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“Where are all the women?” Genevieve Bell on women in tech

9 minute read
Picture of Genevieve Bell with women on laptops.

The tech industry is famous for a lot of reasons. The personalities, platforms, gadgets, exciting workplace environments, innovation, and higher than average pay all contribute to its reputation as an appealing industry for fresh-faced graduates looking to cut their teeth in a professional environment.

Unfortunately, despite all this—the industry also has another reputation: its golden doors and lucrative opportunities are not always open to women. How an industry that prides itself on forward-thinking, progressive ideals, and a utopian vision of the future has ended up being run almost exclusively by men has been the topic of hot debate, fraught with the usual vitriol that accompanies gender discourse in the twenty-first century.

Before we jump in and consider this issue like adults—with the help of real-life adult Professor Genevieve Bell—here’s a quick summary of some of the terrible reasons put forward for why, despite making up almost half of the modern workforce, women still only comprise a quarter of the tech industry.

  • Women aren’t tech-savvy. They consume tech but don’t really understand it

  • Women aren’t interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects required for entry into the tech industry. They’re much more at home in the humanities and soft sciences

  • Women prefer a healthier work-life balance. The demands of the tech industry are too high

To any reasonable person, the above list would seem...how should we put this? A bit outdated. Like, pre-industrial society levels of outdated. But even if most recognize that the problem runs deeper than bad stereotypes, these opinions are not as uncommon as you would think (just spend some time on Twitter, and you’ll see plenty of it).

Thankfully, the topic has seen a lot of attention in recent years as individual women and adjacent activist groups push to reform our archaic cultural norms. There is no shortage of great articles, think pieces, studies, surveys, and more covering the subject in great depth from a series of diverse and nuanced perspectives. We won’t pretend to be experts in this domain—the writer of this article is a white male and works for a tech company still trying to reach gender parity (check out our work on Project 50/50 for more details!). However, we do want to shed light on the topic through the lens of one of tech’s most well-known women.

Genevieve Bell has been the subject of two previous articles in Method in Madness, where we’ve covered everything from the history and future of technological development to what cybernetics can teach us about user research. In this final installment in the series, we’re going to talk about Bell’s personal experiences as a woman in the tech industry, her work pushing women’s issues to the foreground at Intel, and her advice for the next generation of young women coming up through the ranks today.

Where are all the women?

Genevieve Bell is no stranger to the struggle for women’s rights. Her mother, Diane Bell, is one of the world’s most notable feminist anthropologists. One can only imagine the kinds of dinner table conversations taking place in that house, not to mention growing up around university campuses in the 80s meant regularly interfacing with radical politics.

It’s fair to say, the seeds for activism were planted early on in Bell’s life. And throughout her time as one of Intel’s rising stars, those seeds blossomed, with Bell becoming a key figure in the charge for diversity and inclusion at the organization.

In a thoughtful and darkly hilarious fashion, Bell describes what it was like transitioning from academic anthropology at Stanford University, where 70 percent of her cohort were women, to the male-dominated tech industry in the 90s.

“I spent a good year thinking that women were just in a different building,” she says, laughing. “There’re 15,000 people on site, right across all of Oregon, which is where I was supported. I just kept assuming there were multiple cafeterias, and all the women were somewhere else.”

When it hit Bell that her phantom colleagues weren’t in a different building but rather didn’t exist at all, she enlisted the help of her male peers to rectify the issue.

“I found a couple of senior men, and I basically just started saying to them, where are the women?” Bell tells me. “We cannot be building the future if the future just looks like all of you—so what are you going to do about that?”

Bell describes the hard work of shifting Intel’s ossified cultural norms. New systems and ways of hiring, mentoring, retaining, and promoting women were advocated for and implemented. She tells me she and a diverse group of women “agitated a great deal” for diversity and inclusion. She gave a regular presentation called “Where are all the women,” pinpointing on the company’s org chart where she saw hiring opportunities. Change did not happen overnight, and it was only through the persistence and effort on behalf of Bell and her counterparts that progress was slowly made.

