A Woman’s Touch takes Tech to Top
German techspert takes on Google, wants women in tech to be more visible
Would you believe me if I told you the first time I used the GPS function on my (four year old) iPhone was February 2020?
That’s right. The first time. I don’t like relying on these things because I think they make us lazy and helpless. I don’t mind asking people for directions, and I know how to read a map. Also, I don’t want to be tracked. Why should I tell Google where I am at any given time? I don’t use Siri, Alexa or any of that stuff either. It’s bad enough with the online Scrabble and quizzes.
But because today I’m in a hurry and there’s no one around to ask for directions, I take one for the team: whip out the Settings and reluctantly connect with the big tracker in the sky. And I have to admit, it is kind of fascinating to see how the little blue dot follows every little corner and bend of the narrow streets of Alaró, leading me straight to the charming little house of Gaby Slezák, tech connoisseur extraordinaire.
“I’m not surprised you don’t want to be tracked! Me, I’m not even on Facebook anymore,” says Slezák [www.linkedin.com/in/virtualtrainer/].
“I also use a different search engine; let me send you the link! Of course it’s not as powerful as Google – yet! – but your personal data won’t get stolen while you’re using it. This will interest you: It is completely independent from Google and with every search you help Europe becoming digitally autonomous.”
Oh dear. I quickly turn off the tracking function on my phone, but who am I kidding? Google will surely be listening in on our conversation anyway.
And if even I, Luddite that I am, fear the power of the internet giants, imagine how concerned Slezák is. Here’s a woman who knows what she is talking about. Having understood the workings of and been interested in computers since childhood (“I read science fiction and dreamt about becoming a psychologist for robots!”) she knows only too well the threats posed by algorithms, data mining and the way computers seem increasingly to be able to look into your head.
Her real passion, however, is Women in AI, which I erroneously thought was the same as Women in Tech. It turns out that they are actually both global organisations, with a presence in 100 and 60 countries respectively. And Slezák plays an active role in both.
But why Women in AI and Tech? Why not just ‘people’ in Tech? Surely biological differences don’t matter when you are just sitting there tapping away on a keyboard?
“Yes, that’s probably what many people think, and it’s partly true, but men and women do think differently in terms of communication, specifically in a business setting. The reason why we need more women in tech and especially in A.I. is that half of the world’s population is not participating equally in research and development of technologies that will have an impact on all of us. We need more diversity to reflect humanity in all future decisions – ethical and technological.”
Heh! Machines are mostly designed by men, and so they “think” and act in a masculine way? I never thought of that before. I just thought machines worked like – well, machines – but of course they are just a product of the person who made them. How often haven’t I stood in somebody’s kitchen and thought: Whoever designed this kitchen has never cooked!
“I want there to be more women in these teams of designers and I want them to be more visible,” Slezák continues.
She thinks technology should inspire more women to get involved, and that it should start at school. More girls should be interested in maths and computer science, or rather, the subjects should be presented in a different way, not just as something boring that they have to get through.
“In my daughter’s former school here in Mallorca, for example, there was like a glass wall in the classroom. Her maths teacher – male – always sat with two or three boys around him explaining the maths lessons; never with girls.”
Isn’t it possible though, that men and boys in general are more interested in technical and techy things than women, and that when given a choice, men will tend towards objects and women towards people?
“Whatever the reason, it’s important to show girls and women how tech, and especially AI, is about everything in society, not only software engineering, numbers and “nerdy” things. It’s about communication and connection. And like it or not, AI will become an increasing part of the lives of all of us.”
Although Slezák never considered herself particularly technical, she went straight from school into being a computer graphics designer in 1989; long before that became a ‘thing.’
One of her company’s projects was to install multimedia music stations in a big warehouse chain all over Germany, and every Monday morning she would get a frantic call: “Help! They have stopped working again!” But it wasn’t the computers that had “stopped working,” it was the cleaners who came at night who had pulled out the computer cables…
When a project goes bad, it’s because of a lack of communication
“Yes, when a project goes bad, it’s rarely a technological problem, but rather lack of communication. I was kind of the “interface”, because I could talk to everybody in their language – marketing, managers and engineers,” says Slezák , who became a certified trainer of communication skills after realising this. [www.yourvirtualtrainer.net]
“Men and women communicate differently – it’s just the way we were brought up. Men are louder, they interrupt more. It’s almost like a second language for many women. I taught women to be more assertive in their speech and to stand their ground. And I especially taught them how to understand the other side better.”
Slezák moved to Mallorca in 2015 and, as well as being active in the aforementioned organisations, acts as a consultant and advisor for learning technologies, running online workshops and, but don’t tell Google, working on ways to reduce the power of that all-seeing eye. Here is one such Google avoidance search engine: beta.cliqz.com
Slezák wants to create independent and transparent artificial intelligence (A.I)
and help distribute gender-neutral voices for chatbots as well as Alexa and Siri, so they don’t sound so much like subservient women. And, as it happens, she is the director of just such a company, a “decentralised marketplace that democratises A.I” [Seedtoken.io].
Men and women communicate differently
From her balcony overlooking the higher parts of idyllic Alaró I hardly need to ask her how she likes Mallorca; after all, what’s not to love?
“It’s just right: it’s big enough, small enough and so well connected. But it’s still too much concentrated only on tourism, and there are no big high tech corporations. So for now I only work with people outside the island but that’s okay – I love working remotely. Of course that too can be a bit tricky sometimes; like, now I work with an American company which is completely virtual, across six time zones.“
After giving me some more advice on how to avoid Google, she makes me a beautiful cup of café con leche on her shiny Nespresso machine. Now that’s what I call a well designed machine! And it won’t be able to listen in on our conversation. For the time being.