Ed Tech, Gender and “Uncanny Valley”

Some questions for women in academic/educational technology, inspired by a terrific memoir of Silicon Valley tech culture.

January 22, 2020

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener

Published in January 2020

Is structural sexism as persuasive in the ed-tech world as it is in other parts of the technology ecosystem?

Are campus technology units and educational technology companies as hostile to women as Silicon Valley start-ups?

How would have Anna Wiener’s memoir been different if she had chosen to work in technology on a campus or at an ed-tech company, as compared to her actual experiences at analytics and open-source platform start-ups?

Gender inequality is the thread that runs through Wiener’s tale of spending her 20s working in customer support at a pair of San Francisco tech start-ups in the first part of the 2010s. Imbalances of power, agency, autonomy, visibility and compensation between men and women infect and influence every aspect of Silicon Valley tech culture.

Uncanny Valley does a masterful job of describing how these inequalities feel to someone who must navigate them daily. The book is a window into tech culture and tech economics that we seldom get to peer through. The view is deeply disquieting.

Most of what we read about technology companies comes either from those at the top of the tech food chain (the CEO, COOs, etc.) or from journalists.

Over the past few years, I’ve read many excellent accounts of the origins and impact of the tech industry.

Among these are: The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea, Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber and Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors.

These are all good books about the digital economy and Silicon Valley culture. You will notice, however, that none of these books are written by midlevel workers at any start-up or tech company.

And all of these books are written by men.

The voices of women are as absent from books about the tech economy as they are from the tech companies themselves. Uncanny Valley is perhaps at least a small start.

Which brings me to some questions for women who work in academic and educational technology:

  • Do you think that working in academic/educational technology is any different than working at start-ups and tech companies?
  • In Uncanny Valley, Wiener describes a tech industry where women are routinely hired, paid and promoted less than similarly qualified men. Is this also true in ed tech?
  • Women seem to occupy a significant number of leadership roles on the learning side of the house of educational/academic technology. How true is this across other areas of ed tech?
  • Is higher ed, and also corporate ed tech, doing a better job than start-ups and big tech companies of recruiting women in technical roles? Of mentoring women to enable them to take on technology leadership roles?

Uncanny Valley is likely the it book of our moment. Something I say with high praise.

Uncanny Valley is a must-read for anyone who thinks about the impact of tech on culture, who works in tech or is curious about what it is like to live in San Francisco during this latest tech bubble.

I’m also hoping that the book is an opportunity for us to have a conversation about academia, gender, careers and technology.

What are your favorite books about tech culture?

What are you reading?


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