What Berlin’s tech scene and US mail rooms have in common
There’s a scene in the series ‘Mad Men’ where the ad team preps to pitch to Menken’s department store and a new face is brought forward. “I had to go all the way to the mail room to find him,” one of the team says. The new face belongs to a Jew, and he’s been fished from the margins to pretend-participate in the power circle — because the Menkens are Jewish, too.
The 1950’s and 60s are long behind us, but the idea of closed circles of power, à la many US tech start-ups, represents a curious case of aiming for the future, while clinging to the past. Some companies in the US have become so good at evading civil rights laws that they pretend to “be discriminate, without discriminating.” In Berlin, I run a women’s tech empowerment organization called FrauenLoop, and I am often asked why it matters if there aren’t m/any women wielding power in the tech world. The stock answer is that shutting women out of tech company decision-making shuts the door on half of the global audience. You need to know the users you want to reach, and solving problems for only a limited circle can lead to “Juicero” disasters (called by Forbes the product no one needs) or the “Nextdoor” catastrophe (considered by some to be a bias-enabling product).
A lack of women in technology also means handing over the future to a bunch of dudes. With early-stage AI, we have already seen machine learning and facial-recognition screw-ups precipitated by one gender (and often, by a single ethnic perspective). It is still people who build these algorithms and the logic with which computers make decisions. These decisions affect our education, healthcare, security, and even our personal relationships. Do we want algorithms that repeat racist or sexist epithets (but which were built by “really smart” guys)? Wouldn’t we rather have kick-ass technology to simplify complex challenges and help us, as human beings, to live better lives in the skin that we are in?
I don’t want my future to be envisioned by the same group that has architected the past. As a woman, as a professional, and as a mom who is also an immigrant, I face plenty of daily challenges. Berlin’s tech scene has yet to thoughtfully apply technology to address my challenges, or those of the women who attend my FrauenLoop programs. Why can’t we solve big problems like unconscious bias in hiring in Germany? Aren’t there women here like Stephanie Lampkin, who created the “Blendoor” app, or like Laura Gómez, who founded “Atipica” specifically to power merit-based hiring?
Like the 1950’s and ’60s in corporate America, Berlin’s tech companies often stuff their peripheral functions with women. How else to explain start-ups where, in 2017, the new “mail room” is the heavily-female HR, Marketing or Support department? Far from where company strategy is created — but close enough to grab someone when a show of “diverse perspectives” is required.
Berlin is a global city that is bursting with talent, as well as an abundance of tenacious, adaptable women. I founded FrauenLoop to give these women an entry point to the technology world, regardless of their ethnic background or residence status — because I believe we cannot meet future challenges just by relying on a few smart guys. Even on ‘Mad Men,’ a Jew and a woman make it from the margins to win seats at the table. It’s 2017 — surely, by now, we can do better than that.