Inclusive Management in Tech

Here’s our STEM Women on G+ Hangout with Google+’s Chief Architect, Yonatan Zunger, co-hosted by Buddhini Samarasinghe and me. We had limited time and we could have easily spoken longer. I was especially interested to hear Yonatan speak about his personal journey to learn additional leadership skills to support diversity, such as active listening.

I see that many individuals are invested in supporting women in STEM, which is heartening, but this often means taking a personal interest to read more on the issue, as Yonatan has done. My interest as a sociologist is how to improve these individual efforts to build a critical mass. How do we better maximise and pool our collective efforts to achieve broader change?

I’m a big advocate of mandatory equity and diversity training within organisations. I also see that issues of inequality for women and other minorities need to move into a central place within all the STEM fields. These matters need to be addressed earlier in research and applied careers, so that they are not marginal topics that we debate later. Instead, the conversation we’re having with STEM Women is: things are unequal, what are we going to do about it?


Continue reading Inclusive Management in Tech

I Joined the Team at STEM Women

A couple of weeks ago, I joined the STEM Women management team. We are a not-for-profit run by three women of colour: Professor Rajini Rao, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and myself. Our goal is to improve the visibility and participation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). We have a number of exciting initiatives coming up, including a series of fortnightly Google+ Hangouts (broadcast on our YouTube), hosted by Buddhini and myself (with Rajini behind the scenes). This includes Hangouts with women talking about their careers in STEM; discussions with organisations about practical programs that address women’s inclusion; analysis of topical issues impeding progress and how to move forward; as well as conversations with men about how they can help support women and how we can address gender inequality together.

Earlier today Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and I co-hosted the first of our new fortnightly interview series, and Rajini womaned our social media live. We chatted with Professor Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist specialising in microbiome research and editor-in-chief of the open-access journal PLoS Biology. Jonathan was a fantastic guest who spoke candidly about the need for male academics to be more proactive in addressing inequality. He gave some practical examples of how women’s participation in science can be bolstered by simple measures, such as by: offering childcare as part of academic conference services; through diversity training for hiring panels; and providing better mentorship for young women in science. Continue reading I Joined the Team at STEM Women

Using Technology to Improve Education in Bhutan

Bhutanese girls crowd in front of the camera, smiling broadly
Photo: Lai Ryanne via Flickr

Bhutan was the first country to install a national public wireless network. The photo set below documents the One Laptop per Child project that aims to revolutionise education and communication. It’s an especially innovative program given Bhutan’s geography encompasses many remote communities. Part of the aim is to bring laptops into the classroom while also to enabling community members to communicate over distance using email.

Bhutan’s Government Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications is undertaking research on how to improve democratic processes using information communication technologies (ICTs). I’m especially looking forward to reading more about their research programs on “smart” health, improving farming services, and cultural preservation through ICTs. 

Check out the first Linux website featuring Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan. Visit the English version, which describes a little about the project and why they chose Linux to build their national community website. 

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Photos by Lai Ryanne via Flickr.

Woman Entrepreneur in Tech

Product designer Anne Katherine Halsall provides an interesting perspective on what it’s like being a woman entrepreneur in the technology sector at different career stages. She says when she was younger and worked at Google, she was flattered to receive compliments on being a good woman programmer. As she started doing more serious coding (” learning how to learn to program”) she realised her previous attitude was a problem. Continue reading Woman Entrepreneur in Tech

Racism in Digital Entrepreneurship

An article by Complex takes up an important question: why did only 40 people turn up to a great SXSW session on growing entrepreneurship amongst minorities? The author argues that race and gender are not a benign issues in Silicon Valley, although people act as if they are. It ends on this note:

“The hour-long session, though, finally hit home when the moderator noted: ‘African Americans utilise Twitter more than any other group, yet they are so focused on using it instead of wondering how to create the next Twitter.’ It was perhaps the most powerful point of the day. And one for which no one seemed to have an answer.” 

