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Dissolving gender barriers in tech

Sana Afouaiz is an award-winning gender expert, women’s advocate, and public speaker on global feminism and women’s issues in the MENA region. For the past five years, she has advised the United Nations, the European Commission, corporate institutions, and organizations on gender issues.  In 2016, she established Womenpreneur Initiative, an organization with a community of 10,000 across 20 countries, which aims to advance women in the entrepreneurial scene, technology, innovation, and society. In recognition of her achievements, Afouaiz was named an influential woman by the World Bank. On July 17, 2020 she spoke as a role model at UNIDO’s International Online Conference “Women in Industry and Innovation,” organized in cooperation with UN Women and FAO.

You said that the cultural environment you lived in made discrimination perfectly acceptable and visible. Can you give us an example?

I grew up in Morocco, in a family of eight girls, and my sister and I have always been treated as if something was missing and that something was a man, a brother. This really hurt my sisters, who felt like we were not complete, we felt guilty because of our gender. I let all this make me stronger and inspire my work.

Do you still experience gender-based discrimination?

I do, every day. For instance, I’m quite direct, and in the culture I grew up in it is men who are supposed to be assertive. Women should rather be soft and sweet, and therefore they feel limited in terms of exploring discussions at a certain level. This reminds me a bit of the time when Aristotle and other eminent ancient thinkers would say that women were not capable of contributing to philosophical debate. It happened at a different time but it’s the same vision many have today.

I also face discrimination because of my age. Sometimes it is difficult for men to take me seriously when I’m looking for funds. I don’t mind people asking about my age when I am presenting a project to be sponsored but I do mind when that is the first question asked and the second is about my marital status. I don’t think men are usually asked those questions, no matter how young they are. 

In Morocco, only 5% of firms have a female top manager and only 10% of entrepreneurs are women. And in the whole MENA region, things are not any better. In your opinion, what holds female entrepreneurs back, at any level? 

Different issues come into play. And it is not the same in each country of the MENA region. In the eyes of westerners, the MENA region is perceived as one entity, but it is a very non-homogenous group and encompasses many countries, with a different history, culture, and political conditions.

If you take countries like Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia you will find that women have achieved certain rights, they are visible at some level and the lack of women’s participation in the economy is related mostly to the social atmosphere and the general mindset. 

As a matter of fact, there are a great number of female STEM graduates across the whole region. Yet, very few of them achieve entrepreneurial careers. How should this problem be addressed?

You can’t fix gender issues in the MENA region by merely giving women funds and teaching them how to become entrepreneurs, for instance. It has been done for years now and it just doesn’t work. Female entrepreneurs are still very few, they operate in informal markets and face constant discrimination. Those who are successful make it abroad, not in their country. Further problems are technical issues such as accessing the right human resources or the fact that the bureaucracy in the region is very complex. It’s a tricky process and in the end, female entrepreneurs get tired and give up. 

Another problem with the MENA region is women’s limited access to financing and most of it is microfinance. That’s why female-led startups are not thriving as they should. If we really want to support women, we should financially support their projects. With Womenpreneur we did training with some investors to make them understand the gender bias because sometimes it is internalized. The investors don’t feel like they are intentionally excluding women, but they do because it’s ingrained in their minds. 

What other factors may cause such imbalance?

A big issue is the access to resources and opportunities, which is a struggle for all entrepreneurs—men and women. We have Dubai, where you can find many huge investors and all the entrepreneurs want to go there to be funded and start their companies, but if you look at Arab startups you can see that they don’t last. 

The best example is Careem, the Uber of the Arab world. It was a huge success funded in Dubai and a product of the MENA region. But it was sold to Uber last year. The problem is that we don’t have a structured ecosystem that can help create innovative startups and make them last. 

Then you have the lack of a legal framework to explain and facilitate the creation of startups, companies, and entrepreneurial projects that could help boost the economy.

Can you give us more details about specific countries in the MENA region?

