#movethedial Women in Tech: Reflections On Value Led Conference

Posted / 27 November, 2019

Author / Simone Abel

#movethedial Women in Tech: Reflections on an Empathy-led, Values-based Conference

Enginess' Director of Digital Strategy, Simone Abel, reflects on the second annual #movethedial Women in Tech conference held at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, earlier this month.

I had the pleasure of attending the second annual #movethedial conference on women in tech, inclusion, and diversity (D&I), held in Toronto this month. As a woman in tech with 20 years of work-life in the web design and development industry, I have my fair share of experience being the “only” in the room...the only woman, front-end developer, design & UX strategist, project manager, small business owner, business analyst, managing consultant... occupying a central and critical senior role within technical teams, often pioneering teams, made up of all men. Where my male peers and clients are concerned with sales, tactics, and delivery (the “what” and “how”), I’ve always had a slightly different orientation and led projects differently, choosing to focus instead on the “who” and the “why” before concluding on the rest.  

Needless to say, it’s been a long hard fight to inculcate a mutual appreciation of the value of doing things this way, and experience design thinking in general, as a valid approach to problem-solving within the technology space. Over the past two decades, I’ve seen plenty of folks come around, but also plenty who haven’t. From where I sit on the agency-side, I think we’re starting to see more demands to pivot with values-based, empathy-led decisions, supported by research and data, over a rush to implement sole-sourced tactical solutions. I’m seeing industries of all kinds borrow from essential service and user-centric design thinking approaches to improve their own products, services, and ultimately business models, which is very exciting. These businesses want to work with agencies and suppliers who share the same values.

Inclusion and diversity are about more than a moral or ethical imperative. Yes, it feels good. But it also makes good business sense. The excellent line-up of speakers reminded us of the data. 25% of people working in tech are women and participation levels are not growing. 70% of all websites don’t meet *basic* accessibility requirements. Women in senior leadership roles - anywhere - are still really rare. Senior female mentors are rare. When half the general population is female, our societies are multicultural, multi-racial, gender diverse, sexuality diverse, and/or rapidly aging...that’s a lot of talented staff you aren’t hiring, customers you may not be reaching, and still others that you may be outright alienating or even harming.

There were also plenty of warnings and lessons learned around the proliferation of automated technologies using machine learning and AI, and social media, which deploys both in vast amounts. Kathryn Hume of Borealis AI reminded us that algorithms are a human construct. As such, they reflect our own hidden (or not) biases, sometimes producing unintended negative results (like auto-shortlisting job applicants who are all from the same socio-economic and cultural demographics). Kat Holmes, researcher, author and Director of UX Design at Google, showed us pictures of playgrounds and swing sets, to illustrate the most basic accessibility bias: how does a small child or a disabled person even climb into this swing to use it? Randi Zuckerburg of Zuckerberg Media shared her story of launching Facebook Live, and admitted, never thinking it would be used by a terrorist to live-stream his mass murder inside a mosque full of congregants in New Zealand. That was probably very naive of her, but it serves to remind us all that what we build and how we collect and use data on people’s behaviour does matter, for better and sometimes worse. A thoughtful approach is needed...as behavioural data  is the new commodity / new economy. It’s complicated, but that’s where diversity and inclusion come in.

It was a real treat to attend such a glamorous event, in a classy location with 2,000 others, mostly women of all kinds, who, in one way or another, have shared similar experiences, leading and pioneering in their respective tech fields and specialties. What a contrast to Collision, which I also attended earlier this year in Toronto. Where Collision is about start-up culture and competition, pitching, and making it to the top of the pile of the moment, #movethedial is about slow, deliberate, and conscious decision making to affect change in the most basic human way: with empathy, inclusion, cooperation and going out of your way, little by little, to help someone else. As technology proliferates into every corner of our lives and businesses, small but big acts of sharing can go a long way.

When you graduate as an engineer in Canada, you receive an iron ring. It’s a faceted pinky ring that serves as a constant reminder of your ethical oath and obligation as an engineer to live by a high standard of professional conduct. With the same principle in mind, I’ll be spearheading a new, formalized accessibility statement for Enginess.io over the next few months, to help govern our approach to product design and strategic technical consulting services more intentionally.

I’ve been a quiet champion of web accessibility for over 15 years now since WAI 508 was introduced by the W3C. It’s a long game, and you gotta start somewhere. We are now starting to see “accessibility” defined on broader inclusion and diversity terms, beyond ARIA code technique and graphic design standards for the web. Ontario’s AODA regulation is providing a standard for change, but we are very behind the US on this. My conference day re-affirmed the values and ideals about the web that I’ve had since the beginning.

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