Who controls the robots? Men.

There's a power imbalance in the world of tech and it needs to be disrupted

I like to think I’m of average technical (in)competence for my age. I can use google to trouble-shoot when my computer screen unexpectedly appears sideways, and I have got very good at turning things off and then on again. But on a more fundamental level I have no idea what’s going on behind the screen. It’s not just that I don’t know the specifics of how it works, I don’t really understand how it’s possible that it works at all. Because of this, every day I have to place an incredible level of trust in the people who do understand these things.

The latest Silicon Valley sexism row is just another reminder that this trust is unfounded. David McClure is the latest big shot tech entrepreneur to resign following accusations of sexual harassment. After repeated denials he finally capitulated in a blog entitled I’m a Creep. I’m sorry.’

Combined with a particularly hostile environment for motherhood it’s no surprise that women are chronically underrepresented in tech. Just one in five founders are women and a majority of US start-ups have no women at all on boards or in executive positions. And these numbers have actually got worse since 2015. Even on the supposedly egalitarian vehicle, Bitcoin, 95% of transactions are made by men.

It’s not that progress is slow. When it comes to the bigger trends there isn’t any progress at all.

This isn’t just about getting gender equality within the tech industry — though that is important — it is essential to achieving gender equality for women everywhere. History teaches us that when certain groups are under-represented in an industry, their interests are under-represented too.

Take medicine, a profession historically dominated by men, and only now approaching pay parity. The result? Fifty years after we put a man on the moon, we still haven’t succeeded in producing an effective male contraception (a viable option was halted because 6% of men experienced acne, mood swings and muscle pain – is that list of symptoms sounding familiar to anyone?). Women and ethnic minorities are systematically under-represented in clinical trials and as a result health care is less likely to meet their needs.

Tech is following a worryingly similar trajectory. It’s not hard to see the symptoms of under-representation, both of women and also certain ethnic groups – with Apple’s Health app not having a menstruation tracker, and other apps struggling to recognise darker-skinned faces or, appallingly, tagging them as gorillas. There are signs of more sinister and direct discrimination too, with Facebook until only recently offering advertisers the option to exclude people from advertising according to their ethnicity. And where discrimination does occur in online advertising, tech companies can throw up their arms and say hey, it wasn’t me, it was the algorithm.’

Technology itself is neither inherently good nor bad. But technology creates power, and current power structures tend to concentrate power and control in the hands of the few.

The only way that technology is going to achieve its transformative potential is if we disrupt these currents of power. We should look to the bravery of women like Sarah Kunst and the solidarity and community of girls who code.

But we also need the power of technology to be distributed amongst more people, not just more different kinds of people. The New Economics Foundation is working with cleaners and care workers to scope out the potential of building digital platforms to ensure that workers are really in control of the technology that they depend on.

History shows us that power imbalances can be corrected when people take action. The dominance of men in the tech world is no exception to that rule.

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