The conclusion, that Black Americans simply need to be more entrepreneurial fails to address the structural biases that make digital careers unviable for people from disadvantaged groups. Similarly, places dominated by White people can often be hostile and unwelcoming to Black people, and fail to provide them the same social capital (social ties from their relationships and friendships) that can be leveraged into funding for start-ups and other tech projects.

Moral Panic Over Technology

This comic by xkcd is a great conversation starter for the sociology of moral panics. In 1871, Sunday Magazine lamented the lost art of letter writing. They bemoan the fact that as it becomes cheaper to write and send letters, people value “quality” letter writing less. This is seen to be to the detriment of society. The proliferation of letter writing evolves as new technologies make paper, ink and postal services more available to the masses.

The rest of the comic charts excellent examples from prestigious books, journals and professionals fretting about how technology changes the quality of human communication. We see these arguments continue today as some traditional media owners and some intellectuals decry the advent of social media and blogging, as well as how the internet in general supposedly ruins our collective intelligence. A couple of years a go, I wrote about how philosopher Edward De Bono said social media causes laziness.

What is at play behind these arguments is actually a moral panic about the control of cultural capital: technologies shift power over who controls information (in Marxist terms, the owners of the means of production). Technology doesn’t drive social change as it’s not some overpowering social force that we accept mindlessly. Instead, social relations change in response to people finding new uses for technology, and this is a feed back loop that pushes innovation in communications.

Take a look at the expanded comic and see what you think.

Gendered Algorithms

Kimberly Chapman finds that when she changes her Google+ Profile to male, she gets more technical and important stories being fed through Google+’s What’s Hot algorithm than she usually gets when her profile is set to woman. As a woman, she gets stories about kids, weight loss and “graphical platitudes” such as “I don’t need a perfect one, I just need someone who can make me feel that I am the only one.” As a male she sees no platitudes, but instead gets stories about technology and “nerd” posts that actually match her interests.

One of the reason I’m on Google+ (and I know many others too) is because I want to have a dedicated social media feed for science that isn’t diluted. And guess what? Scientists are not just stereotypical cisgender men, but we are also cisgender women and transgender people. Google+ needs a lesson on gender stereotypes. Continue reading Gendered Algorithms

Sociology of Technology

Speaking on the historical and social influences on technology adoption, science Professor Bernard Carlson, (University of Virginia, USA) tells engineering students: “they are going to produce sociotechnical systems,“ meaning they need to understand how people “interact with technology.”

Society shapes the development and use of technology (this is a function of social determinism; for example, cars didn’t really become ubiquitous until they became easy to operate and cheap to buy), but technology also shapes society (technological determinism; think of the way cars then essentially created the suburbs). Over time, the two interact with and change each other, an idea known as technological momentum, which was introduced in 1969 by Thomas P. Hughes, a historian of technology. According to Hughes’s theory, the technologies we end up using aren’t determined by any objective measure of quality. In fact, the tools we choose are often deeply flawed. They just happened to meet our particular social needs at a particular time and then became embedded in our culture.


“Why Your Car Isn’t Electric.” Source: The New York Times.

Positive and Negative Perceptions of Renewable Technology

A study finds that photos of renewable technology that are focused on the future improvement of our planet make participants feel like they can positively affect climate change. Photos of the negative impact of climate change (such as soil degradation and drought) make feel people feel as if climate change is inevitable and that it can’t be changed.

This is pretty standard knowledge in the marketing literature: positive emotions have a better impact on people absorbing a public information campaign while negative emotions (fear, guilt and shame) turn people off the message.

Photos of celebrities talking about climate change also has a negative effect on perceptions. Celebrities make people think that climate change is not very important. 

Social Influences on Technology Adoption

The New York Times has published an article on the historical and social influences on technology adoption. Science Professor Bernard Carlson, (University of Virginia, USA) tells engineering students: “they are going to produce sociotechnical systems,” meaning they need to understand how people “interact with technology.”