Solving for a Technology Revolution Designed Primarily for Men

The “technology revolution” in Silicon Valley has been designed by, and for, men — but it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s a crowded college party at a local bar a few months into the semester. People are drinking, dancing, talking, and getting ready for the weekend. A third year student glances around the room and notices something looks off about an interaction happening at the bar. A guy is leaning really close to a girl, invading her space, touching her, and she’s making it clear she’s not into it. He’s not taking the hint. She tries a few tactics to get him to leave her alone, but he’s not budging.

The third year student doesn’t know them personally, but they all go to the same school, and are hanging out at the same bar. Instead of shrugging his shoulders, taking a sip of beer and moving on, he decides to do something. He cuts between them, causing a low-key interruption, diffusing an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation.

This is called bystander intervention, a violence prevention strategy that engages witnesses and bystanders to recognize potential problematic scenarios and take simple actions to diffuse them. Bystander intervention asks the community to take responsibility to prevent sexual assault, making sure that this responsibility doesn’t lie exclusively with the victim.

In this particular scenario, the student who intervened had been trained in sexual assault prevention in an orientation centered around the Circle of 6 mobile application. Circle of 6 is a violence prevention tool designed by a women- and LGBTQ-led team to engage students in creating micro-communities of support, to help each other out of potentially harmful situations. It works by allowing each user to select six close friends, who can be immediately notified if the user feels they are in a potentially harmful situation, ranging from an uncomfortable interaction to an imminent assault. If the user is uncomfortable, they can notify their circle to call and interrupt them, thus diffusing the situation. If they are in immediate danger, they can quickly send their GPS coordinates, and ask for someone to pick them up.

The structure of the app normalizes bystander intervention, and educates users about the principles of accountability. The dissemination of the app creates a more observant and engaged student body campus-wide.

And the design of the app, created by and for communities who are most affected by sexual violence, is directly responsive to the needs of those communities.

A Technology Revolution Designed For and By Women

In March, the digital news outlet Quartz published an article titled “The Problem With A Technology Revolution Designed Primarily For Men,” describing what happens when our in-device tech assistants are designed by only a fragment of the population. While “virtual assistants” such as Siri can provide useful information for health emergencies such as a heart attack or attempted suicide, it doesn’t recognize phrases like “I am being abused” or “I am being beaten by my husband,” scenarios that an estimated one out of four women are forced to deal with in their lifetimes.

Silicon Valley’s lack of listening — and dearth of leadership — on women’s issues perpetuates an imbalance and inequality that ultimately limits the utility of tech products aimed facilitating daily life (such as Google Maps), and finding solutions to widespread, persistent social problems (such as Circle of 6). Lack of funding for initiatives, projects, and companies founded by diverse communities further keeps the male-centric status quo in place. We need a paradigm shift away from male-centric design if the technology revolution is going to touch wider populations, and include marginalized communities.

I have recently joined the advisory board of the start-up tech company Tech 4 Good — whose signature technology is the Circle of 6 app — because its culture and mission actively aim to shift this paradigm through community-centered design. The core values of the company are what I believe to be shared values of the tech/social innovation field: harnessing technology to create tools for actions, and organizing micro-communities that already exist. Tech 4 Good’s founder and CEO Nancy Schwartzman is an internationally recognized leader in gender-based violence prevention and a survivor, and has spent years listening and responding directly to the needs of women, queer, and trans* people, populations who have to date largely been left out of the design of tech-based services. And the company aims to research — and pair — social behavior with critical resources to avoid patriarchal assumptions and “false solutions” to problems affecting women, queer, and trans* people.

Circle of 6 embodies these values and provides an exemplar of what’s possible through community-centered design. The app is designed by a team of women and LGBTQ designers and engineers, and based on extensive research on sexual assault on college campuses, and consultation with survivors. Since 2012, over 300,000 people have downloaded Circle of 6, the majority of whom are attending universities across the United States. It has won the White House and Department of Health and Human Services “Apps Against Abuse” challenge, and has been praised by Vice President Joe Biden as “a new line of defense against violence.” Circle of 6 is also localized for New Delhi, with resources and commands in Hindi, and was the first anti-violence mobile app created for the Indian market.

Most importantly, the company has gathered both anecdotal and numerical evidence that the app has prevented sexual assaults and formed safer communities.

Community-Centered Design Approaches Lead to Community-Centered Impact

The direct impact of the company’s technology arises from its design approach. For example, the team’s data indicates a shifting role in cultural norms surrounding sexual assault, particularly on campus, and led the team to stop assuming that sexual assault happens primarily between strangers and that it requires rapid-fire police response, or a “white knight” savior. Instead, the application addresses the fact that most assaults occur between acquaintances, and sometimes even in relationships. According to the most recent research, 85% percent of sexual assaults happen between either close, or casual acquaintances, and, due to the pressure to be the “perfect victim” and lack of convictions of assailants in sexual assault cases, survivors often feel reluctant to report the attack to law enforcement, and have a lack of trust in the due process system that is supposed to get their attacker convicted.

The team therefore moved away from a “stranger danger” / “catch the bad guy, solve the problem”-centered model for sexual assault. Instead, they built the tool in discussion with users, designing from the understanding that most users would be out late, socializing , having fun — and not necessarily wanting police barging into their bedrooms, unless it was the absolute last resort. Also, in addition to the “two tap” method for alerting one’s “circle” that they are in danger, the application includes several online resources (borrowed from Scarleteen) ranging from defining sexual assault, understanding consent, and resources for getting out of unhealthy relationships. The team relied on a harm-reduction approach, which is led by the needs of the community — and aims to use already established communities of peers to support each other and stop the problem before it starts.

Creating A More Equal Technology Revolution

Tech 4 Good has made it a part of its business culture to ask how we, as members of the tech industry, set our bar higher to create tools that shift social behaviors and cultural norms, to make the world a better — and safer — place?

We believe the answer is in ensuring that those who make the technology are representative of those who will use the technology — and come from a wide variety of different backgrounds and experiences. It is important to examine who is on your team, and ensure that the consultation and design process is connected to the community that it is intended to help.

Creating inclusive business and design models, from conception to production, will make our tools more useful for more people, and will create a more equal and all-encompassing technology revolution.


Lina Srivastava is a social impact strategist, working at the intersection of innovation, storytelling, and justice. She is the founder of CIEL and the co-Founder of Regarding Humanity.