No Permission, No Apology Opening Keynote by Megan Smith

Megan Smith

This is a liveblog of a talk by Megan Smith, US CTO and MIT Corporation Member. The No Permission, No Apology conference will provide opportunities to develop the professional and personal skills that can help women navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind. This will also be a chance for men to better understand how to foster inclusiveness, bridge divides, and serve as effective allies. (Liveblog by Erhardt Graeff and Rahul Bhargava)


How do we make sure everyone on the planet is fully included in solving the hardest challenges in the world?

We never see black technical women in movies like we do in the upcoming Hidden Figures—the new film featuring black women engineers on the moon mission. It’s untrue and it’s debilitating.  We never see people like Margaret Hamilton, who coined the term software engineering and led the source code development for the lunar lander. We wouldn’t have landed on the moon if she had not architected the software in a way that we address memory issues.

We had female astronauts who went through the training with the male astronauts, but were never allowed to fly. We never made spacesuits for them. But they passed all the tests and in some cases better than the men. “Stereotype Threat” is a danger that leads us to question whether women are able to do the task. People never think that about men. 


Style Compliance, Trust and Solving (Humanities Greatest) Challenges

What can we do to stop complying to styles? Compliance is incredibly debilitating. Can we support each other in style noncompliance?

“I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception,” Chuck Vest, MIT President in 1998, wrote in a much-cited preface to the MIT report on gender equity, “but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.” MIT did extensive research on this and was able to start addressing it because they had measured it.

Do you think a woman would have designed the tenure system to evaluate you when you are in the middle of raising little kids? Who designed this?

When we rebuilt the Pacific Fleet, we built 35 daycare centers in a couple of months so that we could have women fully involved in that national project. We can do it.

Analysis of women dialogue in films shows how little they speak on the screen. Even films like Frozen had 54% male language, though it was heralded as a feminist landmark.  

There is also the Bechdel test, which looks to see if works of fiction feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man

Ida B. Wales is one of the most significant data scientists this country has ever scene. Her work led to massive change on something that was wrong. Deeply affected by the lynchings, she collected data and showed the pattern of discrimination in lynching. Another example: Josephine Cochrane was only ever celebrated on a Romanian stamp. She invented the dishwasher and her company went on to be part of Kitchenaid.

The Declaration of Sentiments, from 1848 at the Seneca Falls congress, was a document that set out a statement of American women’s rights. These were about access to political process, law, and more. They had no rights, and this was the “best of America” because it was signed by men and women. We launched a treasure hunt for this, with the US archivist.

Alice Paul was the Thurgood Marshall of women’s rights. She organized the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913. On the back of the new US 10 dollar bill there are the steps of the Treasury, and the new designs will feature a march of suffragists. Most people don’t realize that 2000 women protested the White House during the first event. 500 women went to jail for suffrage and wore this “Jail Door Pin“. Alice Paul designed the pin (Megan presents a pin to Monica Orta for organizing this event).

We need to know these stories, because they change how we think.

Beryl Nelson’s work is the root of a lot of the bias work we have now, and she wrote about The Data on Diversity. She argues this isn’t “charity” work, it is an opportunity and necessary to have the best innovation. This is related to the Sustainable Development Goals, which focus on things from gender equality to global Climate Change. The UN put out a call for solutions to these problems on the web, which invited folks to suggest solutions to work on these problems from across the world. This included ideas like teaching Ghanaian prisoners being educated to fight for their own rights because they don’t have lawyers. Other folks using drones to do massive reforestation. Others building fab labs in more remote places (like a floating one in the Amazon river) to encourage hands on learning approaches with new tools and technologies.



There are kids making games, through introductory programs like Black Girls Code. They work on things like domestic violence too… an app that listens for unexpected noise and asks you if things are ok. How do we stop being “style compliant” so things are encouraged to make more than just games. This is about empowering them.  How do we make class more fun like art class and music class?

Larger programs like the National Day of Civic Hacking bring together people to work on these types of solutions.  People in the places know how to solve these problems. What would Ida B. Wells do with what is going on in the country? We have folks in Boston working on this question with data and justice.

Justine Cassel’s team Articulab at CMU is awesome. They are working on social AI, to help kids in school with their work.  Media keeps telling us AI is about certain things, which are all things we want, but we need to be less “style compliant”.

