Feminists Leading Change: Renata Avila




Meet Renata Avila, a feminist reimagining Artificial Intelligence to include us all.  Expert in digital rights, she studies the politics of data, the evolution of transparency, and their implications on trade, democracy and society, alerting about a phenomenon she describes as digital colonialism.  She is a Guatemalan, International Human Rights Lawyer and author. She is currently an HAI Race & Tech Fellow at Stanford University. With more than fifteen years of experience working in cutting edge issues related to technology and society.  She co-founded and leads the <A+> Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms. She is an Advisory Board member for Creative Commons, Open Future and Cities for Digital Right. She also serves as a Global Trustee of the Think Tank Digital Future Society. She is a co-founder and Council Member of Progressive International, among other roles.

Artificial Intelligence and the enforced barriers

It is important to understand that there’s an artificial barrier built between feminist leaders and cutting edge topics in technology, such as Artificial Intelligence. This gap particularly exists in the context of grassroots feminist leaders and the corporations leading these big tech projects. The argument given by the tech corporations is that the technology is too complex for everyone to understand, this is not yet to be deployed in the communities, this is too far from the knowledge and interest of community leaders and hence they shouldn’t get involved. And this barrier is essentially what I am trying to attack from its roots. I think we shouldn’t see tech tools as simply tools but rather as the systems and infrastructures that will shape our future, shape our relationships with the state, shape the relationships with those in power, shape the way we get higher, the way we get scored and the way we get placed in society.

What matters is that you have something to say

As such, technology has everything to do with us and we do not need an engineering degree or math degree to understand that those systems will shape society in very worrying ways. So, at the <A+> Alliance, we realise that these facets of technology are concerning, they go to the core of democracy, they are also the key to dismantling the patriarchy.

And we have a lot to say from our disciplines and our experiences, about the infrastructures and institutions of the future that we want to create. So it doesn’t matter what kind of leader you are – whether you are a health workers leader, or teacher or a feminist leader operating in a school. What matters is that you have something to say.  Speaking about Artificial Intelligence (AI) is speaking about the future and the way that we want to shape the future. So we should all have a say in its design.

Leadership roles

Often women leaders in the social sector are very welcoming of young women. While there is always a constraint of resources in the social sector, organisations are still welcoming of different people, their experiences and learning. We strive to build communities of practice, to be horizontal in our practices and to transfer and share knowledge.  Most of our campaigns, actions and circles of support are designed to encourage this shared leadership and to welcome a younger generation of leaders into the family. However, the corporate sector and global governments have built a very competitive climate driven by efficiency and effectiveness. That often makes the women at the top of these sectors fight for time and recognition. As we have less time and less space the structures to share in leadership become constrained as well. While we might see some occasional keynote speakers in the corporate world, they are not the kind of leaders we need. They can be tokenistic and would not be capable of transferring accessible leadership to the next generation.

One way to make those two sectors (corporate and government) more welcoming for inclusive leadership and mentorship is by working on the design- via addressing inclusivity and diversity in public policy in the case of governments, and creating the space and allocating resources for women in leadership. But also by making sure that there is inclusive workforce participation – that we don’t only have the ‘visible’ women at the top, but also in the middle-management. We need to encourage inclusive workplaces and make that happen.

Change organisational cultures and not women

We need to create incentives for the women not to feel threatened by the younger women coming behind them, which is something that happens often. Because the culture in a lot of workplaces limits access to women and in places where they do have a few women, they tend to simply replace one woman with a younger woman. They do so instead of creating a culture that appreciates experience, as well as appreciates a younger workforce. So there is a need to address diversity and inclusion in the organisational spaces via public policy, create incentives, have diverse advisory boards and allocate enough space, time and resources for women to have the opportunity to be mentors. It is unfair to put the burden of diversity and inclusion only on women leaders. Instead, we need to shift this very important responsibility to organisational structures and frameworks.

Let’s make space for each other

For the future, I hope that we move from this individualistic sole leader approach. We don’t need heroes or heroines, but rather, happy efficient interdisciplinary leadership. Leadership should be more than a cabinet mission. It could be a team of leaders interacting from different perspectives and different angles and leading together, then just one person. I think that at the moment the world is so complex that the best-led initiatives are those that are led by the various teams of people in a more horizontal and dynamic structure. It is not that one CEO spends 25 years in the position. But it is more of a dynamic team that changes, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes it could be led by a younger person or sometimes by an older person. We need to be more creative when it comes to our leadership structures. Just as governments change every certain period, our social sector leaders could change as well.

We need to encourage our social sector to be more dynamic in rotation on the leadership of the institutions that are guiding our social activism. We need to encourage them to put value in experience but also rotate the leadership, so we have the opportunity to see

transformation inside our institutions in a more fluid way.  Some organizations, including feminist organizations, sometimes feel frozen in time and it is because of blocking spaces to young leaders. Sometimes there is a fear of being left out if one transfers power to the younger generation.

A happy, healthy future

Much of our narratives in feminist spaces is around sacrifice, struggle, challenges and fighting to the top. I’d like to see us make spaces for women at the top. But not just any space or a space of struggle and strive, but pleasant and fun space. I want women to have a pleasant and fun time at the top. For me, the hope for the future is not a future of struggle and sacrifice to get higher and higher, rather a stable and happy one. I’d like to see the space we are all collectively building to get stable.  Stable enough so then the next generation of women can enjoy, find relaxing, and build something that they do not need to constantly defend. That is my aspiration. I think that we women are struggling all the time. We never have the chance to stop, and unleash all our potential because we are always in a survival mode. I would like us to reach a point where our lives are easier. I want us to reach a point where we have solidified feminist institutions and feminist spaces and infrastructures, so it is easier for the next, and the next, and the next generation. And it is not just a struggle to the top, but it is the new normal. That will be the new normal that I would like to see come true.


Natasha Harris-Harb is UNGEI’s youth engagement adviser and Aayushi Aggarwal is the communications manager at Gender at Work.

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