Geeklist and Women in Tech

by Leanne Westrick, Intern at MissRepresentation.org

Last month’s blow-up surrounding a Geeklist video ad, and the subsequent Twitter battle, got a lot of people talking. What does it mean when we say that tech culture is male-dominated? What does it say about the climate of the tech industry and women’s place in it?

The Geeklist controversy got ugly quickly and it left many feeling more than a little confused. People were clearly uncomfortable with the way that the co-founders Chritian Sanz and Reuban Katz engaged with their critic Shanley Kane on Twitter, but it was almost hard to pin-down why. While the co-founders of Geeklist didn’t call out her gender, the way that they responded to her criticism of their ad exploded commentary all over the internet.

A still image from the recent Geeklist ad
 

There’s been a lot of debate as to whether the exchange can be read as sexist. Perhaps the co-founders of Geeklist were just being too thin skinned, but the original point that Kane was raising had to do with the objectification of women in the tech world. The way her critique was responded to and the way that she was treated is a whole debate in and of itself. Taking offense to her “tone” started a slippery slope in which they were more personally offended than they were professionally responsible. Bringing her employment into the matter elevated the incident to another level of thinly veiled threats. Their subsequent apology didn’t seem to go down very well either.

Perhaps more interesting than the Geeklist controversy, are the comments that followed. The majority of the comments, much like the Kats and Sanz, seemed more concerned with Kane’s tone than what she was attempting to point out in the first place. The original concern, regardless of how it was framed, was directed at the perceived objectification that the ad portrayed. Her initial critique got a lot less attention than the offense that the co-founders took about being called out in a public way and the drama that ensued.

How did this all happen in the first place?

To be frank, the tech industry is still mostly seen as a boy’s club. Women are present but they make up a smaller percentage and they certainly don’t get as much attention as their male-counterparts. All of these factors combine to creating a highly male-orientated climate that spawned the controversy in the first place.

This kind of advertising isn’t new where the tech industry is concerned. Men are, quite frankly, all over the start-up scene. In the last week there has been a lot of discussion around women encountering the heavily male-dominated sphere of the tech. The fact that women represent a smaller percentage of tech and engineering fields has long plagued the sciences. It isn’t a matter of women being any less competent or capable, it’s the fact that our culture tends to gender the sciences as male fields.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has a whole presentation on their website called “Why So Few?” which addresses the lack of women that exist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields). The answer isn’t that men are better suited for these fields; it’s that they’ve been socialized to excel. Gender bias exists, just not in the blatant Mad Men ways (which in all honesty is a little easier to cry out against). Rather, it’s a subtle assumption that pervades our culture, in which men are more capable of excelling in these fields.

Here’s a graph that AAUW provides in their presentation to give some perspective on just what certain fields look like for women:

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009, Women in the labor force: A databook (Report 1018) (Washington, DC), Table 11.

What is occurring in reality is that girls are less exposed to the sciences, especially computer sciences and engineering fields, early on. This translates into less women in the largely science-based tech industry. Fewer girls are exposed or encouraged in these fields and as such, there are less of them in the workforce, creating the heavily male-dominated climate that we have today.

If girls are told that they don’t statistically excel in these fields, they internalize it and don’t expect to understand it. The stereotypes adversely affect their performance. We’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe this is why the majority of the back-and-forth debates concerning the Geeklist controversy miss the point as much as Katz and Sanz did. It shouldn’t have been about her tone and it most certainly shouldn’t have involved her employment. It should have been a discussion around objectification in relation to their company. The resulting initiative that Geeklist is assembling is an attempt to soothe over their PR nightmare, but it addresses a very real issue. Something about the tech industry has to change. Motivating more women into the field to begin with is certainly a good start.

Leanne is an intern with MissRepresentation.org and a student at the University of San Francisco.

12 Comments

  1. Emma Wick says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I am a Computer Engineering student at the University of Minnesota, and its crazy how few women there are. I can’t even count how many sexist instructors I have had that have given me and other female students lower grades because they just don’t think we are as smart as they are. I would love to have more women in this field, especially since its such an exciting place to be for women right now. Companies are starting to realize how valuable women engineers are and the perspective they bring with them. It would be nice to show the guys that we are just as brilliant as they are.

    • Jen says:

      Hang in there, Emma, and keep showing how much you rock. You’ve got a gift, and it’s important that the world benefits from your skill. And when you encounter one of those men who feels the need to explain something obvious to you, because he doesn’t know how smart you are, treat him like he’s your student and he’s checking to see if he’s right. Just say in your most encouraging and condescending tone: “Good for you – you got it right! See, you’re catching up just fine! I knew you could do it. Just let me know if you need help understanding anything else.” I find that approach shuts them up pretty quickly. If they’re wrong, it’s harder, because it’s impossible to get them to see it. Then you’ve just gotta laugh, shake your head, and walk away.

  2. Laura L La Croix says:

    Thank you Shanley! The objectification of women is so insidious the founders can’t possibly understand that because they are in the “company” of women means they can’t possibly be sexist. What this lesson truly is about is that objectification of women has become so normalized that it’s hard to even see anymore. We have to continue to fight this media image and support women who call this out.

  3. Nancy says:

    I have worked in the tech field for over 14 years in a highly specialized field. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who does what I do, but I’ve never met another one. In addition, I’m over 50, so I’m not only a minority, I’m an invisible one. So many factors contribute to the difficulty women face working in the tech industry. Topping the list is the xchallenge of building confidence in o]urselves as technical professionals in an environment where we are marginalized in a variety of ways. The woman in that ad does not represent a technical professional, and the people who endorse the ad know it.

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