What if women built the internet?

Season 4: Episode 7

All the things we love on the internet — from websites that give us information to services that connect us — are made stronger when their creators come with different points of view. With this in mind, we asked ourselves and our guests: “What would the internet look like if it was built by mostly women?”

Witchsy founders Kate Dwyer and Penelope Gazin start us off with a story about the stunt they had to pull to get their site launched — and counter the sexist attitudes they fought against along the way. Brenda Darden Wilkerson recalls her life in tech in the 80s and 90s, and shares her experience leading AnitaB.org, an organization striving to get more women hired in tech. Coraline Ada Ehmke created the Contributor Covenant, a voluntary code of conduct being increasingly adopted by the open source community. She explains why she felt it necessary, and how it’s been received; and Mighty Networks CEO Gina Bianchini rolls her eyes at being called a “lady CEO,” and tells us why diversifying the boardroom is great for business and innovation.

Published: March 4, 2019

Show Notes

Coraline Ada Ehmke has been an open source programmer for over 20 years and created the Contributor Covenant. You can also learn about Mozilla’s own community participation guidelines.

Meritocracy as an open source practice is briefly mentioned in this episode. Mozilla has taken steps to discontinue using the word “meritocracy” as a way to describe our governance and leadership structures. Here’s why.

Mozilla is dedicated diversity and inclusion on the web and in the workplace. Learn about our diversity journey.

Firefox is open source and driven by a community of volunteers and contributors. However, in the past decade, representation of women in open source has inched up merely 1.5 percentage points to a shockingly low 3%. Read about the importance of — and efforts to realize — open source gender inclusion.

Like society, the Internet grows stronger with every new voice. What’s healthy and unhealthy on the web when it comes to inclusion? Mozilla’s Internet Health Report has some of the answers.

And, check out this article from Common Sense Media, on kids and technology use.


Penelope G.: My first name is Penelope, my last name is Gazin. I always ask Kate what my title is.

Kate D.: My name is Kate Dwyer and I am the CEO of Witchsy.

Penelope G.: I say co-CEO but I think that I’m technically the CCO.

Manoush Z.: Penelope and Kate run an ecommerce platform called Witchsy. It’s a curated website that sells goods from over 500 artists.

Penelope G: It’s all very artsy, weird stuff.

Manoush Z.: They had a vision for their business, but they knew that they would need a lot of technical help to get it built. So what’d they do? They hired developers to get the job done. That required lots of emails back and forth. Do we want it like this? No, we want it like that. Pretty soon though, they noticed that there was a pattern developing in their communication.

Penelope G.: I mean there were a couple times where people would be like, “Listen, ladies, okay, girls”.

Kate D.: We couldn’t find anyone to work with that wasn’t treating us like we were just the biggest dummies.

Penelope G.: We didn’t assume it was a gender thing, initially.

Kate D.: But as it started to happen more and more and more, we kind of came to the realization oh yeah, it’s because we’re women.

Manoush Z.: Was it true? Were they really being treated poorly because they were women? They decided there was only one way to find out and that was to hire a new partner, a male partner.

Keith M.: Look, I don’t even understand Witchsy, but it’s a cute little project, Kate and Penelope created it, so I support it. Yeah, I’m Keith Mann. Okay? Keith Mann.

Kate D.: People would get emails from Penelope and I and you could almost hear their eyes rolling as they were responding, but the minute Keith would step in or converse on our behalf, everyone was just so charmed by him.

Keith M.: I send out emails to people, wham, things get done.

Penelope G.: We got more yeses, we got less pushback, we were talked down to less. I mean honestly, I’m a little attracted to him.

Keith M.: You could say I’m a man’s man, a lot of people do, very masculine but I also have a secret side of me that is soft like a woman.

Manoush Z.: Is this all sounding a little strange to you? Yeah, ‘cause it should. See, Keith, he’s not really Keith at all.

Kate D.: What makes Keith special is that I’m Keith.

Keith M.: Okay, fine, the gig’s up! I’m not Keith Mann. I’m Kate.

Manoush Z.: Okay, so to be clear, Keith doesn’t really exist. We just asked someone to give Keith the voice that Kate and Penelope imagined in their heads. Having a man on the team helped them get the work done. But it was also kind of infuriating.

Kate D.: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a terrible thing when we look back on it that we even had to do something like that but the reality is-

Penelope G.: We were more relieved than outraged ‘cause it just made everything so much less stressful.

Keith M.: Thanks to this guy, they were able to finish the website and launch it within that year. Wham! Keith Mann time.

Manoush Z.: That’s what they imagined Keith would say. He’d be very pleased with himself. But to be clear, Witchsy is doing well. $200,000 in sales in their first year but not because of the imaginary Keith Mann. It’s thanks to the business skills of one CEO and one CCO who both happen to be women.

Keith M.: We good here? Okay. Keith Mann’s just gonna show himself out.

Manoush Z.: Penelope and Kate would never have imagined that these were the lengths they needed to go to to get their business and their website up and running. Why? Because sexism is alive and well in our modern society and sometimes, the internet seems to amplify it. Not like that’s stopping a lot of women though. There are plenty of allies out there supporting them and other often marginalized people, helping them to thrive and succeed on the web.

And by the way, when we say woman, we mean anyone who identifies or refers to themselves as a woman. So, here’s the big question we wanna ask today. What would the internet look like if it was built by women? What can we learn just by asking ourselves to imagine a woman built web?

I’m Manoush Zomorodi and this is IRL, online life is real life, an original podcast from Mozilla. Did you know Mozilla was founded by a woman? From the beginning, Mitchell Baker has championed and led a worldwide collective of diverse employees and volunteers building a safe and more open internet. You can support Mozilla’s mission. Use the Firefox browser and find out more at mozilla.org.

Since the late 1980s, Brenda Darden Wilkerson has worked in or around tech. Even before the web could crawl, she realized being a woman in tech was sometimes a thankless job and a lonely one too. Brenda got used to being the only.

Brenda DW.: Right, so the only woman, the only person of color, the only black woman, the only person from the Midwest amongst a bunch of folks from the Valley.

Manoush Z.: Brenda is now the CEO of a nonprofit organization called Anita B. And I’ll tell you more about their work in a minute. From her experience back then, a woman’s perspective, a woman’s insight, a woman’s intelligence, it wasn’t recognized by the men in the room.

Brenda DW.: You have to relearn what’s acceptable, you have to relearn how to be, and you have to relearn what it feels like to have your ideas really taken over by someone else. So that happens all the time, right? It’s a really uncomfortable place to be in because when you’re the only, what you lack is power, what you lack is that support from other people who can say, “I relate to you, let me give you some support and back you up.”

Manoush Z.: Brenda left her corporate tech job and these attitudes behind, but the desire to change those attitudes kept her close. She ended up working in education. In 2017, Brenda joined Anita B. The organization’s namesake Anita Borg was a computer scientist, you may have heard of her. She was always pushing for greater representation of women in tech.

Brenda DW.: Our founder coined the phrase 5050 by 2020. That was back in 1995 when it seemed to make sense that we could have 50% women computer scientists by then. The interesting note or piece of data there is that when she coined that phrase, it was at the height of women in computation. There were 35% women at that time. So, 5050 by 2020 seemed like an easy thing to do.

Manoush Z.: If only progress had kept up.

Brenda DW.: Unfortunately, we backslid. Most of the numbers show that we’re somewhere between 24 and 26%.

Manoush Z.: Okay, can we just mention that again? 35% of tech jobs held by women 20 years ago. Today, about a quarter. That is a 10% drop. Brenda says people make assumptions about that drop and she is constantly pushing back against that.

