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WOCinTech Chat: Putting Women of Color in Tech One Photo at a Time

By Cait Etherington
April 19, 2018

If you write or read about tech on a regular basis, you’ll no doubt know that nearly all stock photographs of the tech world have one thing in common: They nearly always depict white people and generally younger white men working in tech. Indeed, finding stock photographs of people of color engaging with technologies in workplace settings remains a challenge. As a result, articles about the tech sector generally perpetuate stereotypes about who is – and who can – work in tech. For the past three years, however, one group has been making an effort to change what tech looks like by offering free stock photos of women of color in the workspace.

Recognize this Guy?

For several years, one man appeared again and again in articles about tech and business. While one might chalk it up to the fact that online journalists just really loved his great socks, in fact, the real reason we recognize this nameless business executive is because he was once one of the few people of color represented on Unsplash (a popular open stock photo site) in a workplace setting and engaging with technology.

Although the stock on Unsplash has become somewhat more diverse over time (as of 2018, not every photo of a computer keyboard is being touched by a white pair of hands), when it comes to women of color, the site still has considerable work to do. Type in “woman of color,” for example, and most of the images that appear are of white women wearing colorful clothing or standing in front of colorful murals. Type in “Black woman” and the results are somewhat more accurate, but virtually none of the photographs feature Black women at work or engaging with technologies. On Unsplash, however, any search for “women” is far more likely to generate images of models (oddly, often wearing large hats and/or few clothes) than women in professional settings.

Why Representation Matters

In an industry where women are still more likely to end up working as “booth babes” than programmers, there is no question that representation matters. This is especially true at the level of recruitment, which starts long before women apply for jobs in the tech sector. Linda Sax, a professor of higher education at UCLA, is currently investigating why more women don’t major in computer science. Among the problems encountered, says Sax, are the prevailing stereotypes of the computer scientist and programmer: “There’s this idea that a programmer is a skinny, nerdy hacker who has poor interpersonal skills and works in his basement.” While this is not necessarily the case, at the level of representation, the stereotype is alive in well and frequently unintentionally reinforced by online journalists who, as a default, rely on existing stock images that nearly always feature white men rather than women or visible minority tech workers.

WOCinTech Chat’s Open Stock Intervention

Back in 2015, WOCinTech Chat decided to do something about the lack of stock photos of women of color in tech. To rectify the problem, they organized their own photo shoot and invited women of color who actually work in tech to participate, including a group of female software engineers, database engineers, a developer advocate, a Fintech entrepreneur, network engineer and more to participate. As they emphasized at the time, “While this may seem small and obvious being represented in tech is quite critical for our collective success.”

So, what’s their ask? As stated in a blog posted on their site shortly after their successful photo shoot, “[We ask that you] use these photos to show a different representation of all women in tech. That you use these images in pieces about entrepreneurs, software engineers, infosec professionals, IT analysts, marketers, and other people who make up the tech ecosystem. Just as white women have been the default ‘woman’ in technology and American society as a whole, we believe the underlying belief of what it means to be — and who can be —  a tech worker in the 21st century can benefit from this form of ‘disruption’.”

Over the past three years, WOCinTech Chat’s intervention has made a difference. Indeed, if you do a Google image search of “women of color in tech,” you’ll discover that a disproportionate number of the images that appear in the search come from the WOCinTech Chat photo shoot. You can access their full set of CC photos here. Of course, moving forward, there is still more work to be done, and it will require both photographers and stock photo sites to think carefully about the images they are producing and putting into circulation and online journalists selecting images that truly reflect who is already working in tech and who could be filling those seats.

Feature image by WOCinTech Chat; image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic