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Is #WomenInTech a 'useless' meme?

Genevieve Bell, tech's most famous cultural anthropologist, believes the industry has a problem with all kinds of people -- not just women.

This story is part of Solving for XX, a CNET special report exploring what people and companies are doing to make the tech industry more diverse, more equitable and more welcoming to women.


"Women in tech" has become the industry catchphrase for gender inequality, conveying the conventional wisdom that too few women work in tech companies -- and those who do make less money and have fewer opportunities for advancement than their male colleagues.

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Genevieve Bell: "Women in tech" is "part of a larger set of questions. ... It's not just about feminism. It's about how do we attend to issues of race and class and sexuality in a way that is fair." J.R. Mankoff/August

Genevieve Bell thinks the phrase is "useless."

Bell, a vice president and distinguished fellow at chipmaker Intel, is the tech industry's most famous -- and arguably most influential -- cultural anthropologist.

During her 17 years at Intel, she has overseen teams of social scientists, designers and human factors engineers who travel the world to understand how different cultures respond to technology. Today, she's a member of Intel's Corporate Strategy Office, where she helps shape Intel's products and, by extension, just about everything else that's powered with an Intel processor.

Bell, 47, brings a unique perspective to the topic of women in technology. Her mother Diane, also a renowned anthropologist, was among the first to focus on the Aboriginal people of Australia, indigenous religion and violence against women.

In her 2011 book "Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing," Bell explores how millions of smartphones, sensors and wireless networks are reshaping the world's cultures, societies, politics and economies.

When asked to share her thoughts on the role and status of women in tech, Bell said she doesn't believe the industry has a problem with women. It has a problem with people -- across race, religion, sexuality and class as well as gender.

"It's not just about women saying 'women in tech,' because that's not helpful," she said. "It also has to be men saying 'we want a different world.'"

Here are snippets of her conversation with CNET's Jessica Dolcourt.

Her mother's daughter

CNET

It's important to know where I come from. [My mother's] life experience informs a great deal of my thinking about the world. It became really clear to her that women who were single mothers, it was a hard knock in the 1970s. I think it really galvanized her politically and personally.

[When my mother was getting her Ph.D.,] she kept running up against stuff that we would now recognize as sexism. Stuff like...the research grant form itself would say: "researcher's name" and then there would be a bucket for "wife."

[And my mother would say] "but...there is no wife, there's just me."

"Well, we can't fund your children if there's no wife."

Told to hide her gender

In 1998, after spending the day interviewing at Intel, I didn't think I was going to get the job and I wasn't sure I wanted it, frankly.

I hadn't met that many women or seen many women in the building. It was probably going to be important for them to know that I had a critique of gender and cared about gender issues.

There was a lot of advice I was given about how to fit in. And some of it was about "dressing away your gender": wear a sweatshirt, wear jeans. I've never been a sweatshirt and jeans kind of person, I just wasn't. And I thought, well, the problem with that is (laughs) as soon as I [walk] into a room it's kind of clear that I'm female. I have a lot of curly hair that I really can't do a lot about and I don't have a male-sounding voice, so what was I trying to "dress away?"

Missing the point

"Women in tech" as a hashtag disguises the reality that we're actually talking about women in society.

It's not just about women saying "Women in tech" because that's not helpful. It also has to be men saying "we want a different world" and be actively willing to reach across and open up the conversation. One of the proudest moments I had at Intel was that my CEO [Brian Krzanich] did that.

Power lines

Power cleaves along very particular lines: lines of gender, lines of race, lines of class, lines of sexual orientation, religion, nationality.

It's part of a larger set of questions. It's about social justice for me. It's not just about about feminism. It's about how do we attend to issues of race and class and sexuality in a way that is fair.

Intel's $300 million diversity push

[CNET note: Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in January the company would spend $300 million to change the company's mix of women and minorities. As part of that goal, he's also tying managers' 2015 pay to their success hiring and promoting more-diverse teams.]

I thought Brian was really brave and good to be the first one to stand up and say yeah, we've looked at ourselves and we're not happy about the progress we're making and we're worried about the state of all of this and we're going to commit to doing something about it.

Brian's really clear about what really motivates him here. He has two daughters, [and] he wants a better world for them than the world he sees his employees inhabiting now. He has a very clear sense of social justice. I've seen Brian talk about this on a number of stages and occasions...Putting money and brand on the line is a way of doing those things. And you know, I'm sure there were a number of us at Intel who helped drive that conversation.

I think it's an important thing to have done, and because he didn't just do it about women in tech, but as a broader call to action.

My not-so-secret hope here is that Brian won't be the only one who stands up and says that. Wouldn't it be nice to have a world where [Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella] is putting his money on the table too, and our colleagues at Google and Facebook want to participate as well?

Apple and Facebook's egg-freezing perk

It's probably problematic if it's the only thing you offered. If all you were able to offer to women in your employ is to freeze their eggs, the message there is not a good one. Most of the companies that think about these things [also offer] a range of things and benefits...whether it's about bonding leave for adopted kids, whether it's about supporting IVF [in vitro fertilization], whether it's about paid parental leave, whether it's about being able to give your benefits to your gay partner.

Patience isn't a virtue

If you're used to the digital tech world, you're used to things happening very quickly.

What do I know as an anthropologist? Cultures change, but they change slowly. When you look at a phenomenon, you have to understand it as part of a subset of things.

But I want to parse the difference between it taking time and me saying "patience," because I always have in the back of my head that exquisite passage from Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," where he [describes] patience as being a promise that's never fulfilled... Patience rings in the ears of every Negro as no.

It's a long, long journey and there's this piece where you have to remember, this is not a problem that goes away overnight, so you have to be committed to it in the long haul. It's the arc of all of our lifetimes.