Some countries have a more developed approach than others. Tunisia, for instance, is a very good ecosystem, I find it dynamic, active, very supportive. 

Moreover, a very interesting initiative was started, when a group made of private and public institutions and entrepreneurs created a legal framework project explaining what is needed by different entrepreneurs to succeed with their startups in Tunisia. It was presented to the government and they accepted it. Today it is called Startup Act and is becoming a space that provides legal information, the right resources, the right contacts, the right business support and I think that’s amazing. 

But again, even in this space women are invisible, and female startup founders are few. But I believe in Tunisia’s effort to change that.

In 2019 Womenpreneur went on tour to map and visit the female entrepreneurial talents of three countries: Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan. Did you get new ideas or find new starting-points from this journey?

It was an amazing tour, we also did a policy paper study and roadshow events in each country. We traveled to different cities, meeting female tech entrepreneurs who developed interesting startups and companies, who raised huge funds inside their countries and have half of their offices across different countries, especially in Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.  

We have also conducted surveys with many women entrepreneurs in different countries, and we had meetings with experts from the financial sector, the public sector, and the government, to really have an overview of the baseline for women in tech. Afterwards, we published a document recommendation that also provides interesting propositions to improve the ecosystem for women in the region and I think it’s one of our tour’s highlights. 

Through our tour we connected more than 2,000 people and published engaging content through our media platform, reaching out to more than 500,000 people.  

Many businesses have been disrupted by Covid-19 and you are trying to share your experience through webinars and online events. Can you tell us more about your support for women entrepreneurs from the MENA region during the pandemic?

The first thing we did was set up an online space for women to access information and understand what they could do in the short term to revive their businesses and initiatives. 

Meanwhile, we’ve been running a research study in the MENA region about the impact of Covid-19 on women at different levels: social, economical, and political. The research was run by our experts and through that, we developed different possible projects we are going to implement in the region. One of them is a program dedicated to supporting female entrepreneurs in understanding how to cope with the crisis. The program has been finalized and we are going to start it by December targeting women from 10 countries in the Mediterranean. 

We have also launched Generation W, an online six-month acceleration program to support women who are impacted by Covid-19, to help them find a job or develop a project. We’ve seen that the pandemic has heavily impacted the job market and it has created a lot of unemployment, 80% of which is affecting women. 

We focused on providing women with high-tech skills, and this will make it easier for them to find a new job. The program is ending at the end of November with a total of 140 activities developed with more than 20 national and international partners. 

How will developing tech skills help those women through the crisis and possibly afterwards?

Coronavirus has heavily hit the economy but we’ve also seen that a lot of jobs are not necessary anymore. The digital revolution is rapidly changing our economic systems. During the outbreak, robots have been used to clean hospitals in Japan, and unfortunately, that has cost many people their jobs. But robots have also been used a lot in the medical field. 

Coronavirus is just one of the many crises we’re going to live through and women may always be the frontline victims. That’s why we need to help these women acquire tech skills to survive and this is something we do through advocacy and lobbying, also advising international organizations. Women have been the face of Covid-19, they’ve been the ones saving people, from nurses to doctors to food providers, and it saddens me how different countries try to manage the crisis. When you see that there is no budget dedicated to women, even though they represent more than 50% in each country across the globe, it does say a lot. 

Pivot power

Failure. Failing to achieve your intent, not accomplishing your desired goal. In essence, having an idea and not being able to implement it. It’s frustrating and hard to accept, to the point that the fear of negative consequences often dampens the innovative drive of many individuals and organizations. Held back by the fear of failure.

Sometimes, however, missing a target can be a great stroke of luck because perhaps you miss the first one, but you score a bigger one right beside it, or because that mistake has repercussions that enable you to achieve something extraordinary. This must be why people sometimes let themselves go and take risks anyway, and organizations say they want to foster a corporate culture that celebrates error and failure. At least in words.

