Why can’t women in tech be sexy?
Last week, Startup Daily published an article on a study that discovered a three percent (from 16 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2013) increase in the number of female tech startup founders, though only one in five founders have technical expertise. In other words, the number of non-technical female founders of tech startups has increased. Or to put it another way, the lack of technical skills is not deterring women from founding tech startups. No matter how you interpret it, the article received criticism. Well, not the article itself, but the article’s featured image.
The image in question features Jane Lu, Founder and CEO of fast-growing fashion ecommerce business Showpo. As you can see below, Jane is sitting on the floor of an almost-empty room – the only piece of furniture within the frame is a green chair. Her back is leaning against a white wall, her legs are half folded up and her hands are rested on her left leg. Jane is wearing a white tube top, a coral skirt, gold bangles, and beige wedged shoes. Unsurprisingly, she’s modelling the clothes of her own brand. (Also, the image is one of Jane’s public photos used for PR purposes).
Understandably, different people have different opinions on the image. People living in Islamic countries, who conform to different dress codes, might object to the fact that the skin on Jane’s arms, legs and chest, as well as her long brown locks, are exposed. In Western countries, such exposure would hardly garner a second glance. However, in the context of the article, which simply reported on a recent study of female tech startup founders, the choice of image was fiercely criticised for being sexual, provocative and heavily gendered. One commenter, who has since deleted her comments and subsequently the entire Facebook discussion thread, even said “it’s a visual example of sexism in tech”.
An image of Jane was chosen because she is quoted in the article; and this particular image of Jane was chosen because we thought she looked beautiful in it. (By ‘we’, I mean Startup Daily’s editorial team comprised of women). There really isn’t more to reveal on the decision-making process. We just chose what we liked. Was it a poor choice? That’s legitimately debatable. Was it an intentional choice informed by the ‘sex sells’ philosophy? No. Was it an intentional choice to perpetuate the sexual objectification of women? No. This is not debatable because it’s simply untrue – not to mention, Startup Daily took no part in the creation of the image.
The female body and its representation in the media, especially in advertisements, has been the subject of debate for decades. Even today, no matter how it is portrayed or chosen to be portrayed, the female body is stigmatised as dupable and problematic. Understandably, this is because it’s been highly politicised (e.g. gender politics, reproductive rights, etc). Therefore, the value of the specific image chosen for last week’s article comes down to interpretation. I see a strong, successful and attractive female founder who is proud of her body. (If I had seen otherwise, I would have objected to its use). However, others have seen it as a female founder being portrayed as a sex object.
Specifically, one commenter said:
It’s so sad that even in tech and startup, which has nothing to do with advertising sexuality, female founders are portrayed as sex objects rather than Founders/CEOs. One step forward in announcing the increase in female founders and one step firmly in the dark ages with the way the story is advertised. What could have been an inspiring article is instead a visual example of sexism in tech.
How many male founders do you see posing with their pants riding up their leg on the cover of an article celebrating leadership in tech? I promise you there are none.
Why are there zero male founders in fashion or otherwise promoted in this way on the subject of successful startup founders? Whilst the choice of person is unquestionably awesome, the choice of image demonstrates how media outlets intentionally or not, select images of women that are sexy to sell stuff but that standard is not as true for men. For guys in startup, it’s non-existent. When we celebrate male leadership, it’s about the guy being the boss, without the need to deliberately highlight his sex appeal.
First, let’s stop denying that men and women are different. We’re clearly different, but this doesn’t mean we, and our choices, shouldn’t be respected equally. Nor does it mean our contributions to society should be valued differently from an economic perspective (e.g. wages). However, generally speaking, in western societies heterosexual men and heterosexual women express their sexualities differently – this is certainly influenced by the gender and cultural codes that we’ve come to accept and/or deny. Male founders are also welcome to pose ‘with their pants riding up their leg’, however, for the most part, this is not how heterosexual men express their sexualities. There are many articles on the web discussing ‘the hottest guys in tech’, featuring photos of shirtless male founders with chiseled abs and droplets of beach water and/or sweat trickling down their smooth, hairless torsos. Men are also sexualised in the media, and male standards of beauty are certainly perpetuated by the media (see Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL).
