Online violence against women goes beyond the internet. It impacts society and the economy at large. It leads to damaging economic repercussions, due to increased medical costs and lost income for victims. It impacts the offline world, with seven percent of women changing jobs due to online violence, and one in ten experiencing physical harm due to online threats, according to Google-supported research conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2020.
That’s why the Women Techmakers program, which provides visibility, community and resources for women in technology, supports online safety education for women and allies. Google community manager Merve Isler, who lives in Turkey and leads Women Techmakers efforts in Turkey, Central Asia and the Caucasus region, organized the first-ever women’s online safety hackathon in Turkey in 2020, which expanded to a full week of trainings and ideathons in 2021. Google community manager and Women Techmakers manager Hufsa Manawar brought online safety training to Pakistan in early 2022.
Now, Women Techmakers is providing a more structured way for women around the world to learn about online safety, in the form of a free online learning module, launched in April 2022, in honor of International Women’s Day. To create this module, I worked with my co-host Alana Fromm from Jigsaw and our teams to create a series of videos covering different topics related to women’s online safety. Jigsaw is a unit within Google that explores threats to open society and builds technological solutions.
In the online training, we begin by defining online violence and walking through the ways negative actors threaten women online, which include misinformation and defamation, cyberharassment and hate speech. Regardless of the tactic, the goal remains the same: to threaten and harass women into silence. We break down the groups of people involved in online harassment and the importance of surrounding oneself with allies.
In one of the videos in the series, Women Techmakers Ambassador Esrae Abdelnaby Hassan shares her story of online abuse. She was exploring learning cybersecurity when a mentor she trusted gave her USB drives with courses and reading material that were infected with viruses and allowed him to take control of her computer and record videos. Then, he blackmailed her, using the videos he’d taken as threats. She felt afraid and isolated, and relied on her family for support as she addressed the harassment.
The learning module provides two codelabs, one on steps you can take to protect yourself online, and one on Perspective API, a free, open-source product built by Jigsaw and the Counter Abuse security team at Google. The first codelab provides practical guidance, and the second codelab walks viewers through the process of installing Perspective API, which uses machine learning to identify toxic comments.
We look forward to seeing the impact of our new, easy-to-access online training, as well as what our ambassadors are able to accomplish offline as the year progresses.
“When you think about the technologies we use all the time and how few of them are designed to consider an identity like mine — Black people or women — it makes us question how much technology is made for us, with our needs in mind, to protect us, to consider us,” says Ashley Jane Lewis.
Ashley is a creative technologist who focuses on finding ways that science and tech can better impact underrepresented communities. She’s featured in Women Techmakers Black Women in Tech initiative, which highlights Black women’s leadership in the technology industry.
We recently took time to talk to three of these leaders to learn more about them and their work: Meet Ashley Jane Lewis, Chanelle Hardy and A.M. Darke.
Ashley Jane Lewis, creative technologist
“Creative technologist” is perhaps a role you’ve never heard of, but an example of Ashley’s work may better explain what she does: Currently, Ashley is using slime mold to raise awareness of society’s structural inequities. That’s right, slime mold. “Slime mold has the capacity to be multicellular in its structure and distributes nourishment equitably,” Ashley explains. “It’s a natural example of how mutual aid positively impacts communities.”
Through her project, called Slime Tech Lab, Ashley brings actual terrariums of slime mold to schools and organizations that typically don’t have access to science and technology resources. Using a Raspberry Pi, Ashley measures and tracks the slime mold’s movement, and the result is part art piece, part science experiment, part social metaphor. How the slime mold acts can teach us about community cooperation, Ashley explains. “I’ve found that non-Black communities I bring this to have an increase in empathy, and I think it could lead to more thoughtful conversations around topics like immigration and borders.”
A huge part of Ashley’s workshop centers the goal of offering the Black community science and tech skills coupled with creative speculations on the future through storytelling. “If you live in an environment with no visibility of the way out of an oppressive structure, you have to use your imagination,” she says. “Imagination builds resilience and paints a future you can walk toward as a Black person.”
