10 Jul Who Defines the Future?
This blog post is about six Afghan high-school girls who are robotic engineers. It’s also about the recent loss of a major French feminist, and about advice from a great aviator, too. Intrigued?
Well, we reach these people by what may seem like (but isn’t) a circuitous route. So relax and read on.
The Kapor Center for Social Impact, together with the Harris Poll, surveyed more than 2000 people who left technology jobs in the last three years, and now have released a first-of-its-kind report called “The Tech Leavers Study,” analyzing the reasons tech workers leave their jobs. Spoiler alert: they’re driven out.
The study found consistent sexual harassment, stereotyping, and bigotry. One in 10 women in tech experiences unwanted sexual attention, and nearly one in four people of color faces stereotyping. The findings suggest that sexual harassment and unfairness are disproportionately high in the tech sector, compared to other industries, and that tech firms openly dedicated to “disruption” of the status quo are defiantly rejecting labor standards, while white male executives do little or nothing to fix systemic pay disparities and ignore complaints about sexism and racism.
Women of color in particular reported high rates of discrimination: 30 percent said they were passed over for a promotion, a rate significantly higher than for European American women. Unwanted sexual attention was reported at rates almost twice as high as that of employees in other industries, and of those who said they faced sexual harassment 57 percent said that was what contributed to their departure. LGBT tech workers were the most likely to experience bullying and hostility, with 25 percent citing rude or condescending behavior and 24 percent saying they’d been publicly humiliated.
Previous studies showed that women make up only 25 percent of the entire tech workforce and that at the largest companies, such as Apple, Google, and Facebook, African American and Latino employees combined represent only 3 to 5 percent of employees. In the past few weeks, The New York Times also ran stories on sexual harassment and discrimination by venture capitalists in the cut-throat culture of tech start-ups. This exposure is necessary, healthy, and way overdue.
Could we pause for a moment to consider why the same-old sexist and racist dynamics evident in every other industry are so especially crucial in this case?
The world of technology, like it or not, is the world of tomorrow. Furthermore, the Internet is becoming the public square, what the Agora was to the Athenians: the center of political, philosophical, economic, and social life. What does it mean then, if female people and if people whose derma cells are rich in melanin are in effect barred from the public square, banned from the future? Because make no mistake: that’s what we’re really talking about.
How ironic, that those young white males who flaunt themselves as radical disruptors sneer at what they would term primitive customs like purdah or the harem or Jim Crow—while they themselves inflict modern versions of the same thing. They’re building a brave new world, all right—just not for anyone who isn’t male, white, and preferably young. After all, if ancient Greece is any model, it works. Athens had the first democracy—that is, except for women and slaves, who were thought to lack souls, who couldn’t vote, and who were so busy serving their “democratic” lords that they had neither time nor permission to stroll in the Agora, mulling philosophy. Are we now being offered a futurist version of that past?
In pinched, binary, patriarchal thinking, the offered alternative to that Silicon Valley view of tomorrow is equally ironic. I’m referring to those regimes, invariably and zealously religious, whose gaze is fixed backward, longing for a past that will not come again; who insist that behavior be so controlled it is severely repressed; who want “their” women and “their” other enslaved human beings to live as if we were in the 12th century or earlier, while their ruling clergy and devout armies become adept at social media and addicted to their smart phones and laptops, while they travel on 21st-century planes and shoot 21st-century weapons.
It’s no use blaming the technology, blind to and innocent of the uses to which it’s being put. As always, the questions are who controls and uses that technology, how it’s applied and to what purposes, and why equality in this area is not simply a matter of rights for any single group—even though that should be sufficient justification in itself—because we’re not discussing a single group but rather the overwhelming majority of the human population.
Who defines the future? That’s what’s really at stake.
Six teenage girls were trying to define the future as they fought to get robotics equipment through customs—in Afghanistan. Think about that. I do, I think about those girls. I think about the hours they put in, training, and building a ball-sorting robot to compete in an international competition. Other teams received their raw materials back in March, but theirs was held up for months due to concerns about terrorism. So these teen engineers improvised, building motorized machines from household materials—remember, in Afghanistan. They were preparing to compete in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition to be held in Washington, D.C. this month. The girls, from Herat in western Afghanistan, first had to persuade their parents to let them go—no easy task. Then they had to make the 500-mile journey to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to apply for their visas. They did this twice, although that route and the embassy had both been targeted by deadly truck bombs.
And now their visa applications have been denied.
The fallout from Trump’s travel ban.
On their competition page the girls had written, “We want to make a difference, and most breakthroughs in science, technology, and other industries normally start with the dream of a child to do something great. We want to be that child and pursue our dreams to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”
I think, too, about the woman France and the world lost last week: Simone Veil, age 89. She will be buried in the Pantheon in Paris, only the fifth woman among nearly 80 revered figures of France interred there. Deported during World War II, she survived the Nazi death camps, later becoming French Minister of Health. Still later, she was elected the first woman president of the European Parliament. But she was best known for championing a 1975 law that legalized abortion—still referred to as the Veil Law.
And I think about how this time it looks very likely that after 80 years, the mystery disappearance of the great aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, may finally be solved. It looks, too, as if the United States knew all along that their plane was blown off-course and that she died as a prisoner of the Japanese government during World War II—but that the U.S. didn’t release that information because we were trying to heal relations with Japan once they’d been forced to surrender. My god, we had just done the unimaginable: initiated the nuclear age by dropping the most powerful weapon then known to humanity on Hiroshima and on Nagasaki. I think about Earhart’s own words: “Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do the impossible. When they fail, failure must be a challenge to others. The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is mere tenacity.”
As for the venture-capital and tech bigots and their brothers, the mullahs and imams, the priests and generals, there are more of us than there are of them, and we will not let them close the gates of the future to us. We will not cede one millimeter in the fight to be visible, equal, knowledgeable, and powerful in the technology building that future, and in the Internet that is the public square in this information age.
I think of all the people who are not male and not white and not straight, and all the people who although they are male and white and straight still stand with us, because they realize that if there is to be a future, we’re it. I think of the Afghan girls barred from the United States but still dreaming they can change the world. I think of Amelia Earhart and of Simone Veil, both of whom did change it.
And I realize that they, and history itself, prove we long ago made the decision to act. So the most difficult thing has already been accomplished.
The rest is mere tenacity.