The Austin Chronicle

The Face of Inclusiveness

Hint: It isn't white or male

By Richard Whittaker, March 5, 2010, Screens

Can a machine be racist?

That was the question asked last year when two co-workers at the Topper's Camping Center in Waller, Texas, posted a video on YouTube about the facial tracking software for the built-in camera on a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion laptop. The software worked fine for Wanda Zamen – a white woman – but failed miserably for Desi Cryer – an African-American man. "It seems my blackness is interfering with the computer's ability to track me," Cryer noted drily.

Hewlett-Packard isn't alone in such PR debacles. In January, IT strategy consultant Joz Wang caused a stir when she blogged that her Nikon CoolPix S630 thought that her Taiwanese-American family was always blinking. Go back to the 1980s, and some speech recognition software had trouble recognizing women's voices.

Are firms deliberately making white supremacist and misogynistic technology? Of course not. However, Rad Campaign founding partner Allyson Kapin dubs the problem "inadvertent exclusion" and argues that it starts during research and development. The award-winning publicity campaign director (who will be moderating the panel Bumpin' Up: Has the Glass Ceiling Ever Smacked You in the Butt?) said, "Sometimes companies are so focused on finishing the products that they forget about the critically important end users, which are comprised of men, women, and people of all ages and backgrounds."

She points to the seemingly racist laptop as a perfect example of how poor bench-testing left a major corporation with egg on its face. Hewlett-Packard explained via its customer service blog that the problem was the algorithms used to calculate what was and wasn't a face. Kapin said, "If the development team was diverse and if the product was properly tested by a group of diverse programmers and users, this major glitch would have been caught and fixed before it was released to the public." Even the biggest and seemingly coolest of firms can fall for the same problems. When Apple released the iPad, potential users quickly redubbed it the iTampon. If the development and marketing team had checked YouTube, they'd have found that MadTV ran an iPad skit back in 2007. "It's obvious," Kapin said, "that there were very few women on the development team or marketing team, and therefore you got a product that was named after a feminine hygiene product."

It's not that women have been totally excluded from the tech sector. However, Kapin notes that while 30% of the tech labor force is women and 40% of all private firms are female-owned, women only receive around 10% of start-up cash. The tough news, she said, is that women in tech must "promote the hell out of themselves. ... A lot of PR folks don't like the word 'expert,' but if you are an expert in your field, embrace it. Don't shy away from it." She added, "It's not very insightful to hear from the same few men in tech about their perspectives on the industry."

Atlanta-based Internet media and community analyst Brandon Sheats saw that exclusion when he spent a year covering start-up firms for the TechDrawl blog. He recalled: "One, you didn't see minorities so much, and two, you didn't see women so much. The women that you did see were either not developers or they were there in a support capacity." The problem wasn't deliberate exclusion: It was that no one had bothered to think about inclusion. "People's blind spots are large when it comes to minorities in a space," he explained. "In order to bridge gaps or overcome sexism or racism, it's not a matter of making separate groups. It's about increasing awareness, period, so it becomes increasingly hard for people not to notice that there are women and minorities on the tech scene." The only solution, he added, "is to make people almost annoyingly aware." That way, he added, "we know the discrimination is not so inadvertent."

To increase visibility, Sheats deliberately invited more women to panels he was organizing, and a similar policy is how he ended up being invited to join the What Guys Are Doing to Get More Girls in Tech! panel. He recalled: "Kaliya Hamlin was asking the staff at South by Southwest for minority men, because she didn't want it to be another thing where a bunch of white guys talk about how they should include women. She wanted a racially balanced discussion."

Internet identity expert Hamlin explained, "I was just tired of the dialogue of women saying this was an issue, and women saying it wasn't." Breaking the glass ceiling won't happen just because women point out its existence. Instead, she argued, "guys who get it need to explain it to other guys" – and that goes for racially and class-based exclusion as well.

Sheats acknowledges that businesses get nervy whenever they hear the word "race" ("You always have to be careful with the question," he noted). However, beyond raw social justice, he argues that it's a thorny issue that smart businesses will want to grasp. "Knowing that it was recently projected that black people will have a trillion dollars of buying power in five years, you'd want to include them."

While mandatory diversity criteria mean that corporations are actively hiring women and minorities, Hamlin warns that the problem is about what happens when they get hired. She said: "Women who are doing superintense technical stuff are often incredibly isolated. There's often one of them in their office or work group, and they may or may not know women in their same professional niche." While it's true that a third of tech workers are women, the more hands-on technical or code-based the job, the fewer women are involved. So that 30% figure soars to 50% or more on the design and nonprofit side, but is closer to 2% for open-source developers. Hamlin established the She's Geeky all-female tech unconference to break down that professional isolation. When the techiest of the female techs took part, she said, "they met other women that work in that field that they didn't know existed and increased the number they knew by 150 percent."

While no panelist thinks they have a cure-all solution to the end result of thousands of years of bad habits and bigotry, they agree that the first step is to recognize the absences. Developers can't even presume universal access to technology. The Austin Twitterverse recently exploded with mockery when the latest phone books were delivered, writing it off as outmoded tech. That mockery ignored the fact that a lot of households still need a phone book. Even within tech-friendly Austin, 8% of high school seniors have no computer at home, while another 7% have a computer but no Internet access. On the poorest and most ethnically diverse high school campuses, only 55% of students have a computer with Internet access at home.

Yet Alison Lewis argues that there's a big difference between getting everyone into technology and making a "one-size-fits-all" technology for everyone. The sarcastic title of her panel, Duh ... It's Like Tech for Girls, has had a few people roll their eyes, but she suggests that once women get a seat at the development table, firms "must really start looking at the lifestyle of women. ... If you can't make it seem like it's applicable to their lifestyle, they just don't care." Her book Switch Craft: Battery-Powered Crafts to Make and Sew and blog are both intended to reverse the paradigm of stuffing women into an unreformed tech sector. Instead, she suggests incorporating tech into what non-tech women are already doing already. She said, "There's nothing wrong with knitting tea cozies, but those skills are perfectly applicable in the technology world." One of the most popular projects in her book is the Pillow Talk – a pillow with a cell phone headset built into it "so when you hold on to it at night you can talk to your boyfriend. ... For the younger girls, it's a perfect fit. They fall in love with it." Ultimately, she argued, inclusion comes down to one word: "Accessible. If it's not what comes out of my mouth every day, then I'm doing something wrong."

Related Panels

Bumpin' Up: Has the Glass Ceiling Ever Smacked You in the Butt?
Saturday, March 13, 11am, Hilton E

What Guys Are Doing to Get More Girls in Tech!
Saturday, March 13, 5pm, ACC 9ABC

Duh ... It's Like Tech for Girls
Monday, March 15, 11am, ACC 7

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