TDC Women Opens New Conversations About Women in Tech

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The very first Thinking Digital Women was a celebration of the successes and achievements of women in the tech industry. From a Rocket Scientist to a STEM Prodigy and an Armed Networker to a Dropbox Diversifier, these women are not just role models, they are pioneers into an industry dominated by men and often unwilling to diversify.

It was exciting to see how far a bit of determination, courage and strength of spirit could go. Their common message was if you believe you can do it and you have the talent, don’t allow yourself to be sidelined into more traditional female roles. As Amanda Regan said, when the choice was work experience at a nursery playing with toddlers or in a brewery learning how beer is made, the choice was obvious.

Workshops

One of the great things about TDC is the first session. With a choice of four workshops, it is always difficult to decide which would be best, but, as a hypochondriac, I knew that Can Bioinformatics Save Your Life would definitely be for me. If I could have done Learning With Little Robots, Drawing Digital: Getting Crafty with Electronics and What Your Sensors Say About You as well I certainly would!

Having very little knowledge of DNA was no problem, Elisa Anastasi’s explanation of the different ways it can be read was clear and concise and the links to coding were obvious. Once you have the DNA sequence – or most of it at least- you can then run it through a database to discover the type of bacteria it represents.

Not only this, with the DNA, you can identify whether bacteria will be resistant to antibiotics by examining the protein sequence produced using RNA. With these proteins, the bacteria can build certain characteristics such as a pump to reject antibiotics making them resistant.

Understanding biology as a form of code has exciting possibilities. For all that DNA has been known for almost 100 years, our new technological capabilities are providing new ways to examine and understand our genetics.

There is plenty more research to be done.

Speakers

Herb Kim opened the first set of speakers with a note about the purpose of TDC, which particularly resonated with me. He said that ‘zooming in to get the details right is good but you should zoom out to widen your perspective’. Given the theme of the conference, this is important. We should be taking a detailed look at the way the women are treated by the tech industry and what they can contribute, but this look should not just be taken by women. It is important that while this conference has been billed as a women’s conference, it should not be dismissed as exclusively for women. The ideas shared should be embraced by everyone.

Of course, as Herb himself pointed out, he is a man and therefore it was fitting for him to welcome science communicator Emer Maguire as his co-host for the day. As a speech and language specialist, Emer’s interest in communicating is natural. She was clear that when it comes to explaining ideas, particularly in the science and tech industries, to the public, the speaker should be engaging and interesting as well as accessible to everyone. The idea resonates with the famous quote from Albert Einstein, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ In other words, the burden is on the speaker to explain better rather than on the listener to understand better.

Session 1: Looking In and Looking Out

Amanda Regan

As a teenager, Amanda did two week’s work experience at a Brewery. At first the men didn’t like having her in their space. They resented being told that they weren’t allowed to swear (not that they managed) and they had to take down their pictures.

One day, there was a problem in the loading bay and the men were stood around trying to figure out what to do about it. Amanda saw a solution and made her suggestion but the response she got took her by surprise.

“The problem with you is you want to be a man.”

But where many of us would have backed down, Amanda was having none of it and her response was simply, “well that makes two of us then doesn’t it?”

After a small pause, he laughed, “I like you.”

At the end of the work experience, the men had all warmed to having Amanda in their company. They even showed their gratefulness by filling her mum’s car with crates and crates of fizzy pop as a thank you. They even said they would be happy to work with a girl again.

But her story wasn’t really about the men having to change because she was there, or the idea that she was out of place because she was a woman. In fact, the sexism that Amanda experienced seemed to be down to the lack of diversity in the workplace more than their individual beliefs. If a workplace has always been men-only, then any difference would take getting used to.

Really, this story was an illustration of how having confidence in your own knowledge gives you the ability to make an impression and succeed on your own terms. She began her talk with the idea of a kitten looking in the mirror and seeing a lion in the reflection and discussed the danger of failing to perceive ourselves as we are. A kitten who sees themselves as a lion but can’t maintain the illusion with everyone else will be a laughing stock, not to be taken seriously, but the lion who sees themselves as a kitten will never achieve their full potential.

