The Swaddle Spotlights Tech Inclusivity at the World Economic Forum’s India Summit
“It is important for women to own and run tech, because it is only when we do that that we can best understand what practices we need to adopt to make online spaces safer for women.”
“Do you remember the riddle about the father and son who are in a car accident? I heard this first as a kid on a sitcom in the ’80s. The father dies and the son is taken to a nearby hospital. The doctor at the hospital comes in and says I cannot operate on this boy, he is my son. And the question was: How is that possible?” The Swaddle’s Rupa Pandit posed to the room as she kicked off “Making Tech More Inclusive,” an October 4th event of the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit 2019 in Delhi. “Of course, the answer is: the doctor is the boy’s mother.”
Thirty years ago, the thought experiment helped expose our implicit bias and assumptions about which gender was most suited to which professions, but now it’s dated. Or is it? Pandit went on to share the recent, real-life experience of Louise Selby, a female pediatrician in England, who was unable to access her gym locker room with her keycard because access was determined by title, and Selby’s title — Dr. — was coded into the system as a male-only title. Implicit biases still rule our lives and are shaping the very technology — and hence day-to-day experiences — that innovators used to promise would free us from such assumptions.
It was a sobering start to a discussion that focused on the link between humanity’s and technology’s limitations. Led by five accomplished women — Anu Madgavkar, a partner of the McKinsey Global Institute, who leads MGI’s global research on labor markets and inclusive growth; Zubaida Bai, the founder and CEO of ayzh, a social enterprise that provides products and services along the entire reproductive cycle of women and girls; Ivy Huq Russell, the founder and CEO of Maya, an app that connects Bangladeshi women to health and mental health experts, and to each other; Suyi Kim, who oversees the Asia Pacific investment portfolio for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board; and The Swaddle’s Shrishti Malhotra — attendees examined their own and society’s implicit biases and identified opportunities for tech to become more inclusive.
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Russell highlighted how incorporating women’s points of view into technology development can make better products and insulate women and marginalized communities from danger.
“It is important for women to own and run tech, because it is only when we do that that we can best understand what practices we need to adopt to make online spaces safer for women,” she said.
And Bai stressed the limits of tech when it is developed upon the elitist assumption that users will be able to read.
“One of the biggest barriers when it comes to tech and marginalized communities is illiteracy. All tech is designed in a way that assumes that people are literate, from something as simple as how people navigate the keyboard,” she said.
And Madgavkar pointed out the barriers to including varied perspectives in tech development.
“We need to help girls and women who are interested in STEM education to climb steps in the ladder — to continue to be in the STEM workforce and to found and lead tech-oriented businesses,” she said.
Attendees then broke into table discussions exploring the different facets of inclusive tech highlighted by the panelists.
Gender bias in the workplace — especially discrimination during a hiring process — is often one such root cause in creating technology that does not account for women and the way they experience digital systems. In a discussion led by Kim, what stood out was the need to intentionally promote diversity at every level. For example, a board that has equal representation of men and women should not be pursued purely because of a company’s commitment to being socially conscious, but also because diversity makes a company more successful overall.
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The need for more women and marginalized folk to access technology also sparked discussion, in tandem with the urgent need to make digital spaces safer for both and the governance of such spaces. The first step to making technology safer and accessible is knowing one’s rights in both online and offline spaces.
“From the AC in this room, whose temperature is set to men’s body temperature, to the doors of the conference halls which are heavy and designed for men to pull, things just haven’t been designed keeping women in mind, even the simplest tech. So we really need to reflect on how we can undo the damage and reimagine this whole design ecosystem,” Bai said.
While the need to give women equal access to technology and its massive potential is important, it is unachievable without first knocking down the barriers women face while entering or even developing an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields (STEM). The need for women to study STEM subjects, remain in STEM fields and to participate in developing inclusive technology as both investors and entrepreneurs became apparent in conversation with Madgavkar and Bai.
It’s about not only encouraging girls and women to study STEM topics, but also about creating work environments that facilitate women’s STEM careers. “It’s extremely important to sensitize men at the workplace — both colleagues and leaders. But it’s also important to sensitize them in terms of attitudes to unpaid work because that is a huge burden that often falls mostly on women,” Madgavkar said.
“How many venture capitalist women do we see out there, putting money on businesses? My role as a venture capitalist is to invest in women, and in women who are mothers,” Bai said.
A common conclusion that discussions often circled back to is the need for men to participate and actively help eliminate bias in technology. Whether it be by utilizing positions of power to influence the hiring of more women, or by allowing more space for women in the boards of big companies, or by opening access to the vital and traditionally male-only networks that can help women’s careers, reimagining technology — and all of the aspects that go into building it — creating enough space for everyone is as much men’s responsibility as it is the struggle of women and marginalized communities, discussions concluded.