I wonder if Dharma Jeremy had the same opinion. He was born in Canada, raised in a log cabin without running water and electricity, and later became a computer enthusiast with a master’s degree in philosophy. While playing a video game, he got a crush on a girl who he never got to meet, a circumstance that probably led him to become passionate about the phenomenon of interactions in virtual spaces. 

In the early 2000s, just before the dotcom collapse, he decided to found a startup to develop a game that had no real purpose, except that of helping people interact: and in fact, he called it Game Neverending. The idea was inexplicably unsuccessful, but before shutting down the startup, he drew on a part of the technology that he had developed and created a concept in which people exchanged boxes of photos and then commented on them. After all, this, too, was a social interaction that was not very different from a game that has no real purpose. The idea took off, and within a matter of months, it attracted Yahoo’s attention, which acquired it for a few tens of millions of dollars.

After working at Yahoo for a few years, Dharma Jeremy decided that big business was not for him: too much politics and too many delays, and too little growth. He left and decided to launch another massive game without a real purpose—only it was much nicer and better looking than his first one. This time he thought big; he raised a lot of funds from Venture Capitalists and put together a strong team of game animators, designers, and developers for another shot at what he had failed doing the first time.

But this second attempt didn’t work either. The game didn’t catch on, even if it did build up a small community of diehard gamers. But in order to work together, the team developed an internal chat system that changed the way a team worked together, exchanging messages and documents. After all, this is also a form of social interaction that is not very different from a game that has no real purpose. 

When they shut down the game project, they realized that they wouldn’t be able to use their communication tool anymore, and the fact that this displeased them made them think that maybe they had something in their hands that could capture a market. They asked their venture capitalists if they could use the remaining funds to turn their prototype into a product. They pivoted their focus to the new product and fired 80% of their employees; in style, however, helping them swiftly find new jobs. After a short while, they launched the product and turned it into one of the fastest-growing corporate software applications at the time. In just a few months, the company reached a billion dollars in market value, went public after a few years, and is now worth $16 billion. Not bad for a failure.

Dharma Jeremy Butterfield changed his name to Stewart at the age of 12. Now he is a charismatic CEO, as well as a pleasant and engaging philosopher as he tells his stories. In his interviews, you can see that he has connected the dots of his experiences and that his successes result from his mistakes and failures, but not everything happened by chance. He says that he has always been guided by his passions and his sense of responsibility towards colleagues, investors, and end-users. And following these guidelines, he tried and changed until he found a solution.

By the way, the two failures that Butterfield turned into successes are called Flickr and Slack.

Are you a hacker?

Nowadays hackers seem to be everywhere. They could be behind you in line at the supermarket, sitting next to you on the tram, or they could even be you. Yes, that’s not a mistake: if we stick to the original meaning of the term hack, it means finding an unconventional solution to a complex problem.

We’ve all done at least one ‘hack’ in our lives but not all of us are hackers as we generally conceive of them in our culture. But primarily, not even hackers agree with each other on what hacking is. Books and movies, however, shape our imagination and provide us with several examples of what a hacker is—or more precisely a partial look at what our society thinks about them. One of the most famous depictions is from the movie that in 2020 turned 25 years old: Hackers.

A techno-thriller in which young, rollerblading, computer geniuses manage to ruin the enemy’s plans. Since then, Hackers has evolved into a cult favorite and seems to describe the attitude of hackers, which in the movie is highlighted with very direct slogans such as “Hack the Planet,” and “There is no right and wrong/There’s only fun and boring”). 

This description of hackers certainly clashes with the hacker we’re all afraid of and that is usually stereotyped as the white, middle class, overweight male kid with a hoodie, clicking at sidereal speed on the keys of his computer with rivers of acid-green lines of code running incessantly on the screen, which is the only source of light to illuminate his dark little room. Usually, this figure is intent on committing computer crimes, destroying systems and infrastructures, and jeopardizing the security of our democracies.

