Megan Smith, the White House chief technology officer, paid a visit to Hearst Tower in Manhattan on Thursday afternoon. The appearance, which would seem timely, taking into account news of the Panama Papers data leak and ongoing questions abounding from Apple’s iPhone encryption case, proved to be light on answers.
The talk, which was led by Hearst Magazines president David Carey, was more of a presentation on what Smith’s role is in the Obama Administration, and her personal cause to educate Americans on the historic role that women have played in computer and data science. For instance, she highlighted Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who was the recipient of the 2015 National Medal of Freedom. She also noted that only 3 percent of female entrepreneurs were receiving venture capital funding. For black entrepreneurs, the numbers were even grimmer at 1 percent.
While Carey did make mention of the larger world issues, he didn’t press Smith. He asked if there was a “breach” between the West Coast and Washington, D.C., taking into consideration that we’re in an “era where terrorists are using digital tools.”
“The president is very serious about encryption….and being collaborative,” she replied, noting that without going the legal route, agencies can follow “digital dust” or data signals for pertinent information.
“What I’m finding is a great openness on all sides,” Smith offered. In terms of technology, she noted that the government may find a use for virtual reality in the form of training police officers on “empathy.”
After an exposition of sorts on how the public and private sectors have “unconscious bias” in favor of promoting men over women, Smith said: “One of the hardest things is to step into the reality that we can’t see.” She quoted studies that said if a job listing is looking for 10 specific skills, women will apply if they have at least seven of them whereas men will apply if they have three.
Toward the end of the conversation, Smith looked to Carey and Hearst for help in changing views on women and people of color. Carey nodded to Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles, who was sitting in the first row.
“We’ve started this initiative to make sure that the pages we create reflect the diversity in the United States,” Carey said. “As we looked at those pages over the last couple of years, we realized we did not do the job we need to, so we kicked off this initiative last year…just so we make sure we look at everything with fresh eyes.”