project. Cloer is also considering the possibility of expanding the project’s work beyond the films and into a more long-term nonprofit organization.

Current sponsors include Intel, the Cloud Foundry Foundation, the Linux Foundation and Portland’s PDXWIT.

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