Microsoft hosts first ‘Hack for Her’ summit in effort to address tech’s diversity problem

Tech companies who ignore the needs of women, and leave them out of the design process, are leaving money on the table. That’s one of the messages to come out of Microsoft’s first annual “Hack For Her” summit, which took place on January 12. Diversity might be the goal, but the pitch is almost entirely economic.

“Globally, women’s combined income is rising at twice the growth rate of India and China combined,” says the summit’s home page. “How do you create experiences that work well for women and men? It starts with understanding their different preferences and motivations, and the choices they make.”

The Microsoft-hosted conference included panels from academics and people from other companies. The consensus: tech needs to understand women if it wants to make the best possible design choices.

“Constantly retrofitting for women isn’t the best way forward,” said Londa Schiebinger, Professor of History of Science at Stanford. “When you do integrate sex and gender into research you get something better.”

All-male design teams might miss subtle differences between the way men and women experience technology, and as such not make the best product possible. This could cost companies money.

“At Design People, we think that women’s needs are different from men’s, and we can use this difference to make a better user experience,” said Klaus Shcroder for Scandivian design firm Design People. He added that this can help companies pull ahead of the competition.

Of course, if part of finding that understanding is hiring women in technology roles, Microsoft itself has a long way to go: only 16.9 percent of their tech workforce are women, according to their own diversity reports. That’s a problem if Microsoft takes the thesis of its own conferences seriously.

“Ignorance is not bliss,” said Margarette Burnette. “You have to pay attention to gender if you’re going to be able to be inclusive.”

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