Lists of Women Don’t Change Anything

Group One Odd Huddled Meerkat Family Meerkats

I have mixed feelings about lists of women. Well I say mixed: my feelings on lists are, broadly, negative.

I understand the appeal — either people genuinely believe that people not being aware of women is a problem. Or they think that with a list this can really, finally, be refuted.

It seems unlikely that either of these two things are actually the problem. It really should not be news to people (men) — in 2017 — that women make up fully 50% of the population. And if that’s not news, then does a list of women change anything? Can they just continue to apply the same filters like “oh she’s not qualified”, “I’ve never heard of her”. Maybe they find someone who is “qualified” (which usually means “massively overqualified”) who they can offer an unflattering last minute invitation to, and then complain when she turns it down?

The phrasing of “qualified” is deliberate, because it is the phrasing that allows us to go from “fully 50% of the population” to “zero” and put the blame squarely on the people who apparently did not show up, did not do the work, did not “qualify”.

Except this isn’t the Boston Marathon, or some kind of standardized test: it’s a subjective and largely undocumented process. The word “qualified” is just a vague descriptor for a bias vector.

These lists are really just another packaging of women for the male gaze. Like, you couldn’t see individuals, so let’s make you a collection.

Regularly, I see some kind of list of women. Sometimes my name is on it, but mostly it is not. The only time being on a list had any kind of effect on my life was when it was a list of 👾🐊 harassment targets. Note: not a good one. It inspired a level of paranoia over who can know where I’m going that I still live with today.

But I understand — especially with more comprehensive lists — that being left off feels like being left out. That it can seem like — yet another — way for our achievements to be erased. Yet another way to remind us that we don’t, in fact, belong.

We think, in tech, that attention is valuable. I think the pervasiveness of the ad-based business model has corrupted our thinking here. Attention is not an inherently valuable metric — it’s only valuable when people act on it.

If you click an ad, it has value. If you don’t, it doesn’t. There is some nebulous concept called “brand awareness” that tries to capture attention as a metric. Overall you can calculate another metric called “return on ad spend”. Marketing is a numbers game, now.

But when it comes to diversity, we don’t have those metrics. We start to buy the idea that attention is valuable, when mostly it is not. Only some attention has a little value.

“Diversity attention” is at best worthless and at worst harmful. The only valuable attention is to work and/or impact. It’s easy to conflate the two — when I write about D&I it gets some attention, and that attention has (some) value. That value is a little higher than attention I might get for being “diverse” (better: “under-indexed”). The attention that has made a difference to me, though, has been the attention that focused on my work. Sometimes I worry that the work I have done on D&I has obscured that. I have become “Cate, woman in tech”, to the exclusion of everything else.

If I’m on some list by virtue of being a woman in a field with few women, and a few people have heard of me, it doesn’t mean anything. And if you aren’t, it doesn’t mean anything about you, either. I’m sure what you do is valuable, I’m sure you have interesting things to say. The amount of attention we receive does not define us — what is more important is who we are and what we do.

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