News reports seem to confirm this notion of hackers as criminals: one of the most recent and consequential hacker attacks was that of Guccifer2.0, a moniker used by some Russian agents who hacked the Democratic National Convention systems in 2016, publishing data online and thus contributing to the destabilization of American elections. But there have also been hacker attacks with more concrete consequences, as in the case of Stuxnet malware in 2010. Then, hackers linked to the U.S. and Israeli governments infiltrated computer systems of the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, in Iran, to sabotage the centrifuges and to slow down and damage the uranium enrichment plant. Because of its capabilities, Stuxnet has been called the world’s first digital weapon. 

Hackers have always been sitting between these two extremes: brilliant saviours of the world or dark and heinous criminals of cyberspace. Or at least this is the lazy dichotomy we like to apply to a much more complex world that shows all the different nuances of hacker culture. 

The first references to this world can be found in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s: at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the term was related to MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC): students used to have fun fiddling around with electrical systems and messing around. But hacking doesn’t have a single root, in fact in the same years phone phreakers were already actively hacking systems. We can consider them as direct ancestors to the underground hacker. They were people interested in the operation of the phone system, they studied its architecture and tried to exploit the system to route calls for their own benefit—most of the time this means to make free phone calls. 

The best definition of a hacker is suggested by Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and academic and one of the greatest experts of the hacking world: “A hacker is a technologist with a love for computing and a ‘hack’ is a clever technical solution arrived through non-obvious means.” In those MIT years, students enjoyed demonstrating their technical aptitude and cleverness. 

The lack of defined origins is however an important signal of what came next: in those years, thanks also to the widespread adoption of electronic technologies and of the digital sphere—the internet network was born in 1966 and the first computers connected to the ARPANET network appeared in 1969—a certain type of world vision, with shared ideals, emerged.

This hacker ethic is found in Steven Levy’s book titled Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Hackers are convinced that computers can improve our lives, that all information should be free, that in order to pursue knowledge access to computers and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. And also that people can create art and beauty on a computer. At the same time there was an ultra-push to adopt meritocracy: “Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.”

Positioning these hacker ethic principles at the center, however, risks flattening the historical differences between the movements that have emerged since then and the problems they carry with them. As Coleman recalls, this ethic is often invoked in simplified terms, “whitewashing the most fascinating ethical dimensions that flow out of computer hacking.” And it also risks hiding sometimes under the carpet some systemic problems of this culture: such as episodes of sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment and raping happening all around security conferences or in hacker camps—and involving prominent figures of the hacking scene.

However, the genealogical tree of the history of hacking, starting from multiple roots, continues to branch out into multiple ways that sometimes flow together, sometimes ignore each other and sometimes even end up colliding. 

Hackers helped invent the field of computer security: that is, those computer researchers who look for vulnerabilities in systems and report through a ‘responsible disclosure’ process to companies in order to let them fix the bugs found. These hackers usually call themselves ‘grey-hat’ and ‘white-hat’ in complete opposition to ‘black hats’ who are mainly hackers that carry out illegal activities.

But the differentiation doesn’t stop there and the confusion increases, there are hackers that have absorbed a more political and activist approach: so called ‘hacktivism’ and ‘anti-security’ are born. 

First coined in 1995, the hacktivism label encompasses all those practices of resistance rooted in political ideals. We have hackers located primarily in Latin America, North America, and Europe, who have set up collectives often influenced by the political philosophy of anarchism.

Among the actions carried out by this hacktivist, we recall the acts of ‘electronic civil disobedience’ to draw attention to the Zapatistas in the 1990s. Hackers built a tool called FloodNet that would flood a targeted website with traffic: those were the digital version of mass strikes that usually happen in real life, but in this case they were aimed against websites and online services.

At the same time, another type of hacker is asserting itself, trying to exploit the vulnerabilities of computer systems for its own benefit: adopting the anti-security mantra in order to infiltrate government systems, steal data, and publish them online. 

