Want Women in Tech? Change the Culture

My college engineering circuit board. My hope is that a diverse group of people get to deal with the all nighters and circuit burning that I did.

My college engineering circuit board. My hope is that a diverse group of people get to deal with the all nighters and circuit burning that I did.

I use this site not only for cool science stuff, but also as a proponent of diversity within the sciences. It's critical to understand that simply improving numbers of women and minorities within the space isn't enough. The culture itself needs to be changed so that elements such as misogyny and racism are not acceptable by anyone. Making a welcoming culture is a huge step in attracting underrepresented groups into a situation that they previously saw as hostile.

In the tech space, events known as hackathons are quite popular.  These events require collaboration from teams of folks to develop a solution to a stated problem, usually involving software or hardware.  The results are typically presented to an audience by the collaborators themselves, and winners are chosen. Since a hackathon can show both technical aptitude as well as the ability to explain and demo your solution to an audience, this is an important space that needs to be culturally sensitive so that all feel welcome to contribute their brainpower.

A hackathon during an ongoing conference entitled TechCrunch Disrupt allowed several offensive presentations to pass its supposed screening process, including a joke app called TitStare centered around staring at women's breasts.  There were several other offensive presentations involving jokes about masturbation, shrinkage, etc. All of this was in front of an audience that included young children. TechCrunch did apologize after facing heat, but it was the usual halfhearted empty apology that only comes after being barraged by social media influencers.

You'd think that hackathons and similiar events would attract women and minorities because as long as you have great ideas and you can present well, you should be fine, right?  It's true, as long as the culture welcomes them as people as well as tech resources. Putting on the greatest demo in the world suddenly seems low on the totem pole when you are dealing with being demeaned in a personal way.

Sadly, this culture has existed for a very long time, as seen is a recent documentary about women in the chemistry indu

stry. This is why it's important to have schools that take diversity seriously, and to celebrate initiatives like International Women's Day. 

I wasn't going to write about this initially, but I felt compelled to. We all need to stand up against this crap, and it needs to be a united effort, not one limited to women.  Any jokes that disparage women and the contributions that they've made to society harm us all. Having groups that don't represent the true diversity of America harms us all. 

Check out the Storify below for a great discussion on the Disrupt issue and its aftermath. 


Why Don't I Use One Of My Favorite Websites Anymore? Poor

Digg is a site where users can submit news stories that other users can vote up or down. The stories with the highest votes get pushed to the front page of the site. Because stories had no be manually submitted, it cut down on the power of major publishers. In a world before Twitter and excessive Facebook status news sharing (2004), this was the best way to get a sense of the news that people found important. So why don't I use it anymore?

I no longer use Digg because it has become a bloated mess after Digg's latest revision last year. What was once a front page driven by users (though some did admittedly game the system, like Mr. Babyman) became a dominated by major news publishers who were allowed to automatically submit content to the site. Digg became one huge RSS reader - one that purported to be the view of the community. Meanwhile, sharing news links via Twitter and Facebook became the new social currency.I can safely says that I find out about breaking news (like today's acquisition of T-Mobile USA by AT&T) from one of these means quickly.

Digg fell behind the times. Since Digg's founder Kevin Rose resigned in the last few days, there has been a flood of news coverage on Digg. In particular, Sara Lacy wrote a great Techcrunch piece on what Digg meant to the San Francisco tech community. It's a shame to see Digg fall apart in shambles and die as a former shell of itself, but that's what happens if you don't continue to evolve your product with the market.

The Wall

One of the big discussions in the tech community has always been having an open source environment where anything goes, versus a closed environment where only filtered content is available. This discussion has recently manifested in the smartphone wars, with the open Google Android operating system vs the closed Apple iOS ("the walled garden"). TechCrunch has a great article covering the success of closed systems, stating that "the walled garden has won".

Giving all that power and control to Amazon, Apple, Google and Intel in exchange for security may ultimately be a reasonable and necessary tradeoff — but that kind of centralization of control still makes me more than a little uneasy.

Geeks hate control. We have the smarts, and we'd rather monitor and moderate ourselves. But that's just not going to work for the other 90% of the population.

My dream is that technology is regarded as an essential part of our society, which goes beyond people buying iPhones. Having a curated experience helps people of all generations to feel comfortable with technology without drowning in nonstop choices. People need a nudge in the right direction, just like they do with supermarket circulars, Amazon recommendations, and film reviews. It's the reason why it's easy to buy an iOS device and get the full experience by following the recommendations.

Part of it is a power play. The more open the environment, the more us geeks are in control. Because there are a sea of choices, we are the ones that hold the key to making sense of it all. In a closed environment such as iOS, people are fed suggestions based on what Apple highlights on the site, as well as "top 10" lists. Even though these can be gamed, people are not going to use something if it doesn't work for them. This is the benefit of the closed model - it is heavy on suggesting things to do, but it doesn't force the user to agree. Essentially, it reduces that amount of choices that the average person has to make.

Here's to the success of the wall - the more people engaged by tech, the more tech will be able to innovate. Let's keep the snowball rolling!