The girl who had the confidence to speak up at the brewery became the woman who is now working on a project to study the earth as a system. Realising that you have the skills and the talent is part of the battle; having the confidence to make the most of them is how you win.

As Amanda put it, ‘reach the highest orbit you can.’

Meri Williams @geek_manager

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, Meri Williams is well aware that her privilege as a white woman is one of the main reasons that she got to go to university and have a successful career. Ignoring this privilege, she says, is unhelpful as it denies that privilege exists and doesn’t help us to be more inclusive.

Creating an inclusive work environment is about understanding that every role is capable of virtuosity and that everyone wants to be  great about what they do. Then, once you have realised this, to be inclusive, you must put strategies in place to ensure that everyone is capable of being their best.

This is a great start to understanding the social dynamics of a workplace and Meri is clear that it is not just about including the people you already work with, but about sending the right message to prospective employees that they will be able to fit in.

There are four questions that must be answered to craft an inclusive environment:

Am I expected here?

Am I respected here?

Can I be myself here?

Can I be successful here?

If a woman sees a job that is written with a male bias and shows a picture of a man doing the job, she is less likely to feel that she can answer all four questions with a yes.

For employees, it is important to give advice they can take, and to make sure you value their skills. Indeed, don’t just value their skills, tell them that they are valued and exactly why. Doing this elevates an impersonal compliment by making it specific and personal, in other words, it gives them something to be proud of.

Meri concluded, ‘we are all responsible for making an environment where people can succeed,’ a sentiment everyone should be thinking about.

Tim Leberecht @timleberecht

In an increasingly mechanized world, Tim’s main concern is how humans can continue to contribute to a highly roboticized industry. His answer is beauty.

There are four qualities of beauty:

Do the unnecessary

It might cost more but leading with beauty means rising above the merely necessary and asking what can be done to make things more human.

Create intimacy

What we produce is all dependent on the relationships we have with our colleagues. One of the ways we can bring ourselves together was exemplified by Denone who, on a three day retreat, provided everyone with fancy dress. Wearing costumes equalized the groups and created lasting bonds between people.

It might sound daft but as one of the managers said, ‘never underestimate the power of a ridiculous week.’   

Take the risk to be ugly

The brain is the ugliest part of our body – it unconsciously renders the unfamiliar as ugly. But, Tim argues, ugliness is often a way to cut straight to the meaning of something, it is an authentic expression that hasn’t been dressed up or disguised to make it easier. His example was the exhumation and reburial of the refugees who drowned in their attempt to reach Europe. The idea was to allow them to reach their destination of Berlin, even if they have not made it alive.

Remain incomplete

One of the reasons that mass movements like Occupy are so successful is that they are never formalised and therefore avoid becoming banal. The ideas that they gather for are worth fighting for and there is a beauty in the transience of each gathering.

In a world that is increasingly mechanized, Tim suggests, ‘we must establish a new radical humanism to avoid feeling like aliens in companies filled with machines.’

Session 2: Messengers

Jessie Link @mad_typist

Bringing Live Video streaming to Twitter was always going to be a challenge and for Jessie, the project was made even more difficult with the decision to bring the due date forward by 6 months in order to Live Stream Wimbledon.

The idea was that if consumers like watching content while tweeting and chatting to friends via Twitter, then it makes sense to combine the platform so that both viewing and chatting can happen on the same screen. This meant figuring out what the problems could be, how the users would respond and all within a tight deadline.

One of the main issues was understanding what the content providers would want from the platform and it turned out that what Twitter could provide was actually simple but effective. To begin, they added the official accounts of the content providers below the video so that users could then follow them for more information and content. But in an age of personalised ads, Twitter can also give the content providers tailored ads so that users only see ads they will be interested in seeing.

