Girlboss to Fascist Pipeline

It’s time for some real talk on diversity in tech.

Photo by Corey Young on Unsplash

Giorgia Meloni is poised to become Italy’s first female leader and will head the country’s most right-wing government since the era of fascist Benito Mussolini. For those who define diversity within the narrow lens of gender, election of this anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT “girlboss” is a win for women. This is hardly the first time that women have aligned themselves with right-wing political ideology.

In the United States, during 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, white women overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump who has a long history of demeaning women. Experts on institutional racism explained, “a majority of white women voted for Trump to protect what they have — status, income, tax advantage, whatever — despite Trump’s anti-woman attitudes and record.” Others warned that “racism in the US is fertile ground for fascism.”

Trump assumed control of a Republican party that’s fully committed to its racist and misogynistic agenda to roll back women’s rights along with that of other minorities. The founder of Girls Who Code recently spoke out about their book series on coding for girls being banned and went on to say, “This is about controlling women and it starts with controlling our girls and what info they have access to.”

The twist here is that Girls Who Code has been criticized for partnerships with questionable entities like Raytheon, one of the largest military contractors in the world. When Joe Biden was elected the president in 2020, a horrified world watched as right-wingers attacked the U.S. Capitol to overturn the election. Turns out, Raytheon was quietly funding right-wing election deniers through “political contributions to 62 members of Congress who had voted against certifying Biden’s election.” When organizations cozy up to those trying to destroy democratic institutions, take away bodily autonomy from girls and women, and ban books, they shouldn’t be surprised when those extremists actually succeed.

Another organization that’s well-known for its diversity efforts is Code.org who has a similar mission, “to end unjust inequities in K-12 computer science”. However, its website goes on to clarify, “it doesn’t encompass fighting other battles for social justice. They distract and detract from our own mission. we value diversity and inclusivity in order to benefit from diverse viewpoints.” A focused approach is commendable but diversity efforts that are not grounded in social justice leave the door wide open for recklessness and exploitation of those who are most vulnerable.

One of Code.org’s Diversity Advisory Council members is an Enterprise Lead in Palantir Technology’s Government and Philanthropy group. We all have to make a living in some way but what makes this affiliation particularly problematic is Palantir’s founder, Peter Thiel who is a leading investor in surveillance technologies and serious donor to rightwing candidates. It is a worrisome combination given the potential for misuse of these technologies by authoritarian and fascist regimes against their citizens.

This is not to single out Girls Who Code or Code.org with their well-intentioned missions but it’s worth examining the kneejerk response to addressing gender-gap in STEM, which has funneled millions of dollars to PR-friendly “diversity” programs, while leaving systemic issues unchanged. Donors are easily seduced by feel-good reductive solutions like coding camps, which provide them with a way to wash away their sins against humanity while also granting them easy allyship points.

One could make the case that diversity-oriented “coding” camps are just another flavor of “Lean in”, the popular feminist movement that centered women’s empowerment while also glossing over its founder’s contribution to a massive online platform, which as Bloomberg reports, “was used by a generation of extremist politicians to sow polarization and violence.” Leaning in to undermine democracy may still be popular in some feminist circles but it does very little to make progress on true diversity or inclusion.

Fundraising for social justice and racial equity causes is challenging, especially since so much wealth is concentrated with a select few who are not keen on changing the status quo. However, elite organizations with millions in funding should not be in the business of diversity- and ethics-washing the sins of their donors claiming that it’s for a higher purpose.

Many have belatedly come to the realization that the girlboss model of “co-opting empowerment and feminism for profit, with no intention of lifting anyone else up” is fundamentally flawed. Diversity is not about filling the world with more female tyrants and nor is gender equity about building new pipelines of exploited diverse workers.

It’s time to get serious about building and funding diversity programs that provide essential tech skills but are also grounded in worker solidarity, refusal to build tech for tyrants, and true commitment to racial equity.

Anything less is simply unacceptable.

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Mia Dand

Builder of useful things. CEO - Lighthouse3, Founder - Women in AI Ethics