The Young Hackers Who Will Shape the World Deserve More Than Our Lists

"There’s a culture of creating lists in tech of people who have a unique trait."

|
Apr 28 2017, 5:14pm

Thursday morning, Wired ran an article called "Meet the Brilliant Young Hackers Who'll Soon Shape the World." The article features seven hackers who are indeed brilliant, and some of them might change the world; all seven of them, though, are young men.

To suggest that any one small group of people, one gender, one (or a few) races will "shape the world" isn't just offensive, it's objectively incorrect (Wired has since changed its headline). The story struck a well-worn chord—women are chronically underrepresented in these sorts of lists, on technology panels, at conferences, in technology in general.

Soon after we saw the article, a dozen names of women hackers popped into our heads. Our first instinct was to make a list featuring some of their work. And that would've been easy—we quickly came up with dozens of hackers we'd like to feature.

We spoke to Loren Maggiore, an 18-year-old who worked at Trail of Bits, one of the most prominent security research groups in the world. 

We spoke to CyFi, a 16-year-old who found an iOS, Android, and Blackberry zero day before she turned 10 and cofounded r00tz Asylum, the country's biggest hacking conference for kids. 

We spoke to Kaya Thomas, a 21-year-old who created an iOS directory of roughly 630 children's and young adult books with people of color characters written by people of color. 

We spoke to several other young hackers too. And we continue to get emails, encrypted Signal and Wickr messages, texts, and calls from people telling us that there's just one more person we should talk to; one more talented person whose work deserves to be featured.

But then we spoke to Safia Abdalla, a 20-year-old open source science programmer who raised something that had already been nagging at us: The people who will shape the world will never fit on a list.

"There's a culture of creating lists in tech of people who have accomplished things or have a unique trait," Abdalla said. "The problem with lists about women in tech specifically is they're objectifying—a name, a photo and a paragraph bio, but they don't show any depth beyond that."

"They always focus on the fact that it's like, 'You're a girl, congrats.'"

Lists of people in technology are predicated largely on who's available for an interview, how old they are, whether they're good on Twitter, their race or sexual orientation, their class schedules, whether they meet some weird definition of "hacker," how tired of talking to people a journalist is, or who had a picture available to use. In Wired's case, it made a wider prediction about who would "change the world" based on who happened to show up to hacking club at one specific university on one night.

There's an instinct (like our initial one) to correct for the underrepresentation of women, LGBT people, and people of color in STEM by promoting a couple of them as some sort of anomaly—people who are first and foremost women, LGBT, or minorities, rather than hackers, engineers, or scientists.

Carolina Zarate, a hacker on Carnegie Mellon University's Plaid Parliament of Pwning hacking team, told us that in middle school, high school, college, and in hacking competitions her whole life, she'd been repeatedly asked how it felt to be the "girl hacker."

"I wish there were more girls, but at the same time, it's kind of like—asking that takes away the fact that I'm here doing hacking stuff," she said. "They always focus on the fact that it's like, 'You're a girl, congrats.'"

The natural reaction to an all-male list is an all-female one. The natural instinct for panel organizers or hiring managers is to make token moves toward diversity to avoid being dragged like Wired was Thursday. It is an empirical fact that there are fewer women hackers than men hackers. But finding young women who are doing amazing hacking work or software development is no longer difficult, they are no longer anomalies.

The gender bias in technology doesn't just happen in lists, it happens in education, in hiring, in panel selection, in journalistic sourcing. For us, this means that we shouldn't highlight the work of a few underrepresented people every now and then, it should be shown as part of our everyday reporting and story selection. To do anything else is unacceptable.

We want to hear about your suggestions for underreported people changing the world and how we can do a better job covering them. Email us at editors@motherboard.tv.