Women in Tech and The Awareness Problem

We never interrogate exactly what we have become aware of, or what it’s all been for.

by Shanley Kane on February 4th, 2016

Stories of discrimination, harassment, abuse and assault of women in tech by now form their own genre of media frenzy. For tech’s notoriously lazy and shallow press machinery, it’s a sure-fire fount yielding billions of pageviews and tens of millions of ad dollars each year. With every new research report comes an opportunity for staff rooms to plug a new date and time into an overworked template that laments on the statistics, speculates unimaginatively on the pipeline, and ultimately expresses unbounded faith and optimism in corporate diversity initiatives — a faith cemented, of course, by the corporate dollars that fund the site.

With developments in online harassment against women over the past few years, the tech media and even the mainstream press got a sexy new update on a line I imagine was starting to feel repetitive even to a profession with the intellectual ambition of a hamster ensconced in plastic wheel. *Tens of thousands* of articles have emerged in the wake of Gamergate, bemoaning the phenomenon of online harassment, re-hashing at great length the details of a few, carefully hand-picked attacks, and creating hypervisible “celebrities” out of victims in a process that obscures the racialized, transphobic and queerphobic nature of online harassment, flattens analysis of how this abuse functions as part of a larger system, and shapes public interests in ways that ultimately align with those of big tech, media and even Hollywood. (Creating hypervisible celebrities out of causes is a strategy for sanitization and control over political uprising: Manufacturing a few hand-picked celebrities from a cause that affects millions focuses attention on individuals instead of systems; showering those individuals with “success” as defined by mainstream media and corporations creates a profitable spectacle, and the comforting illusion that movements themselves are located within, and in sync with, corporate and media goals.) But, I digress, point being: Because most coverage of GamerGate itself has ultimately aligned with White Feminism as a platform and politic, the positive gains of all this coverage, where present, have been garnered almost entirely by a few white women.

A ceiling light glowing in a dark room.

Photo CC-BY Môsieur J. [version 9.1].

The fervor around GamerGate coverage was in many ways merely a new high — or low — in a pattern of ravenous consumption that occurs around the “women in tech” issue. This literal gorging is always justified by the imperative that we “raise awareness” of the plight of women in tech; the problem is that “raising awareness” – at least the way we are doing it – isn’t resulting in any actual changes:

  • As updated diversity report after updated diversity report shows, none of the core metrics around women in tech are improving in any way worth celebrating: from venture capital funding, to representation on technical teams, to representation in leadership positions, the numbers are unmoving. Industry-wide patterns of attrition continue unabated. Where progress is made, it’s limited to contextually minor gains for white women – for example, while the release of Intel’s recent diversity statistics saw some gains in overall hiring of women, they reported improvements of “representation of underrepresented minorities by 0.1%”. OMFG. In other cases, companies like Pinterest, despite going on a veritable press tour around their 2014 diversity initiatives, report only a 2% increase in representation of women at their company in 2015, which hell, could be no more worthy of comment than a slight statistical fluctuation.
  • Online harassment against women in tech and gaming is by no means decreasing. In fact, if anything, it has become more pervasive and mainstream, picking up in the digital underbelly of ongoing presidential campaigning. Twitter, Facebook and other major platforms have implemented neither new policies nor new tooling to diminish the harmful effects of online harassment. Swarms of roving hate groups continue to congregate en masse around almost any social justice issue in tech – from code of conduct discussions, to shows of support for embattled women, to the launch of new programs and initiatives for women in tech. It’s become virtually impossible to do any activism for women in tech without receiving mass online harassment. Progress, we cannot concede.
  • For all the attention around diversity in tech, funding for community initiatives that directly support women in the industry remain massively underfunded as white male-led companies continue to raise round after round of funding for frivolous bullshit. From my position both raising money for Model View Culture and helping run Fund Club in conjunction with AlterConf, I have a front-row seat to the dismal state of making fucking money for women in tech. I can tell you that no matter how many articles about diversity in tech get written, the most impactful projects and organizations in the space are still struggling to get even a few thousand dollars for their work. They are losing and dying every single day.  

At this point, I don’t think there’s anyone in the tech industry who isn’t “aware” that women in tech are severely underrepresented, disproportionately harassed and given inequitable access to opportunities at every level and every function of the industry. When we examine years and years, tens of thousands of articles, and billions of clicks of “awareness”, and see that little change is made, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate our strategy.

Why isn’t it working? Well, to start:

Our definition of “Awareness” is profoundly shallow

Almost never do the articles “building awareness” around women in tech contain any implication of the misogyny, racism, transphobia, queerphobia and ableism that birth the headline. Almost never do they connect the “women in tech” problem to systemic issues of gender violence, wealth inequality, gentrification, domestic violence and unpaid labor, or tech ties to police, military, White Feminism, the state and venture capital. Never do they name names, point fingers, assign blame or demand accountability. In fact, these articles are written with less analysis, historical and political depth than a weather report penned by a climate change denier.