Diversity isn’t enough

Studies have long borne out the positive impacts of diversity on decision-making and investment, but as Bell points out, simply hiring people from different backgrounds isn’t enough.

One of the things that doesn’t get discussed so much are the consequences of pursuing diversity initiatives. It’s fine to bring more diverse people into an organization, but then you need to start investing in a whole series of other processes.

Businesses need to invest in creating a place where women and minority groups are not only safe but where their voices can be heard. “Where you don’t end up saying, tell us what you think as the woman,” says Bell. “Making someone speak for an entire group creates more work for that person and imposes the assumption that they’re the only person who has that responsibility.”

According to Bell, businesses have to pay attention to the outreach and marketing materials they use, checking that they don’t present an unintentionally sexist portrayal of women in the workplace. “It would be really good in your marketing material if, in every photo of your employee base, you don’t have a man performing a power pose and women staring at him adoringly. Or a man writing on a whiteboard and all the women on their laptops,” laughs Bell.


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There will be conflict—and that’s a good thing

When an organization invites more diverse perspectives, it should be prepared for the resulting conflict that comes with it, says Bell. “It turns out once you have people who come from different places in their worlds and have different viewpoints and different skills, they argue a lot. Not because they necessarily think any less of each other, but because they have different vocabularies, different theoretical paradigms, different approaches, and you have to find a way to make that productive.”

The history of women in technology

The absence of women in technology today is underscored by a darker reality— women have been at the forefront of technological innovation since its early days and have since been sidelined by their male counterparts.

For example, more women were graduating in computer science in the 1980s than today, making it the only STEM discipline to see women’s participation rates drop in modern times.

Bell references women’s employment as “human computers” in the 1940s when programming was thought of as a lowly clerical function. Women were also widely employed to perform advanced ballistics calculations as part of the war effort. Part of this work was the development of the world’s first electronic computer—the ENIAC— which was worked on primarily by women.

After men returned from the war in the US, many of them took advantage of the GI Bill’s offer of a free education to pursue a career in technology, working side-by-side with their female counterparts. It probably comes as no surprise, but these men, armed with the privileges of their gender, went on to dominate the industry.

“It’s an entire system that structurally reinforces itself,” says Bell. “So it’s not that men are better at those things or that men want to do them more. It’s that every sign and signal through that system means you have more men running things, looking for people that they feel comfortable with, who coincidentally happened to look more and more like them. And so the system reproduces itself.”

“There’ve been women there the whole time, though. We just write them out of the story.”

Bell’s legacy

Genevieve Bell is no stranger to inaugurals. She is the first person to hold the inaugural Florence Violet McKenzie Chair at the Australian National University, named after Australia’s first female electrical engineer. Bell is also the first SRI International Engelbart Distinguished Fellow, the first female Senior Fellow at Intel (Intel’s highest technical rank), and the first woman we know of to head up a school of cybernetics.

There’s no doubting Bell’s contributions to the field. Her recognition is well deserved. Though, she tells me it’s unfortunate she was the first woman to receive so many of these awards and titles, considering how many deserving women had come before her.

“Usually, what that feeling does is energize me to make sure that while I might be the first, I will never be the last or the only,” Bell tells me.

“I think you have an interesting obligation as a senior person, and I suspect particularly as a senior woman, to both be visible but also clear about the work it takes to get there. You don’t want it to be as if by magic; it takes hard work. And then you also want to make sure you are creating as many opportunities and possibilities for the people that follow you,” says Bell. “And then I think it’s got to be about how you ensure—not that the women that follow you are exceptional, because they are exceptional—but that the system sees and recognizes them. So for me, it’s as much about how you change the men in the system than it is to make the women any better than they already are because most of them are already amazing.”

If you're interested in Bell’s work at the 3A Institute in the School of Cybernetics at the Australian National University, you should know they’re currently recruiting students from a broad range of backgrounds and disciplines for the 2022 Master of Applied Cybernetics. Think working with Bell, tackling the grand challenges of the twenty-first century sounds like fun? Check out https://3ainstitute.org/education-masters for more information.

About the contributors
Sean Bruce
Content Editor, Dovetail
Martini lover and word-wrangler.
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