These Women Are Using Industry Discrimination To Change Tech

FACETS co-creators Jane Friedhoff and Caroline Sinders give opening remarks. CREDIT: EMI SPICER/UGLY MACHINE PRODUCTIONS
FACETS co-creators Jane Friedhoff and Caroline Sinders give opening remarks. CREDIT: EMI SPICER/UGLY MACHINE PRODUCTIONS

“Gamergate is a great example of hostility in tech,” Caroline Sinders, a New York-based UX designer told a room full of gamers and technologists.

It’s been almost a year since Gamergate became a media sensation spawned out of one man’s heartbreak. It became a movement largely synonymous with gender-based harassment, causing women in and on the fringes of the tech industry to flee their homes amid death and rape threats.

Gamergate became the face of online harassment, wreaking havoc on and off social media. Threats related to Gamergate were responsible for 12 percent of self-reported instances of harassment, according to a Women, Action and the Media report analyzing patterns of online harassment.

But while it often felt like a force, Gamergate only represented a slice of harassment online and merely publicized acrimony many in the tech community already felt. Tech needed redefinition and expansion, badly. So to counter that and fueled by their own experiences, Sinders gathered a team of women to put together a tech conference to show the many faces of gaming, the arts and coding.

“So we just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it,” Sinders said.

And they did. The result was FACETS, an independent, creative tech and gaming conference that focused on diversifying not only the faces typically seen in tech, but the conversations people have about technology. Sinders partnered with game developers and Jane Friedhoff, Mohini Freya Dutta, and Phoenix Perry to launch FACETS in May, a three-day conference that boasted a dozen panels with 67 percent women, 30 percent people of color and 5 percent transgender.

“When you get into games or mainstream tech culture, that’s when you encounter narrow definitions of who and what makes up the industry,” she told ThinkProgress.

“It’s not a good enough excuse, especially in technology, to say we couldn’t find someone. Because they’re there. Did you ask?” Sinders said, referring to male-dominated tech panels with a token female speaker (a phenomenon that has even inspired a cheeky Tumblr).

In what’s referred to as “the Facebook rant,” where they vented frustrations on the lack of creative technology spaces for women, Friedhoff, who left law school to study game design, Dutta and Sinders agreed that it was time for a change.

Brought together through grassroots networking, friends and co-organizer Perry’s connections, more than 200 attendees packed into NYU’s media and games network (MAGNET) center eager to learn more about the people behind the tech, what inspired them to create code, art and online movements. A cacophony of unruly curly or fun-colored hair, tattoos, fresh-faced college graduates in vintage glasses and 20-year game design veterans in slightly faded tees and jeans, all ready to lean in and listen.

(From left to right) Programmers Ramsey Nasser, Ivan Safrin, and Sarah Groff-Palermo talk about creating their own coding tools during the Language Design as a Creative Tool panel. CREDIT: Emi Spicer/Ugly Machine Productions
(From left to right) Programmers Ramsey Nasser, Ivan Safrin, and Sarah Groff-Palermo talk about creating their own coding tools during the Language Design as a Creative Tool panel. CREDIT: Emi Spicer/Ugly Machine Productions

“We’re all game designers, but we also have very interdisciplinary practices drawing from many different media, and we found ourselves wishing for a space that mixed those interests — a place that could put game design in conversation with things like film, creative coding, human-computer interface design, fashion, and so on…A space that had a wide range of voices, one that actively sought out women and minorities to talk about their work in their field,” Friedhoff said.

The women enlisted the help of New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, which hosted the FACETS conference in their digital media, interactive arts, and gaming center.

“As a game designer who’s been to a lot of game design conferences, I’ve noticed that [game designers] tend to be very insular — to see our art form as being very separate from other art forms,” Friedhoff said. “FACETS is an attempt to break down that silo-ing and show the interconnections between these media.”

FACETS panels ran the gamut discussing data visualization, machine learning and how using social media is a form of self-portraiture. One of the most technical panels such as Language Design As A Creative Tool, which discussed expanding and developing programming tools, was also the most diverse, featuring two men, a transwoman, and multiple people of color.

“The thing that Gamergate taught me is fighting the system is not only useless, but annoying,” said Phoenix Perry, founder of Code Liberation, an organization that teaches women programming for free, partly to counter harassment in gaming. “The best way around Gamergate is to simply create games and offer solutions and let the public decide.”

“I think the public wants a more diverse voice in games.” There are going to be more games like Curtain, she said, which lets users experience what it’s like being in an abusive relationship, those that have “emotional resonance” because it’s part of the human experience.

A young woman crafts a light fixture during one of FACETS sessions. CREDIT: Lauren C. Williams
A young woman crafts a light fixture during one of FACETS sessions. CREDIT: Lauren C. Williams

“Women are beginning to unite and share information in much the same way these men are and it’s perceived as incredibly threatening. Particularly when it’s seen as versus rather than expanding — something that is unique to Gamergate. The us versus them, the good versus evil. It’s just not the case,” Perry said.

“Trans developers did not say, ‘We want to destroy first-person shooters by creating Twine!’ (a programming tool that focuses on a storytelling game format.) In fact, those games were just not for them, with their representation of masculinity, that they were forced to make new games, new solutions,” she said.

Because of this, true diversity in tech can only come outside the designated realm. With purple hair and blue rimmed glasses, Sinders said, “I’m the face of technology, you’re the face of technology. This is what it looks like.”

This year’s FACETS more than hit the diversity mark with women making up more than half of its panelists and a third being people of color. But Sinders believes they will do better next year, and is already planning panels, demos and a new theme.

“Representation isn’t the only issue by a long shot,” FACETS co-founder Friedhoff said. “There are serious cultural problems in many of these fields — especially tech — that are discriminatory and create serious barriers to not just creating, but also retaining a diverse population. That’s a much larger issue that also requires urgent addressing — but hopefully, we can start to shift the larger culture by creating spaces like this.”