This is the birthplace of one of the most fascinating and active movements in recent history: Anonymous. In the early 2020s this collective of hackers inflicted attacks everywhere: against the Church of Scientology, DDoS attacks on several government sites, data leaks and attacks against Visa and Mastercard. After a series of arrests that sank the collective in 2011, recently during the uprisings of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, Anonymous emerged once again ready to strike

This kind of activism exploits technical vulnerabilities in order to exfiltrate documents in the public interest and shame governments, corporations and public figures.

Nowadays, from the wrongfully-depicted darkness of their rooms, hackers have actually reached even political positions: Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who dropped out of the primary on October 2019, was a member of a famous group of hacktivists: Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc). And one of the cDc slogans shows how relegating the history of hacking to solely the sphere of technology is in turn limiting: “Global domination through media saturation.” They weren’t simply hacking software systems, they were also hacking media narratives. 

And counteracting media narratives is still a constant struggle for hackers nowadays. Some of them have turned into full-time security specialists working for big corporations, others are immersed in the academic world, while others still run loose trying to steal personal data, credit card information and selling them online for profit. 

Despite this multifaceted hacking world, a large part of the population still considers them only criminals and it seems that not much has changed since 1986 when an essay by a hacker known as The Mentor, titled The Conscience of a Hacker—universally known as The Hacker Manifesto—depicted a public outcry:

“We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. [….] Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto.”

Finding Utopias: Happiness

During Day 3 of maize.LIVE‘s digital event Finding Utopias. Unlocked conversations beyond (a new) normality we visited the island of happiness. We explored this theme through the eyes, voices and thoughts of: Robert Waldinger, Daniela Lucangeli, Evelyn Doyle and Nina Hajikhanian. “Fuori Luogo” did not disappoint also today, peculiar until the end with a finale to reflect upon.

A brief history of evolution

As a fundamental keystone of modern biological theory, the theory of evolution radically transformed our understanding of living species. Ultimately, it created a solid foundation to answer one of the greatest questions of all time: Where do we come from?

Since the beginning, humans have developed different explanations for their (and the world’s) origins. Most creation myths and religious theories have been attributed to the design of a God — like in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — or groups of deities, like in many indigenous peoples’ cultures. In Hindu cosmogony, Brahma is described as a demiurge who disposed of and organized the foundational elements of the universe and very few ditched the transcendent in a quest for their roots.

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaximander proposed that animals could be transformed from one kind into another, and according to Empedocles they were made up of various combinations of preexisting parts. Before them, Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou described what some historians consider a precursor to natural evolution. In the Zhuangzi, one of the two foundational books of Taoism, master Zhuang describes the connections among species, their environment, and how different surroundings and conditions influence the way species evolved. Although the processes described in the Zhuangzi aren’t the evolutionary mechanisms we theorize about today, they’re remarkably similar to Darwinian evolution regarding the relationship among species — especially if we consider that master Zhuang lived in the fourth century BC.

At the same time, in Europe, Early Church Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine of Hippo weren’t sold on the idea that all plants and animals were created by God. Some, they argued, must have developed over time from God’s creations.The reason was more religious than biological, but also practical: It would have been impossible for Noah to hold representatives of all species on his Ark, hence some must have come into existence after The Flood.

Fast-forward 15 centuries, and the British theologian William Paley uses natural history, physiology, and other contemporary knowledge to elaborate on the argument of the Earth’s origin from design. In his Natural Theology, published in 1802, Paley uses a watchmaker analogy to state that a specific design implies a designer. Watches and timepieces have been used as examples of complicated technology in philosophical discussions by thinkers like Cicero, Voltaire, and René Descartes. And because these artifacts are so complex, if someone was to find one abandoned on the street, they would certainly reconnect it to the work of a skilled watchmaker, rather than to the idea that watches have always been lying abandoned like stones and rocks. By extension, Paley went on to argue that the complex structures of living beings require an intelligent designer, God, who had carefully designed “even the most humble and insignificant organisms” and all of their minute features.

