Caroline Williams: „My work is focused not on women in tech but inclusion in tech”

Caroline Williams’s work is deeply focused on digital and financial inclusion, the future of work and the freedom to bring your whole self into everything you do. She always advocates for ethical technology, from ideation to usage. She believes in community-sourced development instead of prescriptive guidance. She creates environments where others can learn and take that knowledge with them. „What questions make you pause, think and engage? My favorites are Why? and Why not?. Either way, the dialogue that comes from those questions can lead to consciousness, change and innovation”, says Caroline, a data feminist and founder of The Do Good Only Company in Nederlands.

You are bringing technology to serve the organization and members – you did that for PWN Amsterdam, mentorship and volunteering for African people and organizations, tech ethics. What questions make you pause, think and engage in all this process? 

A common theme in my life is breaking down walls. When I look at projects that I will engage in, I want to know which walls exist, how does the community benefit most and what solution do they want to implement. I take my guidance from there. I don’t believe in coming into a project, wearing an “expert” hat and telling people what to do and I don’t work on them.

When looking at technology-based projects, it’s critical to start with asking what problem really exists and is it one that technology actually will solve. Too often technology is seen as the solution, when in reality it’s a people or process problem. Especially in tech, the practice is to see everything as a technology problem – which is a dangerous blind spot. It’s also a very imperialist or colonizing approach, this time digitally. Make the decision that you know what is best for the community impacted. Just say no to Digital Imperialism!

Another principle I use is that my time for making an impact on the project is limited. I should not need to stay there for years, creating a dependency. Instead, it should be a sharing of knowledge and the community owns the solution. I can always be called on to help if needed – that’s what the relationship is about – but no project should need me in order to continue to function. I’m known for saying “I don’t want to marry you, I want to help you get to your next step so that you can grow. You can always call me if you need me.” I carry this over into how my company works as well. All projects we do follow this principle of not creating dependencies. Or as we say it “build with not build for”.  

I’ve always had a healthy sense of rebellion and wanting to know “why”. It turns out I might also be genetically predisposed to this kind of mentality since my maternal family line has a high frequency of what people might call “troublemakers” or in more plain speech “shit stirrers”. When I discovered this in my family tree research, I was relieved to know that I was continuing a centuries-old legacy!

What is a Data Feminist?

Catharine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein wrote the fantastic book Data Feminism It’s an examination of the world of data science through the lens of intersectional feminism. It’s accessible and engaging and helps raise awareness of why we need to look at the disciplines of data science and resulting technologies like artificial intelligence through feminism if we want to create more just and equal societies.

Practically speaking, there are seven core principles that makeup data feminism. They are:

  1. Examine Power
  2. Challenge Power
  3. Elevate Emotion and Embodiment
  4. Rethink Binaries and Hierarchies
  5. Embrace Pluralism
  6. Consider Context
  7. Make Labor Visible

It is only when utilizing these principles in our data work that we can be sure that we are not using data to oppress others, instead, we are using data to elevate others. If we leave data work over to the big tech giants and the traditional partners, we are leaving ourselves and our societies vulnerable to further oppression.  Why does this matter? Join me for a virtual coffee to find out.

How do you support women in tech?

Supporting women in tech means creating an environment where everyone is welcome. Most initiatives follow the model of creating women-specific programs. I have built and participated in many of those in my career. I think it is great that they exist.

For my work now, it’s focused not on women in tech but inclusion in tech. This means that in my programs, we are open for everyone. I do mean everyone. This creates a stronger community because you are normalizing in an IT company that women will be your colleagues and your managers. It also raises your individual awareness of increasing representation in tech. This is important to me because we put a great deal of the work of increasing diversity on the shoulders of the people who are underrepresented instead of on the existing leadership and culture of the organization.

My company and students are also focused on female founders and social impact projects. By contributing to the success of these two groups, we are building stronger ecosystems. Those ecosystems also support our community and their transition into IT workforces around the world.

People gravitate to what they can see. I think that is a significant factor for why my company has a majority of technical women. It’s one of the reasons that I have so little patience with the excuse that many companies have when they say “we couldn’t find any women for the role, they are just not interested.”

Why did you choose to be a feminist?

I don’t think that I made a conscious choice for being a feminist. I did make a conscious choice to identify as a feminist. I love the word itself and all of the power contained in it to make a change.

What does feminism mean as a lifestyle?

It means being aware of my power and privilege. It means that I use those in every way possible to break down walls for others. It means not turning away when the circumstances become uncomfortable, instead of turning into and challenging it. It means not judging the roles and choices of other women and giving them the same room for self-determination as I would like to have them extend to me. It means respecting how someone chooses to self-identify. It means listening and being present, even when the viewpoints are fundamentally opposite from what I believe. It means making a choice to spend my resources with women-owned and inclusive businesses.

Who and what is feminism used for in personal/professional / social life?

In my own experience, I do not distinguish between the different areas of my life and how much feminism fits into each. That is due in part that I have a tremendous amount of freedom and I can safely make the choice not to hide things I believe in or how I live or who my partner is. Not everyone has this luxury.

Is it harder to be a feminist now or in the beginning?

So much depends on your life experience and how that shapes you and how you see yourself. When I was younger, I didn’t have an understanding of all that I was capable of. Instead, I had an overly developed sense of what I wasn’t doing. I also didn’t know how to reflect or look into myself to understand what I was feeling. I was good at being tough and working hard. I was terrible at connecting with and letting people in.

In the years since and the experience gained, I’m really good at connecting with and letting people in. I am really tough on systems and bullshit and I work hard to dismantle them. Now my attitude is more “the more often you tell me NO, the harder I am going to work to prove it can be done”. Earlier I would have looked at the No’s as evidence that I wasn’t capable of making the changes needed.

On a personal level, it is far easier for me to be a feminist now as I have more patience with myself. On a societal level, I think it has become harder. People assume that feminism was something that was needed in the 1970s and the world has evolved. But it’s an ongoing systemic change. With the addition of technology, I think it’s also easy to get lost in the idea that making videos or liking posts is equivalent to making real social change. It’s not. What you are doing is feeding an algorithm and a data center. You are not feeding the hearts and minds of the woman walking next to you.

I regularly encounter people who think there is no need for feminism anymore or my openly feminist identification makes them uncomfortable. This tells me that it is all the more important to put on my boots and walk loudly as a feminist, today and all the days I have left. In doing so, I ensure that the “shit-stirrer” legacy continues to the next generation.
Things that matter to me are: black coffee, my pets, my community, my exceptional collection of Ramones t-shirts and my willingness to get in trouble. These are not always the same things that others value about me!

As a self-taught techie, I didn’t want to leave tech disillusioned about the inequality. Instead, I wanted to have tech my way, with a culture that was welcoming and where I could thrive. In 2018, I started The Do Good Only Company to be that place. And now I am completely unsuitable for being employed anywhere else!

I consider good conversation the first step to making a change in the world. If you want to talk more about feminism, tech, systemic change, music or pets, you can find me here.

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