The Not So Secret Feminist Agenda

Cate Huston talks about the silencing of women in history and in tech as well as a potential path past it.

Intro Section

History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet.

~Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Whenever it comes to talking about public speaking, one of the snippets that pops up is that people fear public speaking more than death. If you go into why – as my friend Lara Hogan did researching her book “Demystifying Public Speaking” – one thing you hear about, in a post-GamerGate world, is Harassment.

“Saying something that brings down the wrath of the internet-hate-mob.”

“Becoming a target for harassment.”

“[ Experiencing] backlash afterward. Doxxing or releasing personal information about me/ my family.”

When it comes to targeted and vicious harassment of high profile women, this is not a side effect, but a desired outcome. To not just silence the targets, but to make other women afraid to speak up, too.

There’s this “joke” about being a woman in tech. It goes like this. When you’re a woman in tech, you’re lucky, because you get two jobs. There’s your first – actual – job, for which you get paid around 71 cents on the dollar. Then you have a second job of being a woman, for which you get paid nothing.”

There are plenty of programs – a recent example is an advertisement from Microsoft – that will push this disparity onto women and minorities. We do this in the language we use to express this, too – under-represented, as in, did not show up. I prefer under-indexed, as in, was not found.

And part of the second, unpaid job, of being a woman, is this push to be a “role model”. But “role model” often comes with this shadow description – that of “cautionary tale”.

Not every visible under-indexed person ends up having to overhaul their entire life as the result of a vicious harassment campaign. But we all get told to be quiet.

Let’s talk about what that looks like.

3 Examples

Be quiet: you’re not qualified.

One of the things that has been said about me on the internet. Perhaps not the most insulting, but high on the list of comments I resent. I didn’t save it at the time, but more than two years later I can still quote it and that made it easy to find.

His comment is a bit bizarre – not least because he’s not linking to my CV but rather a blog post I wrote about studying for technical interviews.

But if we critique his substance, we miss his point. “You’re not qualified to have an opinion on this”. Perhaps he is begrudgingly making some kind of concession for me, I somehow qualified as “legit” software engineer, but in doing so he portrays that as an exception, negates valid critique, and diminishes anyone who makes it.

He said, be quiet. You’re not qualified.

Be quiet: you have no right to ask for that.

This was an interesting tweet to wake up to. Because this is a conference organizer, of an event I’d pulled out of (perhaps more accurately: been uninvited from) because of my unreasonable stance on codes of conduct.

Like, having to have a proper one.

I’m super unreasonable like that.

It wasn’t a big deal at the time when I pulled out, actually. I spent more time receiving his FEELINGS about Codes of Conduct – trust me, he had a lot of them – than I did dealing with fall out. Another woman also pulled out for the same reason, and I helped her find an alternative event to speak at. I got on with my life.

But the day of the event, he thought it was appropriate to use my name and associate it with his event, and to hide my very clear and explicit reason – no proper Code of Conduct – behind this mealy mouthed “various” that absolves him of responsibility.  The other woman who had pulled out for the same reason as I did is also named. The other three – I don’t know.

This was my response. I was quite busy that day, so I had better things to do than get into it. Unfortunately, not everyone has a fulfilling life and engaging hobbies.

This time there was a lot more fallout, as people in the community debated it, talked about how he’s a “good guy” with “good intentions”. One person was moved to write a hit piece on me, so that was fun. My friends reassured me that it reflected more on the writer than me, some found it hilarious. But who knows what people who didn’t know me thought. Twitter became a weird and uncomfortable place, I actually deactivated my account for a few days.

I was super anxious – telling your colleagues that something like that is going on is never a fun thing to deal with. I’ve had to have that kind of conversation twice, now. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

All I’d wanted was a Code of Conduct, and him having refused to add one, not to be associated with his event – or him.

He said, be quiet. You shouldn’t ask for that.

Be quiet: you’re taking up too much space.

“Wow really? Didn’t she pitch her own app in the same talk last year?”

According to Geena Davis, if there’s 33 percent women in the room, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men. Dale Spender has found that if women talk 30% of the time, they’re perceived to dominate the conversation.

So if a woman gives two talks, a year apart, at the same event. How much overlap is required for it to be perceived as “the same talk”?

For context, one of these talks was a technical talk on UI testing in iOS. The other was a design talk about how sometimes the best user experience is no user experience at all. The app whose testing I dissected in depth in the technical talk, was one example (of 9) in the second.

My guess was that there was some overlap, but that it would be low. Less than 10%. As I write a detailed script for every talk I give, between that and text comparison software we can have an answer.

Apparently that answer is 1%. Or at most 1%. I ran these two scripts through text comparison software, and 1 said 0% and the other 1%. Now clearly I don’t stick exactly to the script – there are adlibs, stories, jokes. But substantially in the content, there is no similarity between these talks. If I submitted them as essays in university, they would have no chance of being flagged as plagiarism. But this guy thinks otherwise.

