Culture 27 April 2018
In recent years, the plight of women in tech has been been plainly highlighted by the widening pay gap in Silicon Valley, the funding disparity for female entrepreneurs and the serious absence of female executives in the industry.
This stems (pun intended) from the lack of girls getting involved in computer science and engineering from an early age. This is not news. What is news, however, is the push from select corporate big shots to engage girls with tech in their youth in order for a company's gender divide to shrink in the next decade.
Initiatives to combat the divide are slowly starting to emerge across corporate firms to encourage female involvement in these industries. But the progress is slow, and the programs aren't getting a ton of press coverage. Girls in the gaming industry may not be the most common occurrence, but according to experts is the proactive impetus many need to get engaged with the world of tech beyond their Instagram newsfeed.
Laila Shabir (second from left) at the Girls Make Games workshop at Thomson Reuters HQ
The fact that the gaming industry currently only employs 8 percent women greatly troubled tech entrepreneur Laila Shabir, who launched her response to the disparity, an educational summer camp called Girls Make Games she founded in 2014, which teaches girls aged 8 to 16 how to code their own video games in 2014. According to the Shabir, at the end of the camp, girls were crying at the prospect of returning home. “My eyes just popped," she says, underscoring the hugely underserved population of young women interested in tech, but feeling left out due to its male-oriented positioning in many schools. “I had no idea this was so important to so many girls, and this was something they weren't getting."
“You go to a games convention, and it's like walking into a fraternity,"
- Laila Shabir, Founder & CEO, Girls Make Games
It wasn't long before Shabir's innovative concept caught the eye of Katherine Manuel, Senior Vice President at Thomson Reuters, who had a similar passion project. After climbing the ranks at the international media and financial firm, Manuel has decided that rather than resting on her laurels, she wants to advocate for changing the status quo, hoping for a “trickle up" effect that would eventually hit corporate America.
“It was time to use my platform for good so I was sort of searching for 'what is that good?' and 'what are opportunities to give back?' I think we have to push to have more women in higher roles in technology to create that sense of community here and we will continue to promote people who are more diverse."
- Katherine Manuel, Senior Vice President of Innovation, Thomson Reuters
In a moment of happenstance meets chance, Manuel's husband forwarded her an email from one Laila Shabir, thanking him for his contribution to a GMG Kickstarter campaign (which he decided to support after coming across on social media). “I read it, and it was just so inspiring that I wrote her an email," Manuel says about her reaction to reading about Shabir's powerful vision. “She laughs now but I think the subject line was something like, 'Let's Change The World Together.' And so she immediately responded back and I thought I had reached a star."
Manuel then began a dialogue with Shabir about how TR could be helpful to Girl Make Games and spread the word of her work. “I think gaming is an entry point for girls to get excited about broader computer sciences and even STEM in general," says Manuel. “That then led to me really look at creating that umbrella of the Future of Innovation, and how important it is to have inclusivity, diversity and innovation in the pipeline." Out of their discussion came a vision for creating pop-up GMG workshops, which saw outfits as far as TR offices in Toronto, Canada, and most recently at the company's space in Times Square in Manhattan. Given the company's large global footprint, and GMG's need for both space and lots of computers, it indeed proved a symbiotic relationship. And one, both say, will continue into the future.
Katherine Manuel, SVP of Innovation at Thomson Reuters, says "we've got to get these little girls excited about technology and not thinking it's a 'boy thing'"
According to Shabir and Manuel, the push to get girls more interested in STEM will eventually help push our global economy into the future, not to mention give a leg up to companies looking to bring a more diverse workforce into the fold. For Shabir, it was an HR discrepancy that first led her to identify the issues faced women in STEM.
“As we were building our games studio (she also runs parent company LearnDistrict), we were trying to hire women and it was almost impossible," says the young Pakistani immigrant who faced an uphill familial battle in her own life when she decided to go to MIT. Looking for 20-something graduates to help build out her team- an integral part of Shabir's vision- proved immensely more difficult than she expected. “When I asked people why it was so hard, the response was 'women don't want to do this. Girls don't want to play games.'"
For Manuel, bringing girls into the fold means a more diverse workplace and a broader spec for innovation. Outside of her work for the company, she mentors women in computer science at undergraduate level. She notes that while most computer science entry level courses begin at a 50/50 gender ratio, by course end, the number of girls graduating is a mere 18-20 percent. This, coupled with her work with GMG is indicative of a bigger and longer-term vision at Thomson Reuters, who last year committed to 40 percent female leadership across the company by 2020.
And according to Manuel, the impetus to this realization was a personal one, namely one she noticed when her children hit 4th and 5th grade and began to be leveled into math class. “The teachers were leveling math and didn't really think much of it, just sort of like who is picking things up at this level or that level and this speed and that speed," she says. “And I just started asking questions, like 'I would like to see the gender break down of how you're doing this.' The data was appalling."
“I sat with teachers and the head of the school and had them walk through the data and teachers jaws were dropping," she says, continuing, “they didn't realize that they had subconscious bias themselves, they see it in others but don't do it themselves, I think looking at collections of data and putting it in front of people, the more awareness it brings. "
This is an unfortunate but glaring truth. Girls begin at ages as young as five years old to disassociate themselves with concepts or activities that are viewed as 'for boys.' So Shabir decided to take upon herself to make gaming fun, appealing, and specifically targeted to young ladies between the ages of 11 and 16.
Unlike others, who have presented a meagre lip service of the women's movement Manuel, is very much putting money where her mouth is. “It's corporate responsibility in a sense of, how are we going to build diverse and inclusive workplace," she says. “Not necessarily next quarter, but in the next 10-15 years."“And, it's hard for corporations," she continues. “I think we are on the hook so often for quick results and quick turns and so again, so much focus seems to be on the later stage recruiting of diverse talent but [we have] to care more about that pipeline and have a longer-term vision around those messages - it's good business."
One interesting takeaway from her still-growing concept, Shabir has found, is the girls create games with a grander worldview, specifically changing the gaming space to be more inclusive of women, not to mention more impactful. “Girls want to make games more meaningful than just entertainment," she remarks. “They make games with a purpose, like 'I want to teach this, or I want to make my player happy or I want to my mom play this because she's depressed." Rather than simply creating a game, for example, to imagine war scenarios or grand fighting scenes, the games the girls create begin to address issues, which in itself is an exceedingly hopeful indicator of things to come.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.