Ultimately, any manufacture of “awareness” that is not attached to the true systemic issues, that is void of either honesty or accountability, is necessarily disembodied, fetishized, and incapable of producing generative change.

People love to consume women’s pain – and our “awareness” campaigns don’t take that into account

Feminine doll heads.

Photo CC-BY Lisa Roe.

The relationship of visibility to activism is fraught with complexity. Every movement contends with the reality that circulation of images, video, and text about human suffering under the banner of “awareness” can function in insidious ways that support existing systems. (Recommended reading: Trauma and Spectacle: Antiblack Violence and Media by YM Carrington, and On The Politics Of Lady Gaga’s PSA and Campus Rape by Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear & Lucia Lorenzi.)

This is not to equate the movement for women in tech with other movements (except in those areas where they necessarily intersect), only to show a pattern which demands we think critically about, and problematize, how visibility is functioning for the progress or decrement of our causes as activists. The reality is that social structures of inequity create a demand for, fetishification of, and mass consumption of suffering that does not lead to material changes in lived reality, but instead reinforces the violence itself. Just as we must ask ourselves if seeing thousands and thousands of graphic depictions of rape in mass media stops rape, we must similarly ask ourselves if viewing the dramatizations of horrifying abuse of women in tech – in whatever medium – is actually reducing that abuse, or in fact simply satisfying the same violent impulse and demand for women’s pain. What truly are we as an industry getting from these stories, if consuming them is — empirically — not driving us to create actual change? Is it pleasure, morbid curiosity, an indulgence of misogynist and white supremacist damsel-in-distress fantasy?

And in a world where hypervisibility often leads to more harassment of women victims, who are we really doing a service?  

We substitute hypervisibility for justice

In the operating ideology of “awareness”, we mistake hypervisibility of women in tech issues — an obsession with the suffering and inequality, a surface-level feeding frenzy, a momentary traffic bubble  — for representation and support for women in our industry. This is why the number of articles about the “women in tech problem” always exceeds the number of articles ABOUT women in tech: their achievements, wisdom, advice, companies, quotes. Why it is accepted that tech media has 30 articles on “women in tech” for a single article about a woman’s startup, or an editorial by a woman on core topics in technology. This is why it is considered sufficient to have women speak on panels about diversity, while they are not given a place to speak on issues like business, innovation, technology, management, even marketing. Why we see donations to women in tech causes spike when there’s a highly visible story of harassment, but financial support slows to a dribble in other periods.

Through these logics of “awareness”, we render vapid 5-paragraph essays about women in tech as both equivalent with, and sufficient for, cultural change. When we consume these articles, we pat ourselves on the back for participating in the all-important process of “Awareness,” and consider our job more or less complete.

We don’t interrogate exactly what we have become aware of, or what it’s all been for.

Shattered pieces of a light bulb suspended in mid-air.

Photo CC-BY LASZLO ILYES, filtered.

The issue of whether “awareness is working” is one close to my heart. Last year about this time I was just emerging — far from unscathed — from my own encounter with the awareness cycle. Attacks by online hate mobs meant I had to leave my house under death threats, stop publishing on MVC, and go on anxiety medication to manage the panic and depression I experienced. At the vortex of a traffic shitstorm, I mainly recall feeling (through an admittedly pleasant klonopin haze) isolated, objectified and used by a consumption machine to which my life and work was irrelevant.

Last year, I was grateful when the increase of attention at least meant more people were subscribing to the publication I run; but this year, I feel angry and disaffected that our subscription numbers are down compared to the same period. I wish people understood that women in tech need support not only when they’re serving as the sacrificial animal for your awareness campaign, but when they’re doing the day to day work of being women in tech and working for change.

Inevitably, people will reduce this piece to “Shanley says awareness is bad.” This is patently inaccurate, but will be repeated by anti-intellectual fuckheads incapable of rescuing a modicum of nuance from the neural depths of their misogyny and confused psychosexual antipathy. So, let me be perfectly clear: Awareness is a vital part of change. Indeed, as we discuss the functions of awareness, we must also bring up the many, many issues that truly remain underexposed in the industry, even under the umbrella of “women in tech.” The specific issues and inequalities faced by women of color, particularly black women; trans women; queer women; disabled women and women with mental illnesses; and women at the intersections of these positions and identities, remain massively undercovered. We must absolutely work to create more awareness around these groups and topics, as well as interrogate why these people and problems have not been treated as worthy of awareness.

What I am advocating for, specifically, is a more critical look at how the politics of awareness are playing out in the industry, and the oft-destructive patterns we observe: awareness without accountability, awareness without critical thought, awareness that contributes to hypervisibility, awareness without systemic analysis, awareness that erases entire groups of affected people, and awareness as replacement for comprehensive solutions, of which awareness is but one component.
In the end, it is to the benefit of the status quo — to technology corporations who want a different brand but not different demographics, to VC firms who want to look progressive but not shift capital, and to the media companies who rely on their money — to make us all believe that awareness is enough.