Business, Culture

Dear Tech Industry: How to be a good ally to women

Woman walking up the stairs while mean take the elevator
Illustration by Reetta Kotilainen

You’ve probably heard it before, but it bears repeating: there is not enough representation and inclusiveness for women in tech. The world as we know it has been designed for men – from cars to medicine – and as we innovate new technologies every day, our world is in threat of becoming even more biased if we don’t get the perspectives and contributions of half our population. If you’re curious to hear what the tech world is like for women, and want to learn about how you can help to be a good ally, read on!

The subject of feminism and equality can heat up easily and spin out of control. For many people, talking about this topic can feel like walking into an ambush, and some companies even prefer to ban any political or controversial discussions. But feeling empathy for your colleagues should not be branded as political or controversial. It’s so important to be able to have these discussions to gain a mutual understanding around these subjects and biases that we’re all so painfully blind to.

With this post we aim to speak directly to the tech industry at large, to tell them how to be good allies to us as women. So who are we? Mirva is a Finnish business designer in the Helsinki office. Cassandra is a Filipino/Australian growth marketing and sales professional in the Amsterdam office. Combined, we’ve both been working in tech for six years. Of course, what we cover with this post is only one part of a much broader diversity discussion, and we also acknowledge the challenges POC, non-binary, and LGBTQI+ folk experience. Since we are both privileged white and bi-racial cis-women, we’ll be sticking to the parts we have personal experience in.

The Game is Rigged

Women belong to the 50% of the population that lives in a world that was not designed for them. Just taking our lived experiences out of the equation, the facts are crushing. For example:

  • Around one third of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner (United Nations World’s Women 2020)
  • In 2019, on average, women comprised 39% of the workforce worldwide, and held only 28% of managerial positions (United Nations World’s Women 2020)
  • Due to the male-led design of cars, when a woman is involved in a car crash she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 17% more likely to die than a man. (Washington Post, 2012)
  • Only 22% of 1st stage clinical trial studies are on women and in 25% of the studies the representation of women does not match the manifestation of the illness studied (Labots, Jones, Visser 2018), which distorts the clinical trial results in life threatening ways.
  • 2/3 of clinical studies don’t report results by gender (Geller, Pellettieri et al 2011), which is a downright waste of data and diminishes the ability to enrich previous knowledge with new research.

As women, we’ve always known the brutal reality of the world even before someone put them into neat-yet-devastating statistics. Our collective experience has given us an overwhelming amount of evidence to tell us that things aren’t right.

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Our experiences

from the quantitative to the qualitative

I've found that in professional settings women are ruled by unspoken societal forces to be pliable, peaceable. Always stay back and tidy the office when everyone's left. Organise the gifts for your colleagues' farewells. Take a deep breath and ignore the sexist remarks. Microaggressions that are like paper cuts en masse, each one so small yet so incredibly painful. But unlike papercuts, these wounds don't heal. As they mount up, and we start to speak out, we're invariably questioned, forced to justify our stance. And when you're also from a marginalised background, the microaggressions are compounded - you're dealing with implicit and explicit stereotypes about your ethnicity. In a previous job, some colleagues told me during a meeting that I reminded them of their lovely Filipino cleaners. I smiled through the conversation, but I was in shock - it's a well-meaning comment that's entrenched in race and class-based bias. (They also left it to me to clear the meeting room afterwards, despite being their equal peer). I never called it out because I knew that environment wasn't psychologically safe enough for me to do it.

I was talking to a colleague of mine the other day and casually referred to the #textmewhenyougethome and #notallmen topics that had taken social media by storm recently. My colleague had no idea what I was talking about, whereas all the women in my life knew exactly what was going on. Of course they knew about Sarah Everard, who did everything “right”, and was still brutally murdered. Her death ignited a discussion about the insecurity and threat of violence women casually deal with every day, and how a wide variety of incidents get labeled as isolated, even when statistically they are not. The discussions on social media raised the point about how the blame is carelessly shifted to victims, instead of the attackers, and how it’s somehow normal that women fear for their safety when walking home – or in their homes. Naturally there was an instant counter-movement of men claiming that while some men did these horrible things, #notallmen were like that (and a smaller movement of outraged tall men). The men who make these arguments fail to understand that while women do know it’s not all men, 1/3 women are assaulted by a man during their lifetime. So yes, it's #notallmen, but it's definitely #toomanymen, and we don’t know which men, so in both our private and public lives we have to assume all men to keep ourselves safe. But the men in my life had no idea about these themes and issues that are of utmost importance to the women around them. The social media bubbles we have are so tight, that they prevent us from being included in conversations that could help us better understand each other.

Just like various types of violence against women have weaselled its way into being a casually-accepted part of our everyday lives, other discrimination and biases have too. The brave new world is built in many ways every day, and the tech industry plays a key role: our biases can scale up from the individual level to products, services and structures of data management. 

Women have been left out of product design and it shows. It’s well documented that voice recognition technology favours the voices of men over women. And now studies have found that facial recognition technology currently in market has shown to be least accurate when identifying black women, with error rates up to 34% higher for this group than for white males. This could seriously harm marginalised groups at scale – for example negatively impacting their outcomes when applying for jobs and mortgage loans. Now several states across the US are banning use of facial recognition technology due to this coded bias. Women represent only 1 in 4 technical roles in the big five technology companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft), so it stands to reason why bias against marginalised groups can show up in their products – representatives from these groups might not even be in the room.