He said, be quiet. You’re taking up too much space.

“The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”

~Dale Spender

On Silencing

I picked these examples deliberately – to illustrate particular points, and because these are perhaps the more ridiculous instances, where it’s easier for me to tell this story, and be confident that you – the audience – will be on my side.

These were not the only times that people have been mean to me on the internet because I was too visible. They almost certainly won’t be the last.

Part of my unpaid second job as a woman in tech, of being a “role model”, is shrugging these things off and continuing anyway. This is not always easy, even as a more experienced speaker, lucky and privileged enough to work with supportive people.

A while ago, before those things were true, I gave a talk about being a software engineer at a school, and one of the – male, teenage – students tweeted insulting things about me, and then ensured that I saw them. I was a teenage girl once, so my expectations for teenage boys were suitably low, but his teacher didn’t appear to take it seriously. I dropped out of that outreach program, and deciding not to give talks at all for awhile.

Some two years later I finally revisited that decision, worked with a speaker coach, and got on stage again. This year I will host a conference, keynote another, and give at least two more talks. I’ll speak in four different countries, on three continents. I’ve come a long way.

My friend Chiu-Ki helped me a lot as I got started speaking again, and together we started this newsletter about public speaking in tech – it’s called Technically Speaking. 121 issues later, we reach well over three thousand subscribers every week, and make – and give away – thousands of dollars each year.

You have something to say: and we want to hear it.

When we started, we decided that we would have “secret” feminist agenda. We would only consider including events that have Codes of Conduct, we would heavily weight the availability of travel support, and that we would include at least fifty percent content from women, and actively look to include content from other under-indexed folk.

We say: you have something to say, and we want to hear it.

You have something to say: you shouldn’t be afraid to ask.

Over time our stance on Codes of Conduct, including my personal adherence to it and what followed as a result, have made the secret feminist agenda less secret. As has our position that if an issue isn’t sponsored, we go on strike. Because even though we give away most of the money we make, we still believe that our work has value. It turns out, some people find that a radical – too radical – stance.

We say: you have something to say, and it’s okay to ask for what you want.

You have something to say: this is your space.

One of the things that we noticed early on, is that men would say “I love your newsletter”, and women would say “I love your newsletter for women”. We create content for everyone, but we know that women are fully fifty percent of the population and operate accordingly. It made us a little sad to notice that sometimes when women find content that doesn’t alienate them, content that considers them first class consumers of it, they think it’s for women. And not for everyone, which by the way includes women.

We say: you have something to say, and there is space for you.

The Industry We Wish We Saw

With Technically Speaking, we curate a newsletter. But we also curate a vision of the tech industry that we wish we saw. Where women make up at least half, where people of color, trans and non-binary are well represented, too. Something that reflects the vast diversity of humans – what we look like, and who we are.

Which sometimes seems like a far off dream. But we hear from conference organizers that inclusion in our newsletter improves the diversity of respondents to their CfPs – and speakers. So it’s clear that our focus on this has been paying off.

So I leave you with the question – if you designed an experience around the industry you wish you saw, what would you do differently?

And I challenge you to see what impact that might have.

About The Mash-Up Americans

ASC RL Joint Headshot - 2017

Photo credit: Matt Sayles

The Mash-Up Americans is a media company and creative studio that explores race, culture and identity in America and what makes us who we are. We smash the traditional (and eye-rolling) “identity” verticals to instead center our stories on the universal: family, relationships, food, and issues like guilt, faith and love, through a nuanced and compassionate cultural lens. We believe that storytelling unlocks empathy; and with empathy, positive social change is possible.

We publish original stories at, produce a popular podcast with American Public Media and Southern California Public Radio and curate must-read stories in our weekly newsletter. We also work with select clients who want to create and distribute content that speaks to Mash-Up America in an authentic, meaningful way.

Design and Exclusion is created in partnership with Mash-Up Americans. Amy S. Choi is the host and both she and Rebecca Lehrer helped produce the show. Read more about Mash-Up Americans on Design.Blog.

#DesignX on Design Observer

Ivana McConnell wrote a piece on exclusionary design for Design Observer:

You can build it, but should you?

The aim of good design is to solve difficult problems in intuitive ways, and the best solutions come from those directly affected by that problem. For this reason, questions are a foundational step in the design process. We ask questions to bridge gaps and understand deeply the problem we aim to solve—what does that problem really feel like? Questions build an understanding that, once built, lets us begin to design a solution—one which addresses the problem in an inclusive, thoughtful manner. However, one question is too often lost in this process:

“Should I build this?”

Check out the full article on Design Observer.

Lauren McCarthy on Building an Inclusive Open Source Community for Creators


What I appreciate most about being an artist is the community. While some might imagine the lone artist toiling in their studio, what I have experienced is artists coming together on the internet and in-person, sharing ideas and questions, and finding ways to work together. One way this happens is through the creation, modification, and sharing of tools for artmaking.