Brenda DW.: It’s women weren’t interested, women weren’t quite suited for it, et cetera, et cetera. All of that was incorrect. We left because we weren’t treated fairly, we left because the opportunities weren’t there. We left because when we got right to the mid-career, there was no place to go.

Manoush Z.: Rather than be dismayed by this challenge, Brenda and her team are rolling up their sleeves. 5050 by 2020 may seem out of reach …

Brenda DW.: We’ve boldly announced an update to Anita’s vision. We’d like to see 5050 by 2025. We’re calling it Tech Equity for All Women.

Manoush Z.: Brenda Darden Wilkerson points out that when companies have policies or attitudes that make women feel unwelcome or less valued, fewer women then find their way into those companies, so fewer women make the products that women consume. And that lack of diversity means women ultimately aren’t being served as customers and users like their male counterparts.

Now, women and their allies are speaking out and sometimes loudly. Last November, employees in Google offices around the world staged a walkout, demanding better equality. The protest launched after news came out that the company had paid Andy Rubin, one of the top executives, $90 million when he left the company. The senior vice president is accused of sexual harassment.

Sometimes, speaking out is more subtle, at least at first. Some of the changes happening at the source or rather, the open source. Open source software means that the code a programmer writes is available for other coders to review, reuse, contribute to, and redistribute. It encourages massive amounts of collaboration and the internet wouldn’t be the same without it.

In the trenches of open source software, Coraline Ada Ehmke works to guarantee a more inclusive community of coders. Her project, The Contributor Covenant, started back in 2014.

Coraline AE: Unfortunately, open source in the early days even going back before 2014 is not a very diverse kind of environment. The majority of the developers are white males with lots of free time, the privilege of free time on their hands, working on projects that are of interest to them that may or may not become popular in a wider world.

Manoush Z.: The Contributor Covenant is a voluntary code of conduct. An open source developer can choose to include it in their project if they wish.

Coraline AE: The first thing that it does was designate a set of criteria by which we wanted to make our projects more welcoming to people who fit this criteria. So that’s people on the LGBTQ spectrum, people of color, people of gender diversity, people along those lines of marginalization.

I wanted to give project donors a very explicit way to say we are committing to doing everything in our power to make this community safe and welcoming for them.

Manoush Z.: So how do you - what happens? You release the code of conduct, so it all went perfectly fine. There was no backlash, everyone was like yay, let’s do this?

Coraline AE: Yeah, and that’s the end of our podcast. There was a huge backlash. The standard sort of arguments were that, if we’re just nice to each other, all we have to do is agree to be nice to each other. Also, people saying it’s just words on paper and we don’t need that. It’s like, well, laws are just rules on paper and all rules are just rules on paper. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need them.

So the arguments against a code of conduct in general were pretty weak and the arguments against Contributor Covenant in particular tended to center more on me than on the content of the Contributor Covenant.

Manoush Z.: Oh. Centered on you how?

Coraline AE: Because of the work that I do to make open source more diverse and inclusive and welcoming. That has garnered me quite a collection, quite a motley crew of enemies and it’s kind of ironic. One of the core principles of open source, this idea of the meritocracy is that it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is what you contribute.

And yet, the same people who believe in that sort of meritocratic idea would say Coraline Ehmke is a political figure, she has a political agenda, the Contributor Covenant cannot be trusted.

Manoush Z.: And what do you say to that?

Coraline AE: Yes, I have a political agenda. Yes, I’m trying to make the world a better place. I’m trying to make technology more accessible to more people but what kind of person opposes politics like that?

Manoush Z.: Hmm. I mean, not only opposes it but to the point where you have been doxxed multiple times, in fact you were doxxed right before we were scheduled to first do this interview, right?

Coraline AE: That’s correct. Yeah.

Manoush Z.: What happened?

Coraline AE: They posted my doxx information, they posted my home address, history of home addresses actually, social security number, a bunch of phone numbers, information about my legal name change, I’m transgender which I make no secret about. Dead naming me, providing my prior name prior to transition and basically attempting to humiliate me and also put, frankly, my personal safety in danger.

