Beauty or the geek: Why should women in tech choose?

Beauty or the geek: Why should women in tech choose?

I once heard a joke about a zookeeper arranging animals for a portrait. “Smart animals go to the right and the pretty animals go to the left,” the zookeeper told them. The animals made their choices, sorting themselves into groups of either “pretty” or “smart.”

Well, all except one: a monkey running back and forth between the two groups. When the zookeeper inquired why, the monkey innocently answered: “How can I choose when I am both pretty and smart?”

Of course, the point of this little story is that the monkey – a creature usually mocked for its questionable intelligence and beauty – could not make a choice that was so easy for the other animals. While this situation seems absurd, it’s a reality for many women in the tech industry, especially young women.

The current hazing and socialization process for new tech hires similarly demands that, to join the tech industry, women must leave their femininity (see also: “prettiness”) at the door and embrace the geeky, masculine culture instead. All too often women in this industry – whether in technical or non-technical roles – are forced to make the same choice between being pretty and smart as the animals in the zoo. It seems to me, however, that the monkey had a point. Why choose?

Most recently the clash between femininity and the tech industry played out after Isis Wenger, a full-stack engineer, was featured in a OneLogin recruitment ad. Wenger’s OneLogin ad – part of a marketing campaign that featured several OneLogin employees – led to numerous accusations that the ad was “just appealing to dudes” as her “sexy smirk” was analyzed in great detail. Many even questioned if the poster was an honest and realistic representation of female engineers.

In her response, the introverted Wenger discussed how the reactions to the ad were symptoms of a larger problem of sexism in the tech industry. She aptly replied in her LinkedIn post: “News flash: this isn’t by any means an attempt to label ‘what female engineers look like.’ This is literally just ME, an example of ONE engineer at OneLogin. The ad is supposed to be authentic. My words, my face, and as far as I am concerned it is.” She seemed genuinely bewildered (as she should be), about why she can’t just be herself.

Wenger also observed, “There is a significant lack of empathy and insight towards recognizing that their [referring to men in tech] ‘playful/harmless’ behavior is responsible for making others inappropriately uncomfortable. This industry’s culture fosters an unconscious lack of sensitivity towards those who do not fit a certain mold.” She then invited the readers to redefine “what an engineer should look like” using the #iLookLikeAnEngineer hashtag, which has since been widely used to highlight diversity in tech.

One way to change the notion that being “pretty” and being “smart” are mutually exclusive is to change the way we talk about tech.

For example, describing tech as geeky is not a way to attract or retain women to tech in the long-run. According to many dictionaries, “geeky” usually has two meanings. First, “a person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy.” Second, “a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.” One does not have to be geeky, in either meaning of the word, to have a successful career in tech. These definitions appear to exclude any feminine qualities, further pushing that being pretty or feminine is impossible as a woman in tech.

The image of a geek is also highly masculinized; the “tech geek” stereotype is predominantly male. Holding this geek stereotype as a standard for the tech industry creates the impression that the typical tech professional is always male and makes being male the norm in tech. Similarly, according to the Wikipedia, the word geek usually connotes “a slang term originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream people; in current use, the word typically connotes an expert or enthusiast or a person obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit, with a general pejorative meaning of a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person.” Wikipedia also suggests a more neutral meaning of the word geeky to refer to “someone who is interested in a subject (usually intellectual or complex) for its own sake.” Again, even the more neutral meaning is hardly positive, inclusive, encouraging, or appealing to women, whose qualifications and motives for interests in tech are nearly always questioned.

Changing the way we talk about in tech in general is a keystone change that’s required to start closing the gender gap in tech. A change like this in the public discourse will trickle down, leading to a cascade of actions that will eventually help us make things better not just for women, but for everyone in technology.

After all, tech is no longer an isolated economic sector, and we frankly can’t afford to exclude women. At this time, women are ubiquitous and part of every economic and social sector. If we don’t find a way to include females (and for the that matter all others who don’t fit the arbitrary mold) in tech soon, we will be denying them access to economic opportunities, the chance to be a part of the twenty first century workforce, and the pursuit of happiness. We would also be denying ourselves crucial access to potential innovation and contributions to technology as a whole. And that will benefit us all – so let’s get started already.

Originally published by gigaom.com.

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