Who gets the title of “visionary genius” in the arts and tech?

Four years ago I started researching women working in one of the most powerful industries in the world, and was surprised by what I discovered. Women’s role in technology was actually decreasing over time. Currently, women quit tech jobs at a rate of 41%, which is twice as high as the corresponding rate for men. In order to know more about this disturbing trend, I set out to investigate the question: Why do women leave tech? As a writer, I answered it in the way I know how…by writing a play about it. I chose to explore the life of two female coders as protagonists in a play I titled Empty Rooms. Through these two characters and the comedy genre, I examined the blatant discrimination women currently face in the tech industry.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, in 2015 women held 57% of all professional occupations, yet only 25% of the computing occupations. The numbers are even lower for Latinas and Black women who hold only 1% and 3% of these jobs, respectively. Fewer women are found in software development, technology leadership, or other kinds of key roles that have an influence on future innovation. Similarly, 88% of all information technology patents are invented by an all-male team versus 2% being invented by an all-female team.

What this means for us, ultimately, is that we are living in a world where the future is decidedly not female. Women have a shockingly small voice in dictating the infrastructure in which our future world is being built through developing technology. Through my research for Empty Rooms, I discovered most women actually love their work, but leave tech due to negative “workplace experiences” including isolation, lack of mentorship, lack of training and development, lack of access to core technical and creative roles (roles responsible for innovation), and difficulty advancing into leadership positions. Beyond that, many women face blatant harassment, threats, and even assault in toxic work environments. I empathized with these women, and couldn’t help but notice that even though my field is in the arts, and not the tech industry, many of the problems these programmers faced seemed eerily familiar. I myself tried to leave the arts, but I loved the work… and so I returned. It wasn’t until I actively sought-out female mentors and collaborators that I considered the life of an artist a viable one. Until I witnessed women practicing in the field at a high level, I myself believed, though subconsciously, the role of “creative visionary” was designated for white men.

It seems we are still largely unable to imagine people of color and women in the role of the “visionary genius”—a role that both tech entrepreneurs and artists share. The visionary is the one who gets the privilege of innovation. From 2011 to 2014, according to a study done by the Dramatist Guild of America only 12% of play productions were by writers of color. 62.6% of plays were by American white males, and 14% by American white females. Only 6% were by American males of color and 3.4% by American females of color. What will it take for us to start seeing people of color and women in the role of a “visionary”?

We can start by recognizing those that have come before us in both tech/sciences and the arts. For example, Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars in 1967. A Nobel Prize was awarded for her finding, but it went to Antony Hewish—Burnell's supervisor.

"The picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, who weren't expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said,” explained Burnell.

In the theatre world, there is the case of Elisabeth Hauptmann who is credited as a “collaborator” on the play The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht. Hauptmann originated the idea by bringing Brecht the original source text and translating it from English to German. More than that, Brecht scholar John Fuegi argues that the script’s libretto—including the majority of the songs—was at least 70% Hauptmann’s work. She remained invisible while The Threepenny Opera rocketed Brecht to fame.

In the tech field, Ada Lovelace was only recently discovered and celebrated as the “first computer programmer.”

It’s harder to imagine women as visionaries if they always remain invisible.

It’s time to shine a light on those who have been inventing and creating, often invisibly. It’s time for the role of “visionary genius” to expand and to include women and people of color in both the tech world and the arts world. Perhaps then—we can all play a role in actively authoring the future.

Find out more about the play Empty Rooms and show dates by visiting www.foundstages.org.

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