Megan was at a wedding last week with Malala, who said to her why don’t the tech people work with the nonprofit people—that doesn’t make sense.

“Our biggest problem with tech and innovation is that we think certain people do it and certain people don’t.” This is a culture problem. We have to merge these groups together and be confident in their creativity and about what they want to solve.

There are meetups all over the world we can tap into. 12,000 women meet at the Grace Hopper conference; how can we pull them in? President Obama is working hard on Active STEM.

Hispanic women are the largest growing founder group in our country.  How do we make sure they get access to seed money and capital? I know female alum of the Media Lab who have gone for funding and VCs ask to sleep with them.

National #WeekAtTheLabs is another initiative to bring young people into the national laboratories. The Secretary of Energy talks about getting to visit Bell Labs, and how inspirational that is.  How do we provide that for kids now?

The federal government is also trying to make its websites more interactive, showing data and telling stories about issues like the extractive industries. This includes making data open and available to use. Open Government Partnership is working across the world to try to work on these problems.

The Chief Science Officers of Arizona – an elected body of kids.  Kids trying to advocate for teens to get interested in things like math and science.


Untold Stories

You start with history, like the preview for Hidden Figures we saw earlier. Surfacing the truth is the most important. “Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history,” said Gloria Steinem. Megan is researching Alexander Hamilton’s mother and understanding how she was not a whore but a huge influence on his resiliency.

MIT has had a great history of inclusion.  The first black graduate later said we could have no inclusion in STEM until women were equal.  Alexander Graham Bell came to open lectures here.

Women were the first digital programmers in America, working on ENIAC and other machines.  Grace Hopper invented coding languages.

In more modern history, the Apple Mac was developed by more like 40% women than the one that was portrayed in a recent film. Susan Kare was the leader of design, while Bill Atkinson was in charge of the back-end. What a huge influence on what we used!

Even Media Lab projects like those around Wearable Computing have obscured the role of women and people of color in key projects. Rosalind Picard was part of these efforts, which Megan never realized before (and Roz isn’t mentioned on the Wikipedia page). We need to work together to tell these stories.



Arlene Ducao asks: Can you talk about your own journey?

My parents were involved.  They were civically engaged.  Growing up in Buffalo I had amazing teachers.  We had a mandatory science fair.  You have to try this stuff and do it, otherwise you believe the messaging around you and think it is for other people.  I was inspired by Carter’s green energy and did science projects about that. When Reagan came in a lot of funding went away for clean energy, and many folks moved into other fields.  I came to the Media Lab and made a bunch of the folks in this room.  Went to Tokyo and learned a ton from being there

Question: We want to start in learning to solve problems early. These interventions focus on job market.  How can we leverage this for jobs that don’t exist.?

There are two parts to their questions: often people focus on kids rather than grownups who could join in. Older folks need to keep learning too. A large number of the new jobs that exist, we couldn’t predict their existence, e.g. the sharing economy. On the National Security teams, we see that the people are the greatest asset our country has. So we are asking, How do we diversify all of our teams nationally and globally? Part of is ensuring that we are considering women in top jobs. There are also tools and research that help us understand the scope of the problem and keeping track of that data. A lot of the problem is related to style compliance. It’s about the expectations and priorities demonstrated by the leaders. At IBM, the chief when she was there asked people to work with different demographic stakeholder groups and then the reporters looked for how they can increase inclusion, and things changed there. And this has spread to other tech companies since given IBM’s success.

Question: You described a number of projects.  Have you seen a lot of resistance to getting women of color into these?

Most people would like to see great things happen, but they don’t prioritize it. This is always the side budget and extra job. There is a misunderstanding that is slowly starting to change at the c-suite level that this needs to change. Certainly we are seeing this in the national security teams—understanding what good things can happen when we are more inclusive on behalf of the country. It’s really hard to go get the tools, get the training, and acknowledging when you are causing style compliance. We are also changing the language that we use. Megan shows a children’s book, “Founding Mothers.” Secretary Carter is changing language such that we stop using terms like “firemen.”

Star Trek shows us even in its own slightly problematic ways that we all have a role on the deck, helping with this amazing, peaceful, exploratory mission. Similarly, now we all need to work together to fulfill the Declaration of Sentiments.