Her experience as a project manager after being an engineer was a strange transition. Even though it was a natural response to get straight into problem solving mode, what she actually needed to do was allow the engineers to do that while she managed the rest of the project. Even being in charge of a project, Jessie showed that knowing your role and giving people space to do theirs was the most important aspect of the job.

Caroline Lewin @carolinejlewin

While the army may be years behind the private tech industry, Caroline’s account of years of problem solving using tech showed just how important it is for the army to continue to develop more and more technologies to cope with the challenges they face.

The contrast between the idea of portable in the army versus civilian life was startling. To her, a piece of tech that was table-sized and could therefore fit into a small tank was portable, even when soldiers themselves were wearing Apple watches on their wrists. This tension also creates the opportunity for security risks that soldiers can’t risk including hacking.

Carryable technology will have a huge impact on the way the army works in the future. As soldiers are already expected to carry so much, it is not a viable solution to ask them to carry more. The focus on making tech smaller and lighter, then, is important for the future of operations and peacekeeping.

Anne-Marie Imafidon @aimafidon

As a maths and computer science prodigy, Anne-Marie put forward a passionate case for more young girls getting into STEM subjects. She realised that of the 70 students on her Maths and Computer Science course at Oxford, she was one of only 3 women and of the women who do do STEM subjects, ⅔ don’t then enter STEM roles. Given the shortage of qualified people entering the industry, it seems logical that women should be filling these roles.

She has set up Stemettes, a not-for-profit aimed towards young girls and to give them an insight into the tech industries. Sponsors and role models are vital for children. When they consider potential career paths they ask themselves whether they see other people like them in the role (much as Meri Williams said). If young girls don’t see women in tech, they assume that the industry is not for them. It doesn’t need to be said that this is a big problem.

Speaking to young girls about the tech industry (or any industry for that matter) requires someone who is experienced and knowledgeable about how to talk to kids as well as in their subject. This means being able to make jokes about Snapchat (that the more mature TDC audience failed to get to Anne-Marie’s amusement) as well as understand what they want to gain from a job. With this understanding Anne-Marie came up with her 5 reasons to work in tech.

  1. Tech is altruistic – you are solving real problems for real people. You are helping them
  2. While money isn’t often a driver for young girls, it is worth noting that in the tech industries, the pay gap is significantly smaller, in fact you are likely to be paid 30% more in a STEM industry.
  3. Swag – at tech conferences companies give you stuff and you will end up with more sunglasses than you will ever need
  4. You get free food (at least you do in Anne-Marie’s office!)
  5. You get to wear what you want (unless you work in the army…)

Sounds good to me!

Kirsty Styles @kirstystyles1

As a tech journalist, Kirsty certainly understood the industry well. The skill gap in the tech industry in Britain accounts for £63 billion lost each year so it makes no sense that girls are being put off when the industry is struggling already.

Her anecdote filled talk kept us all engaged but the best story was saved for last. Her friend was travelling on a train and opposite her a muscular black man in an army uniform was sat knitting. Her friend was surprised by this, as he quietly subverted all her stereotypical preconceptions and she leaned over and asked him about it.

His response was perfect: ‘the only thing men can’t do is have babies. There’s nothing women can’t do.’

Judith Williams @judithmwilliams

As a young girl, Judith grew up reading science fiction but ‘it seemed that there were no people in the future who looked like me’, there were no black women at all. Diversity in this futuristic setting was a problem because the future wasn’t really societally different to the current climate. Instead of imagining a new world where everyone was included, the authors maintained the status quo. It didn’t occur to them to challenge it.

The problem with the idea of inclusion is that it often presumes that everyone starts from the same position, without realising that diversity can be split into two categories. Inherent diversity refers to the qualities you are born with such as race and gender, and acquired diversity is essentially what you have learned – your culture might be an example. The crucial idea here is that inherent diversity unlocks your acquired diversity. (This is similar to Meri Williams’ ideas and her realisation that being white had a huge impact on her education).