Chanelle Hardy, head of civil and human rights at Google
Chanelle Hardy, head of civil and human rights at Google, originally gravitated to public policy after two years of teaching fifth grade in Anacostia with Teach for America. “These incredibly brilliant and talented fifth grade students were inspiring because they embraced and got excited about everything they were exposed to,” she says. “I realized systems impacted the lives and opportunities of my students, and I wanted to understand how those systems worked and be part of designing, developing and improving systems.”
That interest eventually brought Chanelle to Google. “When I came to Google, it was a tremendous opportunity to be at the forefront of thinking about how tech and innovation could help to solve some of the challenges we face in society. After all, we were thinking about tools, who uses them and how.”
Chanelle founded the Google Next Gen Policy Leadership Program based on her certainty that there were emerging leaders who didn’t even know their expertise could be valuable in the context of tech policy and social justice. “I knew that just because the world of tech policy isn’t as diverse as it should be, there wasn’t a dearth of talent,” she says. “It was about making connections and bringing people together.”
A.M. Darke, artist, professor and game designer
“What I actually care about is liberation,” says A.M. Darke, an artist and professor who designed ‘Ye or Nay?, a game that reimagines “Guess Who?” with all Black men, and half the characters are Kanye West. A.M. describes the game as “providing a critical analysis of popular Black men from a position of cultural subjectivity.” A.M. also produced the open source Afro Hair Library, a database with the purpose of creating a wider visual library for Black hair.
A.M. says she doesn’t take much time to savor accomplishments — she’s always already thinking about the next thing. But when young women and non-binary people share how she’s positively affected them, she feels genuinely moved, happy and grateful. “When what I'm saying and doing is affirming to others, that is something that I really connect with. I'm trying to build a world that didn't exist for me,” she says.
Like many women working in tech in the Caribbean, Women Techmakers ambassador and Google Developers Group co-organizer for Trinidad and Tobago Maria Divina O’Brien has a full-time day job in addition to two several side projects she spends the rest of her time working on. Her business, Design Change, is a design firm focused on social impact projects to improve Caribbean women’s lives. "I'm using what I've learned as an activist to find ways technology can help women and how we can create a community to work on these solutions,” Maria says.
Maria is also the chairwoman of MindWise, a mental health nonprofit focused on digital content creation and curation that Maria co-founded in 2019. MindWise developed FindCareTT.com, a digital directory of mental health services. Maria, a cancer patient, is also working on “Views from the Waiting Room,” a collaborative art project aimed at bringing more attention to women’s health.
When she isn’t working on Design Change, MindWise, or art projects, Maria works for the Corporate Communications Department of the Office of the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago, where she produces digital design and visual assets and consults on broadcasting design projects. “I get to produce content and solutions that directly impact the democracy of the country,” she says. “For example, I worked on a team that problem-solved how to make democratic functions virtual during COVID.”
Maria connected with the Port-of-Spain Google Developers Group in 2019 and became a co-organizer, and went on to become a Women Techmakers (WTM) ambassador. “Last year, we pulled together 12 major diversity communities for the first International Women’s Day Caribbean Tech Summit,” she says. “Women in Tech Caribbean, Caribbean Girls Hack and four WTM chapters from other Caribbean countries participated, and this year, we’re hoping to get someone from each Caribbean country to represent each country’s current challenges.”
Maria hosts a virtual International Women’s Day event with Jerrod Best-Mitchell.
In September 2021, Maria launched the Building Sustainable Minds Volunteer Program, a collaboration among MindWise, the Trinidad and Tobago WTM chapter and the University of the West Indies. Maria created a virtual studio where students can create content for a mental health news platform called Open Minds that shares stories about mental health news and the experiences and unique challenges of people in different Caribbean cultures. Maria and her colleagues are training students to do virtual interviews, create design templates and edit their work. All 55 student volunteers plan to continue their work for the rest of the school year.
Maria supporting and documenting fellow local Women Techmakers at the pioneer LAIKA Stop Motion training programme at the TTAP Factory of UTT, with Camille Selvon, Jessica Yawching and Mindy Bailey.