But although it gained traction, Paley’s argument wasn’t supposed to last unchallenged for long. Just seven years after the publication of Natural Theology, Charles Darwin was born and his father, Robert Darwin, was a wealthy and established doctor. After a summer spent as an apprentice treating the poor of Shropshire, England, Darwin began his studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. But it didn’t take long before his interest in lectures and surgery faded and his fascination in taxidermy and biology grew. During his second year at the university, he joined a student natural history group, which used science to challenge orthodox religious concepts. How Darwin became the father of the modern theory of evolution lies right in these two episodes of his history.

Annoyed by his son’s poor commitment to medicine, Robert Darwin decided that a bachelor of arts and a career as an Anglican Parson suited him better, and so he sent Charles to a religious college in Cambridge. There, Charles studied Paley’s work, became passionate about entomology and biology, and eventually decided that it was time for him to travel to the tropics to study natural history. But not before taking a preparatory geology course, graduating, and convincing his father to fund his trip around the world aboard the HMS Beagle. 

Darwin spent five years traveling in the Southern hemisphere and by the time he returned to England, he was already a celebrity in scientific circles. That is when he started speculating about the possibility that “one species does change into another” to explain the geographical distribution of living species like rheas — large, flightless birds, which are similar to ostriches. But it took Darwin another 20 years before On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection went to press, and the cycle of scientific contributions that would change our perception of the world started by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton, was closed.

Darwin’s argument accepted the facts of adaptation (remember Zhuang), but he demonstrated that the variety and multiplicity of plants and animals was the byproduct of natural selection, rather than the creativity of a design agent. “Many more individuals are produced than can possibly survive,” he wrote. So, “there must in every case be a struggle for existence,” where the variables that better overcome challenges are passed on, generation after generation. 

As a process that promotes (or maintains) adaptation, Darwin proposed natural selection primarily to account for the adaptive organization of plants and animals. In this framework, evolutionary changes through time and diversification were by-products of natural selection, fostering adaptation to different environments. And in 1871, Darwin extended the theory of natural selection to human evolution, arguing that human beings shared a common ancestor with African Apes. 

A contemporary of Darwin, Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel provided the missing link in Darwin’s theory. In 1866, Mendel published a paper which laid out fundamental principles of the theory of heredity, which are still relevant. Mendel and Darwin never met, nor did the English scientist have the chance to read the monk’s studies — Mendel’s work was rediscovered only at the beginning of the 1900’s.

From Darwin’s theory stemmed a variety of alternative hypotheses from scientists and philosophers. In the scientific community, two major movements took shape. On one side stood biometricians led by Karl Pearson — an English statistician who defended Darwinian natural selection as the major cause of evolution through the cumulative effects of small, continuous, individual variations. On the opposite end were the mutationists, who, following Mendel’s theory of heredity, stressed the contribution of spontaneous alterations of genes to the rise to new species.

The rise of genetics in the 1920s and 1930s added some clarity to the issue of evolution once and for all to a restricted circle of scientists. Theoretical geneticists on both sides used mathematical arguments to show that continuous variations (like body size, or number of eggs laid) could be explained by Mendel’s laws, and that acting cumulatively on small variations, natural selection could yield evolutionary changes in form and function. Mutationism was taken off the table, but most importantly, theoretical geneticists provided a framework for the integration of genetics into Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

In 1937, Theodosius Dobzhansky made it unmistakably clear that Darwin and Mendel’s theories go hand in hand — and he did so by providing experimental evidence which supported their theoretical arguments, and which ultimately funded the synthetic theory of evolution.

By 1950, acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was universal among biologists. Three years later, the application of molecular biology to evolutionary studies by American geneticist James Watson and the British biophysicist Francis Crick, led them to deduce the molecular structure of DNA. The race to understand where we come from and what makes us unique didn’t stop there. In 1981, Martin Evans of the University of Cambridge and Gail Martin of the University of California, San Francisco, conducted separate studies and derived pluripotent stem cells from the embryos of mice, which opened up the field of regenerative medicine to treat damaged or diseased tissues through cell-replacement therapies.