Manoush Z.: What did you do?

Coraline AE: I can’t get into the specifics of what I did. I did everything in my power to keep myself safe. I have to maintain very high online and personal security.

Manoush Z.: Why do people do you think feel so threatened by this idea of welcoming all and being very specific about it and having a code of conduct?

Coraline AE: Because it challenges the status quo and there’s a portion of the population in tech who unduly benefit from the status quo because of an accident of birth. Those people who benefit from privilege, unexamined privilege balk at the idea that they have an advantage over other people given to them, that they’re playing life on an easier mode than other people are playing.

Anything that threatens their position within that community or their feeling of accomplishment in having made it on their own, they find very threatening and they tend to lash out at that very idea.

Manoush Z.: How many people now have signed your code? And what are companies saying about adopting it?

Coraline AE: I am very happy to report that we topped the 100,000 mark. So over 100,000 adoptions of the Contributor Covenant, largely from smaller or community organized open source projects but this year, saw Apple, Google, Intel, and Microsoft adopting Contributor Covenant for all of their open source projects and most recently, the Linux kernel adopted Contributor Covenant for their work as well.

Manoush Z.: Okay, that’s the back end. Very encouraging. What about the front end? What difference does it make to those of us who are not open source coders, we just use the web? Do we see a difference?

Coraline AE: If you’re just solving problems for the 25 year old white male with high income, high mobility, fast internet access, you’re leaving a lot of people behind and it’s really hard for you to sort of think outside of your own lived experience.

Manoush Z.: What would the internet look like if it was built by women?

Coraline AE: I think - I’d like to think that women have a better understanding of consent than a lot of men do and I think if women built the internet, consent would’ve been baked into it. We wouldn’t see data breaches where private information was released because we wouldn’t be collecting information without people’s explicit consent.

We would see a reduction in harassment because engaging with someone on social media would be more consent oriented as opposed to anyone can respond to anything that I say at any point in time.

Manoush Z.: Coraline Ada Ehmke has been an open source programmer for over 20 years and created the Contributor Covenant. If you wanna check it out, you will find a link in our show notes. You can also learn about Mozilla’s own community participation guidelines.

Head to IRLpodcast.org to learn more.

Coraline says laws are just rules on paper and we need rules to guide us. The state of California would agree. They put a law on paper in October, so Silicon Valley now has a law that says all publicly traded corporations must have at least one woman on their board of directors. The number rises depending on the size of the company. Some say the law doesn’t go far enough, but others say it’s a kick in the butt for those companies that need a kick in the butt.

Gina B.: I just think it shows you how powerful bias is and it shows you how powerful pattern matching is. And at the end of the day, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it because I actually have a board of women and men and it’s a diverse team and I get better decisions made.

Manoush Z.: Gina Bianchini is a big deal in the valley. She’s an entrepreneur, an investor, she’s also the CEO of Mighty Networks, a community networking app, and she says that any smart tech company knows the value of being inclusive at the decision making level.

Gina B.: You know for an industry that is so focused on data and being data driven and building repeatable, scalable models for success, the evidence on diverse teams where you have at least 13 of the team being women or people who don’t look like you, it’s just good business. You’re gonna make better decisions.

Manoush Z.: What would the internet look like if it was built by women?

Gina B.: I’ve been reflecting on this mantra of the large blue companies that are out there, to make the world more open and connected. Open and connected. Open and connected. That’s been the mantra. I actually think that there’s a better model to approach the internet which is safe and connected.

If you think about what would have happened if a few women founders were handed a billion dollars and absolute complete and utter control over their platforms, neither of which has happened I should add in any category, I think what you would find is that the moments and inflection points where there was a choice to elevate safety, I think women would have.

If women feel safe, men are gonna feel even safer. I’m not talking about safety in the sense of codifying or reinforcing male privilege. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying what would the world be like if we were operating from the best parts of ourselves?

