By Doyin Oyeniyi

11/4/2017

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In Workplaces and Workspaces, Women Change the Dynamics

The technology industry has a record of being unwelcoming and even harmful to women. Accusations of sexual harassment and pay gaps, especially for women of color, have plagued companies, with Google and Uber especially coming under recent scrutiny.

“I believe that tech has a long way to go because the racism, the misogyny, the old boy’s club—” says Luvvie Ajayi, a New York Times best-selling author and digital strategist. “Even though it’s a very young industry in that we have 25-year-olds running billion dollar companies, I would expect more, because they’re supposed to be the generation that knows better, but we’re not seeing that.”

So how do women advance when their very workspace can be a major hindrance? For some, the answer can be in founding and running their own companies. Whitney Wolfe started the dating app Bumble after she left Tinder after filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company. Bumble operates on a similar “swipe yes or no to match and talk” mechanics as Tinder, but with a catch that some might call feminist: for opposite-sex matches, women have to send the first message.

Whitney Wolfe (R) during

Whitney Wolfe (R) during "The Future of Connection" session at SXSW 2017. Photo by David Zacek

 

“Why can’t we make it Sadie Hawkins Day everyday?” Wolfe said during a 2017 SXSW Interactive talk titled “The Future of Connection.” In the world of dating apps, where women often get inundated with overly sexual come-ons and insults from rejected men, Wolfe wanted an app to make women feel “comfortable, confident and empowered.”

That mentality has expanded into the physical space Wolfe has created for her company. In August, Bumble opened a new office on North Lamar, and the space has an energy that the Austin American-Statesman described as “what happens when women run a tech company and have free rein to break the rules about tech culture and carve out a female-friendly environment.” Instead of neutral colors and ping pong tables, Bumble’s new yellow and pink office has a women-centered aesthetic and features, along with common tech office favorites such as a kitchen with beer taps.

The idea to make a physical workspace with women in mind isn’t just limited to Bumble. In 2016, Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan founded The Wing, a co-working and community space for women located in Manhattan. The inspiration came from the women’s professional and social clubs of the 19th and 20th century that arose when women were excluded from male spaces. The Wing’s newly opened second location in SoHo offers amenities such as private offices, phone booths, showers and even a “beauty room.”

 

“Our mission has always been to create a space for women to advance their pursuits and build community together, and the SoHo opening marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter,” Gelman said in a statement announcing the new location.

Creating a safe workspace also happens on the individual level. Ajayi started her first blog 14 years ago while she was in college and since then, she has cultivated a large online following and community that provides her with a welcoming and safe environment, which is crucial when considering how often vocal women, especially black women, can face harassment online. On her Facebook page alone, Ajayi has more than 285,000 followers who often engage in hilarious conversations on her posts and updates.

“A lot of the times, the Internet is hard to deal with because there’s a lot of hate on there; there’s a lot of just foolishness,” Ajayi said. “On my platforms, I’m really proud of the fact that I do want to read the comments, and actually half the fun is reading comments on my pages. I love that, and I don’t take that for granted. I protect that space so that people know they can always come on my Facebook page or my Instagram and not feel like they can’t read the comments or they can’t hang there.”

 

Ajayi is also part of private communities that provide her with moral and professional support, though being her own boss and a part of supportive communities doesn’t always shield her from the discrimination that can plague professional women. In February, Ajayi received a request to speak at The Next Web, a technology conference taking place in Amsterdam in May. When her agent responded to the request with Ajayi’s speaking fees, conference officials informed them that they didn’t pay speakers, not even their travel expenses.

Ajayi reached out to her network of friends and colleagues to find out how true the conference’s response was and quickly learned that the conference did indeed pay speakers, but at varying degrees, with women often getting the short end of the stick.

“It would be different if it were an across-the-board policy to not pay anyone’s fees and not to pay anyone’s travel,” Ajayi told Forbes. “When you find out some people do get certain things covered and others don’t is when it becomes a complete insult. It turns the conversation to something else. It becomes not a policy—it becomes a preference.”

She then took to Twitter to discuss the issue, receiving responses from other women who had added their stories of conferences offering to pay them in “exposure” while paying men speaking fees and travel expenses. Even in that moment of frustration, Ajayi created another small community where women could talk about their similar experiences.

The hope, she says, is that as more people speak up about unfair treatment, eventually companies will learn to do better. But while technology companies are still trying to correct a history of pay disparities, sexual harassment and discrimination, women aren’t just quietly waiting for them to get things right. They’re figuring it out for themselves.

Luvvie Ajayi and Audrey Gelman will both be Featured Speakers at SXSW 2018. Browse all Social Impact and Workplace track sessions.

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