Valerie Casey on Transforming Creative Bias Into Power


In May of this year, I prototyped Creative Power Dayan experiment to show young people that strengthening their creative muscles would make them better at everything they tried—from schoolwork, sports, and the arts, to being better friends now and being stronger leaders in the future. We engaged more than 500 students aged 10-14 in 22 classrooms in the US, Canada, Iceland, and Ireland. The workshops were facilitated by trained volunteers and included hands-on activities and discussion designed to build three essential creative muscles:

  1. Seeing connections between disparate concepts
  2. Developing an openness to new ideas
  3. Building resilience through experimentation


Jessica Helfand: Design and Precedent

Jessica Helfand, by John Dolan

Earlier this summer, an internet gimmick surfaced on social media where people randomly posted their first seven jobs. Implicitly, this meant that you had to be old enough to have held seven jobs in the first place (a fact that eliminated pretty much anyone under forty). Nevertheless, referencing these forgotten anecdotes quickly became a kind of sport: what emerged was a combination of irreverence (famous people divulging they’d once been interns) and insouciance (less famous people declaring they’d only ever been interns), all of which produced a surprising result.

It leveled the playing field.


Ash Huang: How Much Poison Is Acceptable in Our Technology?

Photo credit: Helena Price

For an industry that complains about the inconvenience of waiting for a cab, doing laundry, or picking up takeout, we sure build a lot of suffering into our apps.

Virtual reality initially caused motion sickness in women because the equipment was developed and tested primarily by men. Interracial couples try to take photos together and fail because their phone’s white balance can’t capture both dark and light skin tones. People struggling with mental health issues, violence, or other trauma try to get help from Siri and Alexa but we’re only recently seeing that considered. All these stories and more, underscored by a rampant and constant harassment of women, people of color, people disabilities, those of Muslim and Jewish faiths, and LGBTQA—and tech’s bewilderment on how to help.

Megs Fulton on Designing for Doctors and Health Technology


Last year I gave a short talk about designing for both physicians and patients at a Design + Healthcare event hosted by John Maeda and Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Prior to this, most of my time as a designer working in the healthcare industry was spent at Spruce Health, where I designed a mobile application that enabled patients to be treated remotely by a dermatologist. Shortly after that talk, Spruce shifted the direction as a company and turned the technology behind the dermatology clinic into a platform any physician could use in their practice. Very quickly, I went from designing an experience focused on patients to one that was focused on physicians. As a result, I was forced to rethink how I approach problems through design and redefine what it means to drive change.


Ced Funches on the Responsibility of Being Better Than Advertised


I’ve always wanted to be a designer.

I grew up drawing and painting (traditional artist) and knew I wanted to be able to do that for the rest of my life. I was good. I still am, I think. When I was 9 years old my mother gave me an art school test booklet she saw on TV. It had a turtle or pirate character and a couple other exercises to test your ability.


Mitchel Resnick: Designing for Wide Walls

Mitchel Resnick, by MIT Photography

When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.


Phillip Tiongson on Design, Filipino Tennessean Style

Photo by Winston Struye

My experience being Filipino American Designer right now (and this literally happened to me last night):

New Person: “So, where are you from?”
Me: “I’m from Tennessee.”
New Person: “Oh, really? Huh… (awkward pause) but…”
Me: “But, yes I was born and raised here, so I’m American, but, yeah, my parents are from the Philippines. They came to be the doctors of a rural town, and had me there.”
New Person: “Oh, the Philippines! I was wondering…”


Above All Else, Authenticity: Cassidy Blackwell on Designing for the Individual

Cassidy Blackwell, by Walker & Company

“Our individuality is all, all, that we have. There are those who barter it for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it in, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life’s bittersweet route.”

— Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

When I think of designing for people of color, my thoughts immediately go back to my college years studying architecture in St. Louis and to a project that is known as one of the greatest failures known in modern architecture.


Courtney E. Martin on the Coworking Revolution

Photo credit: Ryan Lash Photography

Coworking is a growing movement of spaces and people, usually independent contractors, who have realized that working together makes for happier, more productive work lives, so they’re making it happen without the hierarchy. The spaces vary, but they’re generally membership-based and value-driven. People who belong tend to believe in collaboration, openness, accessibility, and sustainability. There are thousands of coworking spaces listed in the coworking Space Directory (a wiki collectively owned and updated). More than 450 of them participate in what they call a coworking visa program, where you can belong to a space in Iowa, for example, but spend a few days working at the one in Italy.


Fatimah Kabba on The Other Unicorn Skill: Writing

Photo credit: Aundre Larrow

In a world fascinated by the unicorn designer that is a coding savant, I want to call on designers to pay closer attention to something else: words.

The case for writing in design has been made by people far more articulate than myself, a few of whom I highlighted in the Design in Tech Report released at SXSW. It’s a perspective I think is worthy of continual discussion and one I don’t often see being advocated for by designers themselves, so I’d like to raise a few more points.