Feminism is in the details

The topic of women in tech can take on different forms. It is about women‘s positions and promotions (or the lack thereof) in the tech industry, with initiatives meant to help women network, find opportunities or hold discriminating industry leaders accountable.

It is also about developing technology that can help us make this world kinder to women, by offering solutions to problems that have to do with women’s health, safety and career dilemmas. And not last nor least, it is about how the information we consume and are exposed to influences the representation (or, once again, the lack thereof) of women everywhere.

The tech world is an arena where discoveries are made every day, and the responsibility to lead others in new directions is all around. Today’s human society learns via Wikipedia, blogs and social networks, which is why so-called insignificant changes are in fact quite dramatic. The following is a set of stories that have taken place over the past year; they may not be earth-shattering, but they absolutely symbolize the winds of feminist change.

The Facebook friends icon puts women in the center

A famously annoying saying declares that behind every successful man, well, you know. As it turns out, until recently, Facebook’s friends icon demonstrated a similar reality by showing a woman’s silhouette behind that of a man. In July, however, the company decided to change that and bring women forward.

(Photograph: Facebook/Caitlin Winner)

(Photograph: Facebook/Caitlin Winner)


This change was made after the company’s design manager, Caitlin Winner, realized that displaying a smaller image of a women “is no way to lean in.”

It is not the first time that the social media giant has chosen to share a feminist vision with users. This should come as no surprise, considering that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, is a feminist leader and the woman behind the Lean In movement. In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to take a two-month paternity leave struck a conversation, as well as his recent comment to an elderly user who encourages her granddaughter to date nerds, letting her know that she should instead encourage her to “be the nerd.”

Facebook has tremendous influence on how we as a human society communicate with one another.

The fact that it is Facebook, of all companies, that proves to be extra sensitive to how women are represented through their products is what matters most of all. As a leading force in the social networks arena, Facebook has tremendous influence on how we as a human society communicate with one another. By embracing a feminist point of view, it helps assure that the conversations we form are a little better.

The legendary hacks of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda is a well-known Nintendo game (at least to those who grew up in the 1990s), where the main character, a boy named Link, saves princess Zelda. As so often happens, young parents who choose to share beloved gaming classics with their kids feel both nostalgia and a desire for change. Such is the case of Tony, a father who decided to hack the famous game and create a more gender-neutral version. The new version does not approach the game from a male perspective, thanks to well-thought-out changes in terminology.

It’s interesting to note that hackers seem to have a thing for this game, as this is at least the third time we’ve heard of such an effort. Previous hacks allowed players to choose Zelda as the game’s leading character and lead her on a quest to save Link.

The issue of women’s representation in gaming was pretty hot this past year, with the Gamergate controversy making headlines and creating a disturbing wave of anti-feminist reactions and threats. It is refreshing to see hackers using their skills to actively create a better experience for future generations, without being scared to revisit and critically assess their own childhood memories.

Women in tech get a better (stock) image

Stock photos are an important resource to anyone creating or sharing content online. Therefor, they are instrumental in telling women’s stories to the world. That is also why women’s rights activists find it so frustrating that many images show an outdated, chauvinistic and often ridiculous portrayal.

In an effort to change the representation of women in the tech industry through commonly used stock photos, the Lean In organization created a partnership with Getty images in 2014. A new photo collection was created to help promote the modern image of the modern woman.

In 2015, we have witnessed another wonderful effort, this time highlighting the online presence of women of color in tech. A free set of stock photos was created by WOCinTech Chat and photographer Mike Ngo, and is distributed for free.

These photo collections help fight the stereotypical image of women, in and outside the tech industry. Instead of short skirts and bizarre scenarios (women laughing alone with salad, anyone?) they display a more authentic reality.

Cortana talks back

Technology has brought an abundance of virtual assistants into our lives. Many VAs are given a female name and voice, which is disturbing enough on its own. But what is even more disturbing is how quickly Siri and Cortana have joined the awful statistics of verbal sexual harassment after being asked inappropriate questions about their sex life.

In the case of Cortana, the developers at Microsoft decided to give the program better tools to deal with this problem. The writing team made changes to Cortana’s personality that let her fight disturbing communications and answer without apologizing.

The fact that the mere notion of a female presence is enough to cause harassment is telling and sad.

This is obviously more alarming than anything else. The fact that the mere notion of a female presence is enough to cause harassment is telling and sad. But Microsoft’s decision to address this issue and the company’s way of dealing with it are admirable, and sends a valuable message about what forms of communication are simply unacceptable.

Fighting for better emojis

After raising the question of what it means to do things “like a girl,” P&G’s new campaign wants to empower women through a new set of emojis that truly represent them. Currently, all professional or athletic images show male figures, whereas girls are offered a pink selection of brides and nail polish images. Because emojis are an incredibly common form of communication, particularly among younger audiences, this is indeed a problem.

So, yes, this is all part of a commercial campaign, and we have to be slightly cynical about it. But considering the number of ads that invest in doing the exact opposite of empowering women, this is nevertheless an important step in the right direction.

More than anything, the above examples show how a feminist point of view allows us to see things in a new way. For me personally, any form of critical thinking is like a visit to the optometrist. With a new pair of eyeglasses, you begin to see things, notice things, that didn’t seem to be there before. Only they were always there, and right under your nose. You cannot unsee what you have just discovered, and now feel the need to warn those around you who remain unaware of the obstacles standing in their, or others’, way.

Just like in Plato’s cave, you now hold the responsibility of bringing others into this newly discovered sunlight, on a mission that is never easy, never-ending and always crucial.