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These Innovators Are Making Tech Better For Everyone

For tech to be truly revolutionary, it has to include everyone — but the industry has a diversity problem. Here are the women trying to change it.

May 26, 2016
These Innovators Are Making Tech Better For Everyone Credit L-R: Elizabeth Gilmore; Wikimedia; Ida Tin; Erin Summers; Evie Powell

This May, Google employees presented designs for 13 new emojis with the aim of promoting gender equality. The icons, which show women taking on roles in science and technology, are a cute way of addressing a dark and deep-rooted problem. Tech is an intimate part of our lives: our phones are portals to the world, constantly helping us sift through information and make sense of our surroundings. Emoji representation is important because those funny little pictures are a rapidly growing means of expression. But the truth remains that the people developing the technologies we use every day are not a reflection of the people using them.


The gender diversity of major tech companies is not great. Though women make up the majority of users of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, those companies each employ 32% women or fewer (those numbers drop even lower when looking at technical roles). A lack of diversity behind the scenes, in both gender and race, is bad enough in itself. But it also has a knock-on effect: if the people creating tech products aren’t as diverse as the people those products are being made for, then inevitably, not everyone’s needs are being considered.

At one end of the spectrum, there’s the fact that 98% of top iPhone app games offer a playable male character, while only 46% let you play as a woman. At the other, there’s this terrifying 2014 study about the future of robotics, which reports that gendered stereotypes (e.g., ‘women are better at socializing and care’) are being uncritically incorporated into design processes. Meanwhile, this 2016 study reveals that voice-activated software programs like Siri can respond to medical emergencies, but don’t recognize the phrase, “I’ve been raped.” On top of all this, it’s well known that women disproportionately experience harassment online — and this has repercussions that make it that much harder for them to represent themselves, in a realm that refuses to represent them. Tech is supposed to be the most innovative space in our society. So why is it not inclusive, and where are the tools being built with a diverse range of users in mind?


To answer this question, The FADER reached out to seven innovators who are actively working to remedy the problems they see in the tech world. Women Scientists is a Wikipedia project aiming to populate the site with historical biographies of women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math), and Wogrammer is a program that sets out to highlight women who are currently making waves in those fields. Other initiatives are aiming to create socially conscious output — Remain Silent is a video game about police brutality, Getty Images is aiming to diversify its stock portrayals of women, and the health app Clue wants to help women track their menstrual cycles without being patronised. Meanwhile, Take Back The Tech! is a global campaign to eliminate violence online. Read on for each woman’s insight into why how their projects are taking us closer to what the tech world of tomorrow should look like.

Emily Temple-Wood, Wikipedia editor, Chicago
These Innovators Are Making Tech Better For Everyone Wikimedia Foundation

I first got involved in Wikipedia in 2007, when I was 12. I started out as a vandal, writing a mean article about how my sister was a butthead — she was totally being a butthead — but I decided to start contributing productively, and here I am nine years later. I started writing women's biographies in 2012, during my freshman year in college. I participated in a remote event for Ada Lovelace Day [an annual celebration of women in STEM] and saw that Wikipedia was missing tons of biographies about women who were Fellows of the Royal Society.

As a Wikipedian, my natural response to seeing a gap in coverage is to start a project, so that's what I did with the Women Scientists project. The narrative of history has been dominated by men, and making sure that women's biographies are included in Wikipedia can be our way of writing women back into that narrative.

What advice do you have for other women and marginalized people in the world of tech?

Find a support network. It's hard, lonely work a lot of the time, and having people around you to help is all that will get you through. My other piece of advice is to ignore the haters and trolls as much as possible. I understand all too well the temptation to go digging through the trash piles of the internet to see everything people are saying about you, but you have to resist this. Reading another hundred comments about how you're a cunt, or your hair is ugly, is not going to make anything better.

Follow Emily on Twitter and find out how you can join the Women Scientists project here.


“Women don’t get asked, ‘What are the cool things that you build that you are proud of?’ Women haven’t been seen as powerful strong scientists, technologists.” —Erin Summers
Zainab Ghadiyali and Erin Summers, Wogrammer founders, San Francisco

A photo posted by Wogrammer (@wogrammer) on

SUMMERS: Wogrammer is an initiative to celebrate the accomplishments of women in STEM. It was born out of the frustration of us reading over and over these depressing articles about how there aren't a lot of women in tech. Me and Zainab started [working as engineers at] Facebook on the same day. At the time, I was a mentor for Girls Who Code. I was completely blown by this girl I mentored. Her name is Morgan Lewis, she was a junior. She had never coded before and after the end of eight weeks, she had written an app. On top of that, she was building robotics. I was like, “We have to tell the world about her.” She was the very first Wogrammer.

GHADIYALI: We think stories are powerful, and so we are using publishing platforms [like] Medium, Twitter, and Facebook. We also give talks. We've done close to 140 stories [on female programmers] now, and it was really hard for women to talk about what they are proud of.

SUMMERS: Women don't get asked, "What are the cool things that you build that you are proud of?" Women haven't been seen as powerful strong scientists, technologists. So there is maybe an imposter syndrome. Also, society tells [women] to be soft, not too loud. [But] when these women do talk about what they are proud of, and Wogrammer stories come out, it doesn't come off as bragging at all.

GHADIYALI: We are putting a book together which will be a collection of these stories, and focuses on celebrating women’s accomplishments. Young girls who are looking for role models can flip through the pages and find somebody who looks like her. We are hoping to get it ready to go by Fall.

What advice do you have for other women and marginalized people in the world of tech?

