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Designing women: what difference do you make?

By Steph Guthrie

The involvement of women as technology makers, their treatment as users, and their representation in content are all connected. A great example of this phenomenon is the controversy over Apple’s Siri application and its inability to locate abortion clinics or the morning-after pill, while finding condoms was no problem.

Many argued Apple was openly conservative/anti-choice, but I found Sady Doyle’s line of thinking far more compelling (and likely). Doyle argues that Siri’s failure to locate products and services women might seek lies in the homogeneity of the designers and developers who worked on the application. If most of the people involved in creating an application are men (or straight, or white, or able-bodied, or anything really), the application’s scope will necessarily reflect that in ways that may be obvious or subtle.

This problem seems relevant to the increasing pressure on Sheryl Sandberg to make good on her ostensibly feminist “Lean In” sentiment and address rampant misogynistic content on Facebook. Soraya Chemaly notes that content depicting (and joking about) violent rape and domestic violence manages to evade removal from Facebook despite user reports. Chemaly argues:

[Facebook’s review process] does not recognize sex-based hate speech and is not set up to consider context. Specifically, Facebook has no reporting mechanism for considering how a hostile environment (treating rape and violence against women literally as a joke or ignoring content that is viscerally threatening) might affect its female users.

Consider this problem in the context of Kate Losse’s account of her career at Facebook, the lack of women’s representation on the board of directors, and the barriers Losse faced in terms of appropriate compensation for her work. It appears that Facebook could stand to make some strides in terms of women’s inclusion and leadership.

I wouldn’t argue that women Facebook users explicitly think, “I never want to work for Facebook” when they come across misogynistic content on the site. However, on an aggregate scale it seems that the persistent lack of women in technology jobs may have something to do with how they see themselves represented in the field’s existing output. And that, friends, is the definition of a vicious circle.

Women who work in the field: what are your thoughts? Are you ever relied upon as interlocutor for women users? Have the firms you worked for produced content that you believe reflects a diversity of perspectives on design and development teams? Do you see a relationship between input and output? Tell us in the comments.

Steph Guthrie is the moderator of the MediaTech Commons. She’s an internet animator and a full-time feminist. You can join her at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here. Already a member? Log in here.

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