Creating Technology for Social Change

Being an Ally to Women in Tech: a personal audit

The technology and innovation industry has a diversity problem. One major axis of this problem is gender. Research has shown gender-balanced workplaces create more overall job satisfaction, better customer satisfaction, healthier work/life balance, longer employee retention, and more; which all of course lead to great productivity and higher profits. Not to mention the history of computer science is driven by amazing women that we need to highlight, celebrate, and use to inspire new generations. The popular press has reported on this lack of women in tech. People around me here at the Media Lab have worked on this for a long time. If you haven’t already, you just have to face it – gender diversity in tech is a serious problem.

We here are the Media Lab pride ourselves on innovating at the edge of the field, and we’re now working harder to innovate our way out of this.  Our amazing Director of Diversity Monica Orta convened the “No Permission, No Apology” event on Sept 9th to “provide opportunities to develop the professional and personal skills that can help women navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind”.  Luckily for me, as a man, they also wanted to offer “a chance for men to better understand how to foster inclusiveness, bridge divides, and serve as effective allies.”  I was invited to attend and spent the day learning from, and with, an amazing group of women.

The whole thing left me with an obvious question…. am I really being a good ally to women in technology?  How can I even assess if I’m helping solve the problem?  An early breakout setting led by Lauren Kinsey gave me something to work with to try and answer this question. Her session on “How Men Can Effectively Help Bring Gender Balance to Tech” included some of her gender balance hacks for changing the toxic culture we’ve created for women in technology.  Was it an exhaustive list of things we should do? No, but it gave me a criteria to work with.

As a Research Scientist here at the Media Lab, a father, a manager, and a colleague to women, I took the list personally.  As a brown man I’m a minority in general, but in technology I’m certainly not.  When was the last time you heard someone arguing we need more Indian dudes in technology?

Yeah… how about never.

That’s why in my field I consider myself part of the majority. That’s why it’s important that I work on bringing more women into the field.  I’m sick of being ashamed of my field about this topic.  So, time for a self-audit.

So, how am I doing so far as an ally? For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on gender diversity.  I recognize and respect that there are other important axes of diversity (race, economic, etc) but the event that sparked this was focused on gender so my reflections are as well. Of course the women around me would be better to do this, but a little self-critical reflection could do me good, so here I go.  You might not care about my navel gazing at all (which is fine), but you should care about doing your own audit.  I do this publicly to put my feet to the fire, and to encourage others to take this issue seriously, and personally.  Below is my audit of how I’m doing as an ally.  How do you fare on your own?

Creating a Flexible Work Environment: I’m doing pretty well.

I’ve benefitted greatly from a flexible, part time work setting over the last 5 years at MIT.  I’ve worked 3 days a week, 4 days a week, and 5 days a week… causing HR many headaches along the way (thanks ML HR!).  This has afforded me a lifestyle that lets me be a more equal parent to my two young kids.  I actively speak with staff and colleagues about how MIT can be a place to carve a more healthy balance, especially if they are under my supervision.  I think I’m doing well on this one.

Gender Inclusive Language: Hard to assess.

I think I’m inclusive in the language I use at work.  I don’t think I generalize about women and men. I pass all our job postings through tools to screen for gendered language.  That said, this is a hard one to assess objectively.  The jury is out on how I’m doing on this.

Remove Identifying Information on Resumes: 0 points.

This is very specific. I have an open job posting now, but didn’t do this.  An easy way out is to blame MIT’s software tool for hiring, which provides a management portal to review and move resumes through the hiring process; but doesn’t have any built in way to remove identifying information from resumes.  The harder reality is that I didn’t even think to do this, and never have.  0 points here. I’ll have to see if I can hack the MIT automated system to try this next time I’m hiring.

Creating Safety: I can do better.

Here’s another one that I struggle with.  I certainly want to create an environment where everyone feels safe working.  I don’t think my humor is very gendered and unfriendly.  I definitely challenge students I teach when we look at gender data, but I think I do it in a constructive and provocative way, not an unsafe and hostile way.  That said, I know I’ve blown it before in situations where I should have stood up and forced others to acknowledge the work of women on a team; instead of letting others dismiss their contribution or just talk about how friendly or cute they were. So I’m really not fit to determine how I’m doing on this… the people around me are.  I should ask staff in annual reviews what I can do to make sure they feel safe, and ask that of students in mid-semester evaluations.  I benefit greatly from watching my boss, the amazing Ethan Zuckerman, on this and other issues; he embodies many of the “hacks” on this list.

Setting Goals: I’m doing ok.

I want staff I hire to be at least half women.  I don’t hire a lot, but I’m doing pretty well on the gender balance so far. In terms of teaching, in my spring Data Storytelling Course I have done a good job of reaching out to a diverse body of students, so I get a solid pool of talented female students from various background.  I also set goals for myself in terms of projects and readings I assign students; so that I’m including influential female voices that aren’t otherwise highlighted.  I draw a lot of inspiration from my collaborator Catherine D’Ignazio here.  She’s awesome and is always ready with pointers for me.

Be a Mentor and Sponsor:  I could do more.

I’m not doing very much in terms of mentoring or sponsoring women around me in technology.  Actually, I think I’m doing well on sponsoring, but not on mentoring.  I refer speaking or facilitation opportunities that come my way to better-qualified women around me, instead of accepting them all myself.  I ask any event I’m speaking at about their gender balance of speakers and attendees, and recommend strong female speakers if I find it lacking. For mentoring I have a lot of work to do.  I teach first year Media Lab Master’s students each year soon after they have arrived.  I could probably do a better job offering myself up as a mentor to any of them that feel a connection to my path, approach, or work.  There aren’t many formal structures around me for mentoring, so I haven’t pushed myself to think about my role more.

Develop Greater Emotional Intelligence: I can improve.

I’m new to this term so I’m not sure what it encompasses, but it sounds intimidatingly large.  I’ll assess myself on the 4 points Lauren describes:

  • I’m pretty self-aware… I know it, and share it. For example when I’m cranky all day because I woke up early with my toddler, everyone around me is alerted.

  • I’m not sure what self-regulating means.  I’m unregulated when I get excited about something, and that can be disruptive to larger processes because I’ll interrupt people and things with my excitement.  Is that what it means?

  • I’m internally motivated to do the work I do, because I care about the position and the opportunity for impact.  It’s hard to measure how empathetic I am, but having children has certainly made me way better at this!  PBS’s Daniel Tiger show has a great approach on this, if you’re interested.

  • I have pretty good social skills, certainly better than most programmers I meet.  I attribute this to my father’s outgoing nature; watching him at a cocktail party is a sight to see!

Does all that add up to a high degree of emotional intelligence?  I don’t know about this enough to tell, so I guess I can just try to be more attentive to these dimensions and see what happens.

Having written that, it feels pretty good to reflect on this in a focused way.  If you made it down to here perhaps this is helpful or provocative to you. If you scrolled past all the above, the TL;DR is that I’m doing well on some things, but came up with some concrete actions I could try to be a better ally to women in technology.  I hope you have a similar list, because this is a problem the whole field needs to be working on.

My questions for you?

  1. What am I missing on the list of behaviours and actions I should be auditing?

  2. Female and male colleagues of mine: have I audited myself appropriately?

  3. When will you write up and post your own audit?

Expect to see another one of these from me next fall.  Hopefully, my marks will be higher, and the list of audit criteria will be longer and more fleshed out.

Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman, Erhardt Graeff, Emily Bhargava, and Catherine D’Ignazio for giving me valuable feedback on drafts of this audit.