Manoush Z.: Ahh, yes.

Gina B.: That’s what I mean by safety.

Manoush Z.: Yes!

Gina B.: Has someone helped me create the conditions and the relationships and the sense of security and belonging by which I can dream bigger, I can take more risks, I can grow in ways that are going to realize my full potential? There’s a business model for it today.

Manoush Z.: Well that was my next question because I think it was in 2017, women entrepreneurs got about $2 billion in funding where men got $83 billion in funding. How are we gonna … Does that gap need to be bridged in order to start building this new kind of web that you just described?

Gina B.: Sure, yes. I think over time, absolutely, that will be something that can accelerate this growth. But I’m not relying on it and I still think that a male founder will get the benefit of the doubt over non traditional founders or people that just don’t look like they’re straight out of central casting.

Manoush Z.: Do you ever get referred to as a lady CEO?

Gina B.: Regularly.

Manoush Z.: What do you think - Why?

Gina B.: Because I’m both a lady and a CEO. My favorite is totally this, she’s a great female founder. I’m like, do you say that about dudes? Where you’re like hey, he’s just nailing it as a male founder.

Manoush Z.: Oh my god, when you put it that way, it sounds absurd.

Gina B.: It is absurd but that’s just where we’re at and I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about whether somebody refers to me by my biological composition. It’s dumb, I will silently judge them or apparently if they are listening to this podcast, I will apparently publicly judge them but fundamentally, it’s not what matters to me.

What matters to me is how are we creating new worlds where there is deeper connection, better relationships, and everybody gets to be the very best version of themselves because they are safe, they belong, and they get to take risks and have creative ideas and brainstorms and experiences that we were all put on this Earth to be able to fully seize and be a part of.

Manoush Z.: Gina Bianchini is an entrepreneur and the CEO of Mighty Networks. So, how would the internet be different if it were built by women? Coraline says it would be safer because consent would be baked into data collection practices. Gina thinks online communities would be more diverse and that more representative board rooms make better decisions. Brenda argues that more women in tech means better products that serve everyone.

There are examples of that that exist online. Take the dating app, Bumble. It was created by a woman, Whitney Wolfe Herd, and on Bumble, it’s the women who have to make the first move. It’s not that Bumble is necessarily the best dating app out there but it does give single people and single women more choice..

Look, women aren’t gonna fix all the internet’s problems but when we give all kinds of people the opportunity to build things online, to design tools and create content for all kinds of people, we make the internet safer, more useful, and just plain better. And with that, dear listeners, this is the last episode of season four of IRL.

A season framed mostly by big questions around the ethical choices we make or don’t make when building and using the web, from how we use social media to how social media uses us. From how we shop to who we trust with our online security. If we’re going to have a better, safer, and more ethical internet, it needs to include and represent everyone by design.

Like Gina says, more diversity of people leads to more diversity of ideas. We can all demand a better internet. If you believe in that mission, you can support tech companies who put the people of the web first. Mozilla is one of those companies. You can get to know them at mozilla.org and be sure to check out the show notes to this episode.

There are a ton of links and stories for you to dive into as related to all the things we talked about. Find those show notes at IRLpodcast.org. This is IRL, online life is real life, an original podcast from Mozilla. I’m Manoush Zomorodi and if you wanna come spend some more time with me, check out my other podcast, it’s called Zig Zag. Go to zigzagpod.com or find it wherever you listen to podcasts. For now, stay human, be nerdy, have some fun.

Keith M.: What is the manliest way I could leave? I’m just asking advice for someone who needs to know how to act more like a man leaving a podcast.

Manoush Z.: Hey, it’s Manoush. Have you filled out our listener survey yet? It’s very short but we need you to do it because we’re working on the next season of IRL and we wanna hear from you. What kind of stories, issues, and questions do you have about life online? Tell us. Find a link to the survey at IRLpodcast.org. Your answers will go directly to the humans who make this show. Okay, thank you.