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The Limits of Representation

Learn how treating representation is the end goal for affecting change.

We hope you found that activity interesting. One of the questions we asked you to consider was whether a diverse group of people were represented in the ads you were receiving. Conversations around representation are important and in this video our course contributors discuss their thoughts on the limits of representation.

In recent years we’ve seen a push for more diverse representation in the media, this has led to marketing campaigns, films and tv shows featuring people from all different backgrounds, gender identities and sexualities, allowing people to see themselves reflected back in what they consume. While achieving representation is an important aspect of equality it shouldn’t be treated as the end goal and there’s much work still to be done.

In Cami’s research, representation is described as something that can be “a form of recognition: a way of affirming the humanity, moral agency and equality of each other – as individuals, and as communities” (1). In our engagement with technologies, representation is a complex issue. As Jennifer highlights, efforts to achieve representation are so often created based on an assumption of people’s needs, with tech companies defaulting to tokenistic gestures of diverse marketing rather than addressing the structural inequalities within their organisations.

Artist and writer Zarina Muhammad states that “representation is a false promise” one that can never be “the sum of all of our expectations and demands for inclusion and equality”, that to achieve a more meaningful form of representation demand must be made for “a crumb of equity in the means of production” (2). In the UK men occupy 77% of tech director roles (3), so, to achieve meaningful representation we need gender equity in every stage of an organisation, from upper management to entry-level positions. One of the ways we can begin to tackle these disparities is by holding organisations accountable, questioning their hiring and recruitment practices. Equally, by working with participatory design, involving our stakeholders in the design process and our organizations, we can build towards meaningful representation, changing the culture of the tech industry.

How do the points raised here make you reflect on the way representation is used in advertising and the media?

References:

  1. Cami Rincon, Os Keyes, Corinne Cath, 2021. Speaking from Experience: Trans/Non-Binary Requirements for Voice-Activated AI.
  2. Zarina Muhammad, 2019. The problem with representation, The White Pube.
  3. Tech Nation, 2018. Diversity and inclusion in UK tech companies,
  4. Inequality in 900 Popular Films, Annenberg Foundation.

Further resources:

  1. Riz Ahmed, 2017. Channel 4 diversity speech at The House of Commons.
  2. Jenna M. Gray, 2018. The limits of representation, The Harvard Crimson.
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Gender-Inclusive Approaches in Technology

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