What the tech sector can learn from pop culture fandoms

Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. This week Sacha Judd talks young female fans and how they just might be the future of tech.

What exactly could loving One Direction have to do with fixing the diversity pipeline problem in tech? Well if you hear ‘One Direction’ and go into dismissal mode, that might just be the root of the problem. A few years ago a tech industry leader in law gave a presentation at a serious Berlin tech conference about how perhaps the diversity pipeline problem could be traced back to the way that traditionally female spaces of fandom have been minimised online.

It was based around fan fiction, One Direction secret love affair conspiracies and honouring how people’s enthusiasms can lead them to learn about making things online. If you love something and build a fanpage, that is a very real way in to website building.

The talk has led to more talks, years, and time spent on One Direction than Sacha Judd had ever anticipated. Sacha, a former partner at top law firm Buddle Findlay, has been an influential figure in tech – being very early on the journey of big firms like Vend, where I know her from, and now running the family office for Rowan Simpson, a recent pod guest, at Hoku. As well as identifying and funding the next wave of great companies. Her back of a napkin service for tech founders has helped get many companies off to a great start, and she joined me to discuss what we term serious and how that seriously affects who feels welcome.

Either download (right click to save), have a listen below or via Spotifysubscribe through iTunes (RSS feed) or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

I love the way that in your talks you draw the parallels with the way that some fandom is seen as passionate and then some is dismissed as hysterical and there is that gender and also an age sort of swing on it. Where you bring the comparison to sport really hit home for me. You see all of these men in their late 40s still acting like 15 year olds and somehow that’s kind of passion, following the Lions around New Zealand or something, and that’s all ok, but there’s a dismissal of that same level of enthusiasm in a gendered way for young women.

That’s right, and I mean, it’s considered to be completely normal to have a really deep understanding of all the different players in a sports team, what their stats are, who captained the All Blacks in what year, that’s just considered patriotism. But to have that same level of dedication and commitment to singles that a band has released or movies that an actor has been in, that’s not seen as compelling. And it is unfortunately quite gendered and I think that just comes about because particularly in the tech sector we’ve had a really homogeneous industry for a really long time and the sort of people who have been drawn to it and succeeded in it have all followed a similar path and they’ve hired people who are like them and have been on a similar journey to them and are interested in the same things. It’s meant that our companies and our industry as a whole has turned out to be very, very homogeneous and that’s what we’re grappling with now.

It also really hit home with me that point about teenage enthusiasms being embraced in men and something to be embarrassed about in women. When I look at two industries that I know well from working in them – advertising and technology – both of them have a real representation problem with women, especially in the higher rolls and the really technical rolls. Both of them have a culture where the males never really grow up. Everyone is wearing t shirts with ironic slogans, they’re all embracing the fact that they never left their teenage years which is quite weird.

Yea and I do think it’s about the things that we celebrate. When we hold up some things as being fun things to preserve from when we were younger like playing with Lego or the Star Wars films or whatever, those things are celebrated as still being cool when you’re older, but I think the things that young women and young people of colour and young queer fans are celebrating online are not necessarily things that are then embraced in the workplace in the same way. I do think we’re starting to see a little bit of a change and one of the things that I talk about and some of my subsequent is around how we get that pathway of legitimacy so that things that are fan expressions are seen as things that you might want to put on a CV or in a work portfolio because they’re great pieces of work, whether it’s writing or fan art or the things that you built and made online. Just because it’s about a movie star or about a pop icon, the content of it shouldn’t matter and I think trying to overcome that so there is this pathway of legitimacy is one of the things that we really need to struggle with.


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