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Hide behind our initials to counter bias? Women in tech, don’t play this game

Angela Misri is a journalist and podcaster who covers technology and digital culture.

Investor and serial entrepreneur John Greathouse found himself apologizing the other day for what he acknowledged was an "insensitive" piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which he advised women in the tech industry to consider using their initials, instead of their full names, and taking other gender-hiding measures online to overcome biased hiring practices.

The whole affair reminded me of a scene in The Matrix where Neo meets Trinity, a famous hacker:

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Neo: Trinity… The Trinity? The one that cracked the IRS d-base?

Trinity: That was a long time ago.

Neo: Jesus! Trinity: What?

Neo: I just thought, um… you were a guy.

Trinity: Most guys do.

Trinity is a woman, played by Canada's own Carrie-Anne Moss, and she has "fooled" the hacker community (represented by the slow-witted Neo) into thinking she is one of them, which she is – by virtue of her skills, not her gender.

Like many women in the technology field, she is used to being mistaken for a man, simply because she works in an industry that seems firmly wedged in a past.

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Instead of advocating to tackle the problem by changing the status quo, hiring more women, funding more female entrepreneurs and paying everyone equally, Mr. Greathouse suggested that women disguise our gender. That we need to fool employers and clients into thinking we are men until we can prove our worth with our skills.

Imagine a situation where you're on a diverse team of professionals about to go into a boardroom to make a presentation, and you're asked to stay in the lobby because your audience is of a certain gender. Now imagine that audience is women. How many men reading this article would agree to that decision? How many women reading this article can imagine asking that man to stay behind?

If "like hires like," then what makes us alike should be our skills, not our gender. And before you roll your eyes and tell me I'm being naive, I'm not saying unconscious bias doesn't happen. I'm saying let's not play ball.

Instead of hiding our names from applications and resumés, or not including the photos of female team members, we should flood the industry with our big, bold, female identifiers. I'm proud of what I've accomplished, and I refuse to obfuscate it for the benefit of small minds who I believe are on their way out of an industry that must change to grow.

Besides, I'm not sure I even accept the premise. Have you looked around at your office's human resources department? I'll bet it's one of those where women seem to be in the majority. With women going through the resumés, if it were just a matter of "like hires like," we wouldn't still be talking about ways to circumvent the industry's gender-biased hiring practices.

In her article from earlier this month on women in tech, Suzanne Stein used Karl Popper's "wicked problem" concept to describe "social problems that are poorly formulated, confusing and include many decision makers with conflicting values." Well, this is a wicked problem, and how we respond to it is incredibly important.

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Every person who is in a position of power to hire or fund humans in the tech industry needs to refuse to play this game. Recognize your unconscious bias and step away from it. Look it in the face and turn away. Hire the best, not the most alike. Keep doing it and we will pull that wedge free.

It wasn't that long ago that a female journalist like me might have been encouraged by my editors to write as "A. Misri" rather than under my full name. In fact, as a South Asian with a non-European surname, I might have had to write under a pen name.

In 2016, I find this kind of coping mechanism insulting to everyone involved. Even if I did believe that readers' opinions are locked in place the moment they realize they are different than the writer, why would we further that bias by bowing to it?

Like rape culture, this approach puts the onus on the person injured by the problem. Women are part of the technology community because we've earned it – because we are intelligent, proven producers with skills and websites full of credentials.

The change needs to happen on the other side of the workstation. And we can't make that change if we hide our light under a bushel for the comfort of others.

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