Even taking these ideas on board, including people doesn’t just mean inviting them to things either. If you were to invite a tee-totaler to a meeting in a bar, that might seem inclusive, but really you are putting them in a difficult position because they are likely to feel they can’t participate.

Another example was a team made up of men and one woman who was 7 months pregnant at the time. They decided they would go on a team building session and picked out paintball as an activity for them all to do. When the woman pointed out that she wouldn’t be able to participate for rather obvious reasons, they decided that maybe golf would be a better idea, completely missing the point.

The media can play an important role in increasing workplace diversity but often just reflect the lack of diversity they see, like the science fiction novels Judith read as a child. One such show is Silicon Valley which has cast all men arguing that this is how it is. The problem with that statement is that if this is how it is now and we continue to show it that way, there is never any room for the potential for change.

In contrast, Grey’s Anatomy cast a diverse group with the realisation that if they presented an alternative fictional reality it could one day be a reality in our own society. And they were right. This year, more female doctors will be graduating who cited Grey’s Anatomy as one of the reasons they decided to enter the profession. By imagining a world in which diversity is a reality, we have the opportunity to start making that reality for ourselves.

Alex Reburn @artBoffin

As a robot humanist, Alex’s interest is in the way we interact with robots, especially in an increasingly roboticized world. His experiments cover the wide range of emotions and ideas we have of robots, from the robot that gives you head massage to the robot that gets to choose whether to stab your finger and make you bleed or not.

His most compelling project though is Boxie, a robot designed to be cute in order to manipulate people into telling it secrets, or even assist the robot in a tight corner or going up stairs. Boxie was designed with wide child-like eyes and a child’s voice and in the film Alex showed, took centre stage as the director and interviewer.

The reactions people had to Boxie were wide ranging, from the man who consented to dance for the robot to the woman who got tearful when the robot asked what gift she would most like to give and to whom. Even though we know that technology is inert, we often ascribe personality and character to robots (how many of us have shouted at our cars?). This makes the study of our interaction fascinating and I certainly hope to see more of Alex’s experiments.

Emer Maguire @EmerMofficial

Co-hosting wasn’t enough, Emer definitely needed her own talk to properly explore her ideas of the way technology has changed the way we communicate. From our earliest grunts to our ability to talk to each other from the other side of the planet, communication has certainly changed.

But is digital communication for the better or for the worse?

In 2002, the digital dawn was announced as we had more information in a digital format than in analogue. This was also the year the Nokia 3510 came out and it remains the 4th best selling mobile phone ever (I had the 3510i and was the cool kid with the colour screen). Apart from snake, mobile phones have made us all available all the time, making us accessible wherever we are.

Since technology has allowed astronauts to Snapchat from space, Facebook has provided ‘safe checkins’ for people in disaster zones to tell everyone they are safe and we can easily stay in contact with people we might otherwise have lost.

On the other hand, social media is now named in 40% of divorces, impersonal oversharing is making people appear shallow and kids can be targeting online as they lack the maturity to deal with the availability we celebrate. Similarly, older people can be isolated because they don’t know how to communicate this way.

The future of communicating with technology is exciting and terrifying in equal measure and Emer raised the idea that we could create a wearable technology that would essentially provide us with the ability to communicate telepathically by cutting out the computer.

Women will be the future of the tech industry

If we can do anything as an industry, we must encourage young girls to take STEM subjects and to then enter STEM careers. With diversity and inclusion, we should be aiming to bring lots of different people together so that the teams we have aren’t all made up of friends and people we identify with because they are like us. This is what has created the boys clubs in politics and Silicon Valley alike.

Understanding our relationship with tech is vital to the way we progress and develop our workspaces. There is no reason why we can’t create spaces that everyone can succeed in, we just need to continue speaking about the issues, raising new questions and then celebrating our successes.

And that is what TDC Women has achieved.

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About Hannah Field

Hannah is a passionate fan of modernist literature and can usually be found curled up with a cat and a book, a steaming mug of tea within reach. Though she tolerates living on land, Hannah feels most at home underwater SCUBA diving, hoping to see turtles.

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