SUMMERS: This is taken from Wogrammer Kendell Byrd, ‘cause I love it so much: "act like it's impossible to fail." So when you're thinking, I can't do this. I'm stupid. I don't belong, ignore that and just act outwardly like it's impossible to fail.

Follow Wogrammer on Twitter.

Ida Tin, Clue founder, Berlin

Clue is a tracking app for women to know what’s going on in their body. We need good tools to understand what’s going on. The first inclination [I had to start Clue] was, ‘Why has nobody solved family planning? Why has there been no innovation since the pill came out in the ‘50s?’

There were two very basic design notions in the beginning. The first one was this cycle view — this idea that you could see your whole cycle and you could instantly understand, "this is where I am." Then the second [idea] was that it shouldn't be pink, and it shouldn't be full of flowers. We try to take gendernormative [aspects] out as much as we can. We have users that are transgender, or lesbian, or maybe it's a man using it to track his partner.

What advice do you have for other women and other marginalized people in the world of tech?

It’s a false notion that to do a tech start up, you have to be a tech person yourself. You just need to know what you want to create in the world, and build a team around that, and make other people feel passionate about it. The most important skill is to learn really fast, and to get help.

Follow Ida on Twitter.

“Right now, role models don’t often look much like reflections of ourselves, but there are many people that want that to change. Someone is listening.” —Evie Powell
Evie Powell, game developer, Seattle
These Innovators Are Making Tech Better For Everyone Evie Powell

Remain Silent exists because my team participated in a game jam [an event where developers create a game around a theme] where the theme was "social change.” We all felt really strongly about the subject of police brutality. After the event ended, we kept working. The issue is so prevalent that every time we even thought about setting the project aside, another instance of police brutality showed up in the media and renewed our motivation.

Making a game about serious topics is a challenge. One of my favorite cartoons is South Park. It's known for being crass and offensive, but also for taking on really political subject matter. One episode that came to mind was the Trayvon Martin episode. It made me truly angry, but it was an episode worth revisiting, because — despite the attempt at humor dealing with the recent death of a young boy — there was a point. Whether or not you laughed, there were these very sobering moments throughout that forced people to reflect on their own views for at least a few seconds. I decided that for better or worse, that was what I wanted for my game.

Remain Silent looks completely approachable. It’s charmingly retro and is sprinkled with humor throughout. It leads you into a false sense of security. You think, What's the harm if I type in something like “shoot the boy”? When the scene plays out, however, it’s suddenly not funny any more. When the credits roll, there are very few people that are laughing.

What advice do you have for other women and marginalized people in the world of tech?

Be the change you want to see in industry. Right now, role models don’t often look much like reflections of ourselves, but there are many people that want that to change. Get connected, stay involved, and stay open and honest about your experiences. Someone is listening.

Remain Silent will be released on iOS and Android later in 2016. Follow Evie on Twitter.

Pam Grossman, Getty Images Director of Visual Trends, New York
These Innovators Are Making Tech Better For Everyone PR

In 2007, Getty Images’ top selling image for ‘woman’ or ‘female’ was of a woman who is naked, half-covered in sheets, glassy-eyed and passive, lying around like an object. In 2016, it has changed dramatically, depicting a female diver in a strong mid-action pose.

At Getty Images, it’s our job as visual anthropologists to anticipate visual trends by analyzing advertisements, design shifts, pop culture, social media, and our own search and sales data. In 2013, we really started seeing an evolution in depictions of women and girls in the visual landscape at large. More women than men are using social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat, which means that more women are in charge of spreading and creating imagery that resonates with them than ever before. Because of this, a more diverse and authentic depiction of women has been emerging, and gender stereotypes are being challenged across the board.

This trend, which we coined Female Rising, provided an opportunity for Getty Images to drive this visual conversation. We were thrilled to partner with Sheryl Sandberg’s non-profit, LeanIn.Org, to create the Lean In Collection — a library of images devoted to celebrating powerful images of women. The more these images are seen, the more normalized they become in culture.

What advice do you have for other women and marginalized people in the world of tech?

Raise your hand and raise your voice as often as possible, and know that your ideas are crucial to making the world a better, fairer, and far more interesting place.

Follow Pam Grossman on Twitter.

Various campaigners, Take Back The Tech!, worldwide

Take Back The Tech! aims to create digital spaces that protect women’s right to move freely and participate equally without harassment, echoing the popular Take Back The Night marches. Implicit to that is building and sharing skills (many campaigners are participating in the Femmehacks initiative during May and June 2016), as well as celebrating and encouraging creative use of technology to question the power structures that underpin gender-based violence.

Legislation and police have a tough time keeping up with technology's fast pace. Our research in seven countries found that police many times do not understand or are not equipped to investigate cases dealing with technology-related violence. Our research into online violence against women showed that emotional harm (33%) is the main type of violence linked to online gender-based violence, which impedes women’s full participation in online and offline life, as well as harm to reputation (18%) and invasion of privacy (18%). We also found that in less than 1/3 of the cases reported, action was taken by the service provider. Take Back the Tech! have pressured internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google to be more transparent about how they are addressing violence in their communities.

What advice do you have for other women and marginalized people in the world of tech?

Some women active in the tech world don't feel a need to "take back" the tech — it's already theirs. But other women have definitely not had such a positive experience. We encourage women to get together to talk with other women, with colleagues, with marginalized people in the field. Fantastic projects and initiatives can come out of this, and women will know they are not alone. Connecting online and offline is an important principle. We won't be able to change the online world in terms of misogynistic behaviour if we deny its offline roots.

Follow Take Back The Tech! on Twitter.

These Innovators Are Making Tech Better For Everyone