According to Vivek Wadhwa – author of Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology – stated in a 2018 Futurism article, “We are effectively leaving out half of our population by excluding women from the innovation economy. Given where technology is headed, with technologies advancing exponentially and converging, the skills needed to solve the larger problems require a broad understanding of different fields and disciplines. Most of all, we need the empathy to design good solutions. Women excel in both of these.”

Ok, so how can men help?

1. Listen

No one is asking you to become a women’s rights (or any rights) advocate. But we are asking you to be a supportive ally. This enables the voices of the people to take the stage, the victims, the marginalised, the disenfranchised. Resist the urge to jump to solutions or conclusions, and focus instead on understanding more by listening more. Resist the urge to judge and evaluate where it is enough to listen. Take in what is said as it is said, and leave your own baggage under the seat.

2. Believe

It’s remarkable how incapable we are of trusting the person telling the truth, when the truth is uncomfortable or disturbing, and feels like it hits too close to home. There is a natural and instant counter reaction, a strong sense of injustice, when something you feel is inherent to your sense of self is being labeled as bad and generalized in a way that implies you yourself might be bad. Fight this urge to defend when disturbing facts – like men abusing women – pop up on your radar. You are not defined by your gender, just like we are not defined by ours. If you are one of the “good guys” don’t give in to the temptation of #notallmen. Resist the urge to make it about you. Resist the urge to find alternative explanations of why something happened, or whose fault it was. Resist the urge to categorize obnoxious incidents as isolated events. Believe as a default. Whether it’s about an abusive incident at work or a design choice that would be more inclusive to women and other marginalized customers.

3. Flip it

Our double standards and bias against women is so ingrained we are often blind to it. All of us. For example if there is a sudden spike of rapes in a college campus, we would hardly blink if school authorities would issue a recommendation for women students to stay indoors after sunset, or make sure they are accompanied by someone. But if an alternative directive would be issued saying, “All men should stay indoors after dark or be accompanied by another person who makes sure they don’t rape anyone”, people would be appalled (and have been, when similar suggestions have been made to point out the double standards). A quick and easy bias trap test is to flip the parts. Take any claim, assumption or headline, and flip the gender roles or action. If it ends up sounding bizarre and/or unfair, it probably is. Here’s a few statements we’ve come up with:

“Stop calling me a MALE developer! I’m just a developer!”
Shouts angry Mike, bringing his gender into everything as usual.

“Do we really need male engineers in our team? What new feature could they possibly come up with that a group of women couldn’t?”

“Do we need data about men in this project? Or will data about people in general (i.e. women) do?”

4. Call it out

It’s a slippery slope from objectifying language to various types of abuse. For instance calling someone a “pussy” may seem like harmless humor, but it isn’t. It’s those subtle digs that normalise a culture of division. We know better now. Every time we reduce human beings into a trait, body part or an object, we’re slicing away the humanity within us. One major part of being a great ally is to stop silently accepting bad behavior around us. We all know that one person who becomes insufferably awful when too drunk. We tolerate their behavior, but hardly ever intervene unless they get completely out of control. Normalizing dehumanizing and objectifying behavior – and allowing it – is being part of the problem. Psychologist John Ameichi states that “culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated”. Do we want our culture to be defined by millions of small daily interactions that subtly, and not-so-subtly, positions one gender and/or race above all others? Very rarely are games zero sum games, but this one is. You are either part of the problem or part of the solution. It is tough as hell to be the one who calls out bullshit. And in gender and race issues you won’t even get a medal for it. Because being a decent human being and treating others equally is not an award-winning achievement. So next time you hear your friend say or do something sexist or racist, be an ally and tell them that it’s not okay. The change relies on you: women can’t change how men behave. Men can.

5. Embrace mistakes

If you’re willing to engage with this subject, you might feel pressure to get things right the first time, every time. For example you might feel like you need to be using the right terminology from the beginning – but you’re just not sure if you’ve got the words right. If that’s what’s preventing you from engaging with social justice topics at all, just remember that you’re not alone. Everybody is at a different stage in their awareness and education on these matters. Just knowing that you’re willing to listen and learn is enough to make things better for the future; and isn’t that what we’re all here for? So if you find someone from a marginalized group correcting your language or argument, resist the urge to speak over them or even worse, shut down and walk away. Acknowledge that you’re learning some new things, sit with the discomfort, and know that it’ll ultimately strengthen your relationships. 

Not-so invisible women

So here is our clarion call to the tech industry at large. Now that we know the game is rigged and the world we’ve designed has bugs, which parts of the problem are we choosing to address together as a working community? 

For tech companies to thrive and stay competitive, they have to gather momentum in creating an environment where women in tech are not objectified, seen as “female engineers”, or in other ways reduced to outliers. Women want to be seen first and foremost as colleagues and human beings and not as a representation of our gender or a minority quota. 

And with you as our allies, we believe we can.

Reading and watching tips:

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez 

Better Allies by Karen Catlin

Coded Bias by Shalini Kantayya


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