In conversation with Sara Wachter-Boettcher


In conversation with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Lorenzo Wood

Our strategy and innovation gurus, Fern Miller and Lorenzo Wood talk to Sara Wachter-Boettcher, author of ‘Technically Wrong: sexist apps, biased algorithms and other threats of toxic tech’ (Norton 2017) about the challenges of inclusiveness in the tech world, in workplaces and in the products we make. 

Your book is full of vivid examples of how technology companies are failing society: exacerbating inequalities, denying access to groups of people, allowing abuse and harassment to flourish. What are the examples that concern/haunt you the most? 

Like a lot of people, I’m pretty concerned about what’s coming out of Facebook right now. It’s not just the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where a third-party app was able to skim data about 87 million Americans (including not just those who used the app, but also those users’ friends). It’s that Facebook’s apologies continue to ring hollow. 

As the incredible  Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, Facebook has spent the past 15 years apologising for every manner of overstep, data breach, illegal practice, and offensive design choice. But when it comes down to it, it’s not been willing to change as a company. For example, they keep enhancing ad targeting options, even though those options range from incredibly creepy to the downright illegal, like allowing advertisers to target users by race

At last week’s congressional hearings, Representative Anna Eshoo asked Mark Zuckerberg whether Facebook would change its business model to protect privacy better. “I don’t understand the question,” he replied. His company has made choices, over and over, to prioritise unprecedented wealth creation over literally everything else. It’s not that he doesn’t understand. It’s that he’s not interested in rethinking priorities. And that’s true across a lot of today’s tech companies. 

What are the main drivers of the lack of diversity in the tech community today? 

It starts with the biases that exist across society. Tech isn’t the only place where women are less likely to reach senior roles, or where people of colour are routinely paid less than white counterparts. It’s then exacerbated by things like faulty pattern recognition (e.g. past successful tech folks were men, so let’s get more people like them) and narrow ideas about which skills are valuable and what it means to be “good” at technology. 

Add in heaps of money being thrown around and a lot of people telling you you’re the best and the brightest, and it’s easy for men in tech to start believing that they simply got where they are on merit, and anyone else who was capable could get it too, even though there’s loads of evidence that that’s not the case.   

You describe the way in which Slack has a culture of caring about people — users and staff — which has led to success for them. Have you some other examples the tech industry could learn from? 

I’ve been really inspired recently by Automattic, the makers of Wordpress, especially under the design leadership of John Maeda. His annual  design in tech report consistently highlights issues around diversity and inclusion — both in teams themselves and in the products they build. Automattic has also long been known for hiring a diverse team from around the world, working entirely remotely, and providing the kinds of flexibility needed to support employees with varying needs. I’m also impressed with the way they’re now really investing in user research — and not just testing a prototype before it goes live, but actually understanding people’s needs and contexts more fully before they design a feature. 

And you know, 30 percent of all websites run on Wordpress — so, clearly, you can have a successful business that also treats its employees well and its customers with respect. 

“We have a tech industry that’s found being insular is extremely lucrative… we in the industry who want change have to try to create consequences for these companies where can — such as refusing to work for them.” 

In spite of examples like Slack, presenting the facts (e.g. you explain how study after study has shown that diverse teams perform better) seems not to be enough to make large scale change. There seems to be much the same confirmation bias in the tech industry that we see in populist politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Can we use design to make the industry work better? How? 

If I could answer this question, then I think we wouldn’t have this problem! The reality is that it’s really hard to make large-scale change in general, and it’s basically impossible when there’s no perceived incentive to change, or consequences for not changing. 

Currently, we have a tech industry that’s found that being insular is extremely lucrative. If tech feels elite and untouchable by most people, then the industry can do what it wants without oversight — from the overreach of Facebook to the ridiculous valuations at startups. Being welcoming and inclusive to diverse workers would necessarily mean making tech feel more accessible and less mystified in general, and that would mean more scrutiny from the public and from government. I’m not sure we can design our way out of it. I think we in the industry who want change, have to try to create consequences for these companies where we can — such as refusing to work for them. 

What advice would you give a woman in the tech industry today? New and... seasoned? 

The first thing I’d like all women in tech to know is that you’re not alone, you’re not “too sensitive,” and you’re not imagining things. 

This field has a lot of plusses: fascinating work, challenging problems, great pay, sometimes a lot of flexibility. But it’s not an easy place to be a woman, and it’s infinitely harder if you feel alone. So if you don’t have a good network of other people like you who work at your company or in your niche, invest in building one. For me, having access to a trusted group of women in my field has been invaluable. They help me negotiate better, they help me sort out whether something I’ve experienced is normal, and they celebrate my successes. That’s a big part of the reason I started No, You Go, a podcast with two of my closest friends who also happen to be ambitious women in tech — an engineering manager and the CEO of tech publishing company. We try to be the badass women in our listeners’ corner — the people who’ll give them real talk about careers, ambitions, and the challenges we face, and who’ll help them live their best feminist lives at work. 

Which brings me to my last bit of advice, specifically for seasoned women in tech: if you feel secure in your career, I strongly recommend finding ways to support and champion women who are in more junior roles, whether that’s at your job, in professional groups, or on social media. Not only do those women need it, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to share what I’ve learned and help other women avoid some of the toxic things I went through. 

In the news in the UK is publication of gender pay gap reports, now mandated for companies with over 250 staff. First impressions are that it’s flawed, but provoking interesting conversations. Time will tell. Do you think that some sort of standardised reporting on the products of technology companies would be useful? What would you include? 

I’d really like to see more accountability and transparency from companies on the products they release — especially as we’re seeing more and more products that are algorithmically determined and relying on machine learning. There’s very little oversight into where the data comes from that these machines are learning from (after all, you need historical data to teach the machine, and what exactly is “neutral” historical data?), or whether it’s being tested on an appropriate range of users to see if it works. And often, those products fail more often for women and people of color. This is an emerging field without clear answers, but I would look to experts like the folks at AI Now for recommendations about how to track this.  

 “I just want every single organisation to ask the question, “How could this go wrong?” every time they’re making a product or design decision — and then take the answer seriously.” 

If you could do one thing to improve the way technology evolves in the future, what would it be? 

I just want every single organisation to ask the question, “How could this go wrong?” every time they’re making a product or design decision — and then take the answer seriously. That’s it. If we built that question into every single process, and truly took stock of the answer, we’d stop ourselves from doing so many things that harm people and that, frankly, don’t align with our moral compasses.  

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategy and UX expert who has worked with digital products since 2005. As the principal of Rare Union, she’s led projects and facilitated workshops for Fortune 100 corporations, education and research institutions, and startups. 

Sara is also a co-host of No, You Go — a podcast by, for, and about badass women and others who are ambitious, curious, and committed to building a career that won’t make them miserable. 

Her book of Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech (Norton, 2017) appeared in Wired’s list of top tech books in 2017 and Forbes’ list of best business and leadership books in 2017.  

Lorenzo Wood

Lorenzo Wood


Lorenzo leads his team in identifying and developing strategies and new technologies across capabilities for Digitas at a global level. With a career spanning over 30 years, his work in digital media dates back to the days of Web 1.0.


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