Consumer consequence. Insofar as many companies are beholden to consumers and shareholders, people need to make gender equality a priority when purchasing products and services from companies with a poor track record of compliance. Uber is a perfect example of consumer backlash to institutional sexism.
As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Timothy Quinn, a principal co-founder of Hatebase, the world’s largest repository of multilingual hate speech data. Tim has also dealt with gender-related issues as an advisor to the International Development Resource Centre, and is helping track women-owned and women-led businesses in global supply chains through his work with the government procurement platform, OMX.
Thank you so much for joining us, Timothy! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?
I have a software background and I’ve made a career of building technology companies, with a particular interest in complex social issues and the democratization of technology. When I was in school, software was something you wrote in FORTRAN and hoped didn’t get kicked back from the mainframe, and so I didn’t see a career for myself outside of banking or insurance or defense. Everything changed with the internet — technology became more accessible, software became distributable in real-time — and I was fortunate to be part of that explosion of opportunity. My kids take it for granted that you can collaborate with someone you’ve never met on the other side of the world, but for me it’s like what air travel would’ve been for people born at the end of the 19th century.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
By far the most interesting project I’ve worked on is Hatebase, which has grown from a pilot project created in partnership with an NGO monitoring mass atrocities into a self-sustaining company that’s helping governments, humanitarian organizations and large technology companies reduce hate speech and online harassment. Our initial goal was extremely modest — to try to quantify the risk of escalating violence in certain hyperlocal regions — and has evolved into a data service which is supporting research at 275+ universities around the world, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, Oxford and MIT.
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In my younger and more naive days, I worked briefly for a large, well-known media company. I’d been there for a few months when they suffered a massive overnight data loss, and being passionate about data security, which I still am, I expounded in a meeting with the president of the business on why it was a failure of management rather than a failure of technology. They fired me shortly after that, which taught me that (a) companies may be incentivized to learn from their mistakes but rarely do, and (b) too many companies see data as just a commodity, and when you look at data volumetrically rather than qualitatively, breaches and losses become acceptable risks.
Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?
There are obviously a multitude of factors which contribute to a lack of pay parity between men and women, from under-representation in the boardroom to the penalty many women pay for stepping away from their careers to raise a family, but the area that we focus on at Hatebase is gender-based discrimination, which is a problem that fuels a wide range of social and workplace disparities.
When we collect data on discrimination, we consistently see a large percentage of gender-based hate speech across all languages and all geographies. This points to an acceptability of gender-based discrimination that impacts women in every facet of their lives, including in the workplace where social attitudes toward gender and sexuality infuse how decisions are made about performance, promotion and salary.
Diane Vaughan, an author and sociology professor at Columbia University, wrote a great book called The Challenger Launch Decision in which she talks about “normalization of deviance” — a phenomenon whereby evading consequences a certain number of times lowers people’s perception of risk, and can lead over time to serious errors in judgement, such as the design flaw which caused the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
The same phenomenon describes the continued, pervasive discrimination against women. Because the apparent acceptability of discrimination is so prevalent (social media and other online ecosystems are saturated with gender-based abuse), we’ve become accustomed to it, and this familiarity empowers discriminatory practices in the workplace, such as pay disparity.
Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?
My company, Hatebase, is a data provider that helps organizations identify and monitor online gender-based discrimination. Because online discrimination is so prevalent, companies are increasingly looking at automation to augment human moderation, and that’s where we can help — we’re a plug-n-play service that companies use to improve their content moderation. We work with social networks, media companies, government agencies, NGOs, law enforcement and other public and private entities to help bring a level of expertise to the detection of hate speech and discriminatory content.
Online discrimination and harassment can have wide-ranging social impacts, from marginalization to violence, and so our work at Hatebase focuses on making sure that organizations have the appropriate data to make policy decisions, promote human rights, and enforce compliance with domestic and international standards of law.
Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Transparency. Companies should be open about gender-based disparities in their workforce, strive to address those disparities, and promote gender equality throughout their supply chains. Companies should specifically disclose, on a regular basis, the percentage of women they employ, the percentage of managerial and executive personnel which are women, etc. Increasingly, companies are being held accountable to ESG standards (Environment and Social Governance), of which diversity needs to be a core component.
2. Governance. In addition to gender-aware executive management, companies should pursue diverse boards of directors and advisory boards as a means of prioritizing gender-related issues that might otherwise be forgotten in the day-to-day operations of running a company.
3. Lack of acceptability. Companies should do better at moderating, mitigating and counter-messaging online discriminatory content, including discrimination against women. Several industries, such as multiplayer gaming, continue to take a laissez faire attitude toward online discrimination, equating harassment with “trash talking.”
4. Consumer consequence. Insofar as many companies are beholden to consumers and shareholders, people need to make gender equality a priority when purchasing products and services from companies with a poor track record of compliance. Uber is a perfect example of consumer backlash to institutional sexism.
5. Education. Although significant gains have been made in opening up traditionally male curricula, educators need to continue to encourage gender parity in mathematics, science, engineering and business. This process needs to begin early, well before students choose a post-secondary career path. Many cities have STEM-focused summer camps for kids, and the majority of imagery used to promote those camps is still of boys rather than girls.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Discrimination based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality or other endemic characteristics is not only unjust; it’s also economically disadvantageous. So a movement which would immediately benefit the most amount of people would be a movement that helps people understand the socioeconomic advantages of eliminating institutionalized discrimination. Companies which treat their workforces fairly and see the value in diversity are companies which will succeed in an increasingly governance-aware global economy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Rather than provide a quote, I’ll share what for me was the most important lesson I’ve learned in my career: practically anything is achievable if you’re willing to commit a minimum number of hours pro bono to things that are important to you. While there are exceptions (you need to make a living before you can afford the time to volunteer, and you’ll never have the opportunity to perform pro bono cardiac surgery), volunteerism is a back door into just about everything else, and is the best way I’ve found both to give back to your community and to acquire new skills and perspectives.
I’ve committed a small amount of time, for free, to interesting projects for over a decade now, doing hands-on work with NGOs operating in developing economies, sitting on advisory boards of interesting companies, sharing knowledge at conferences, etc. It’s astonishing to me that more people don’t recognize the mutual benefits of volunteerism. A few years ago, I mentioned to a relatively senior software executive that I was volunteering a week to help modernize municipal technology infrastructure in the Philippines, and he couldn’t have been more floored if I’d told him I was spending the week on Barsoom.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
As a former New Yorker, I’d love to buy Michael Bloomberg a burger at JG Mellon and encourage him to run in 2020.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.