Today, Maria is working on recruiting more Caribbean WTM ambassadors. “We have four chapters in the English-speaking Caribbean, and my goal is to have 15 by the end of this year,” she says. “There is a really exciting generation of influencers and creators building the next Caribbean, and most of them are women. Let’s take a chance on changing the culture.”
When Hanane Ait Dabel started college to earn her computer science degree, she wanted to find a community. “My first year at university, I was looking for that place where I belonged,” she says. Hanane, who lives in Morocco, found that in Women Techmakers. “I really liked the atmosphere. They made technology easier to learn, so I decided to join.”
Today Hanane works as a project coordinator handling technical support for web hosting. She’s also working on her second undergraduate degree in economics — and has stayed involved in Women Techmakers, now as an ambassador.
As an ambassador, she’s had the opportunity to lead #IamRemarkable workshops — hosting them in English, Arabic and French, no less. Currently, Hanane and a group of other Women Techmaker ambassadors are planning International Women’s Day 2022 in Morocco. Hanane had some time to take a break from all this work to tell us a little about herself, and why she’s remained so active in Women Techmakers.
What sort of things were you interested in learning when you were young?
I remember as a kid, my mother was always telling me to bring my books and sit with her and study. She wasn’t able to attend school, so she always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and emphasized the importance of studying. And my father introduced me to business; he would invite me to work in the store he owned, and I learned so much there. I’ve always been fascinated by business and technology. My mother still loves to listen to me talk about these things, and she gets excited about events I’m involved in.
It’s important to get involved in communities where your work, thoughts and skills are validated.
What led you to tech?
In high school, I had the difficult decision of choosing between a technology and a business program. With my family’s support, I chose computer science. The program was hosted at a university in another city, and I wanted to be on my own and be independent. Many of my friends’ families encouraged them to stay home and study business at the city university. I’m grateful that my family supported my decision.
After I earned my computer science degree, if I wanted to continue studying engineering, I knew I would have had to move to yet another city. I couldn’t afford this and didn’t want to ask my family for financial support, so I moved home to get a second degree in economics.
What are some of the skills you’ve gained from Women Techmakers?
I’ve learned more about marketing, which has been really helpful to add to my engineering and economics background. I’ve also learned what it’s like to be a part of a healthy organization, both through Women Techmakers and the Google Developer Groups I’ve joined. These communities are so inspiring, and I appreciate connecting, learning and sharing experiences with women around the world.
What would you tell someone who’s interested in Women Techmakers or Google Developer Groups?
In these groups, you feel respected. It’s important to get involved in communities where your work, thoughts and skills are validated.
Hanane giving a talk at GDG Agadir DevFest.
One benefit of knowing people around the world through these groups is that they also think outside the box — I’ve met a lot of people who embrace more nontraditional career paths and academic choices.
Aside from planning events with Women Techmakers, what’s next for you?
I’m in the process of revising a side project, the Tech Kids Center, that I started with a team during the summer and fall of 2020. Some friends and I taught robotics, programming and business concepts online to local children. We were surprised by how brilliant kids are — they have an amazing capacity to learn technology.
“Despite the amazing talent we have in the Pakistan women, a lot of them are not comfortable being online for safety reasons,” says Hufsa Munawar. Hufsa is a community manager for Google who works with developers in Pakistan, and is extremely aware of the challenges women in her region face on the internet. Hufsa also manages Google’s Women Techmakers program, which recently brought online safety trainings for women in the area.
Together with Jigsaw, a team at Google that explores threats to open societies and builds technology to inspire scalable solutions, Women Techmakers has worked to bring online safety training to more and more women around the globe. “The workshop content really breaks down the major online security issues that exist, names them and gives suggestions for dealing with them,” Hufsa says. As a part of this program, the Women Techmaker ambassadors of Pakistan conducted eight online safety trainings and six ideathons to empower women to build solutions addressing online security concerns.
Hufsa and her team were able to train over 1,300 participants across six different cities in Pakistan — and 100% of the participants who shared their feedback said they’ve faced online safety-related issues in the past. More encouragingly, 86% said they learned something new from the online training that would make them feel safer online.
“It’s about creating awareness and education,” she says. “When you feel like it’s not just you experiencing these things, but also others in your community, you start to feel more comfortable and motivated to look for solutions.” During the training, participants shared examples of moments when they felt unsafe online, and later the group went through examples of online threat tactics — things like doxing, hacking, hate speech, violent threats, video or image-based abuse, misinformation, defamation, cyber harassment and impersonation.
After exploring these negative threats, they turned their attention to solutions during the ideathons. During the ideathons, each participant worked on proposing a solution for a problem statement given to them. These problem statements were selected from the training module and focused specifically on what women face online. “These sessions were so informative. I’ve been in tech for eight years, and I was learning new things about how these kinds of online issues can be resolved.”
One ideathon team in Karachi included a young woman who had faced online harassment for wearing a head covering. “She came up on stage and presented her idea for an app-based community where you could talk about the online hate you were facing and receive help from an AI-based system that offered ideas on what you could do, and I was really proud of her,” says Hufsa. “Her confidence, to me, was the most important thing. I loved that she understood why it’s important to form a community, felt comfortable sharing her previous experiences and proposed a unique solution to the problem.”
Hufsa sees the growing interest in these kinds of safety trainings as a sign that the power of community building is becoming better understood. “Our Women Techmaker ambassadors from Pakistan, Hira Tariq, Irum Zahra, Aiman Saeed, Ramsha Siddiqui and Annie Gul have laid down an excellent foundation for the conversation that needs to happen around women’s online safety.” she says. “This experience was so powerful because I saw that the participants trust the Women Techmakers ambassadors, and that they’re making real connections.” And the work continues: Hufsa says women who attended the workshop are requesting similar training sessions for their workplaces. “This was just the beginning. Our ambassadors and other friends in the community are working to continue training women in this space and make Digital Pakistan a safer and more inclusive space for our women.”
Our Women Techmakers in 60 Seconds video series features women engineers at Google teaching us a new skill in just one minute. In our latest episode, Julia Zhao, a software engineer on the Google Analytics team who builds video games in her spare time, showed us how to make a video game in 60 seconds using Unity.
We spoke with Julia to learn more about how she became a developer, what she’s working on now and what her favorite Google products are.
How did you become a developer?
I learned how to code by playing the online game Neopets as a kid, where I experimented with adding music and changing the colors of my profile. I didn’t get into coding again until college, when I took a computer science (CS) course. The class was much cooler than my engineering major at the time, so I switched my major to CS.
When I graduated, I took a job in Washington, D.C. as an Android developer for a defense contractor. I was hardworking but had low self-esteem. In my next job, right before I came to Google, I had a really good manager who believed in me, gave me challenging projects and encouraged me to grow as a developer.
What projects are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
I recently joined the Google Analytics team, which is the first team I’ve been on with a business focus. Before, I was coding features for users, like buttons and settings. Now, I'm working on features to help businesses see and understand all of their data analytics. It’s made me really interested in marketing and business strategy, and how people use Analytics to grow their businesses.
What inspired you to start creating video games, and what made you choose Unity as a platform?
I’ve always liked to play video games, so I decided to try building them. When I was first researching how to build a game, many links mentioned the benefits of Unity — like its active developer community and how easy it is to use. Their store also offers free and inexpensive assets, like characters and fonts, which is especially helpful for non-artists like me!
What are your favorite Google products, and why?
My favorite Google products are Android and Google Assistant (asking Google questions is very useful). I also really like the Pixel’s camera quality. And if I build my own website in the future, I would explore using Google Analytics to help me measure my content and grow my audience.
What inspired you to get involved in Women Techmakers?
I made a video for Women Techmakers about creating an Android app about two years ago, when I was thinking about creating YouTube videos during my downtime. I really enjoyed making that video and educating people, which led me to create more content for Women Techmakers. I’m looking forward to making even more videos with the team in 2022!