Yet, these images of ‘sexy’ or ‘hot’ men don’t seem to be a problem. I’d argue this is because, traditionally, sexual acts, sexual relationships and sexuality are imagined in terms of activity and passivity, where activity is associated with masculinity and passivity with femininity. As such, when women express their sexualities (or appear to be ‘sexy’), it can be perceived as an expression or representation of passivity. Passivity is considered negative as it implies lack of agency, though this can be contested with theories of ‘active passivity’ (e.g. choosing to be the recipient of penetration).
It’s understandable that critics believe Jane, and female founders broadly, are being sexualised by the media, with ‘sexualisation’ referring to the assignation of a gendered frame to a particular subject/object. Historically, it’s not just female founders that have been sexualised or sexually objectified; it’s female athletes, female artists, female models, female actresses, and so on. However, ‘sexual objectification’, as a concept, works to constrain women’s sexual agency, exploration, and adventure.
In various private discussions on Facebook and Twitter, critics who had a problem with the image used in last week’s article, explained that they’ve made the conscious choice to not conform to traditional gender dress codes, implying that women shouldn’t feel obligated to wear what society deems appropriate for a woman. I’d argue that most women in Western cultures are aware of their fashion options; there are many looks being embraced by women today including ‘girly’, ‘punk’, ‘tomboy’, ‘sassy’, ‘sporty’ and ‘daggy’, to name a few. The claims made by critics overlook the diverse responses of girls and women to consumer culture. In several commenters’ self-reflexive accounts of their own fashion resistances and complicities, they indirectly grant themselves the agency they refuse other women. Choice goes both ways; if women are capable of choosing not to conform to traditional gender dress codes, then they are also capable of choosing to conform. Women are not necessarily victims because they choose to grow their hair long, wear high heels, apply make-up, and so on.
Interestingly, the biggest critics denied their issue being with Jane, her outfit or her business. But it’s implausible to have a problem with an image, without having a problem with the contents of the image. I do believe that the issue is not with Jane as an individual, but it’s certainly an issue with what Jane signifies in the image – through her pose, her outfit, her made-up face and styled hair. Jane fits comfortably within the norm of femininity; and unfortunately, femininity is socially and culturally incongruent with ‘founder’, ‘CEO’, ‘leader’ and ‘tech startup’. This is because most founders, CEOs and leaders are men – and usually masculine men.
If the problem is with how female founders are portrayed, then a good question to ask is: how should female founders be portrayed? In a suit and tie? In jeans and a hoodie? With short hair and no make up? Do women have to conform to masculine dress codes to be taken seriously in an industry that is male dominated? Why can’t women wear whatever they want and be taken seriously regardless?
Based on the comments received, Jane seems to symbolically encapsulate the position of all women being dominated and exploited by patriarchy. This is very Feminism Wave 2.0. (Second-wave feminists fought for women not to be lured into feminine trappings; they fought for women to be freed from the confines of the private sphere). Saying that the image portrays Jane sex object is insulting to Jane for many reasons; as mentioned previously, one is that it assumes Jane took no part in the creation of her own image. (Those close to Jane would know she’s not the quiet and complacent type).
In ‘Feminism and Femininity: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Thong’ (2004), third-wave feminists Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards discuss the intersection of feminism and feminine culture, proposing that ‘girliness’ or ‘girly appearances’ be seen as a way for young women to challenge traditional associations of femininity with passivity, subordination and weakness (pp. 60-61). Third-wave feminists believe women, who have shown competence in and have flooded all professions, can be independent, strong, smart AND sexy. As Feona Attwood (2006) argues, “a whole series of signifiers are linked to connote a new liberated, contemporary sexuality for women; sex is stylish, a source of physical pleasure, a means of creating identity, a form of body work, self-expression, a question for individual fulfilment” (p. 86).
Several commenters were genuinely concerned as to how the chosen image would influence current and aspiring female founders. One commenter implied that the juxtaposition of the image (specifically, what it signifies) and article (specifically, the subject matter of the article), subliminally sends the message to women that they have to be sexy to get attention as leaders, and that men will come to expect ‘sexiness’ from the women surrounding them.
…this article is about female leadership and this topic is important to many people and the culture of tech, so I was direct. What was discussed at a recent meetup on diversity: stereotypes of women looking sexy is problematic in the industry because young females are getting the message that this is what they are expected to do to get attention as leaders and males are getting the message that this is what they are entitled to see in their female counterparts. Images such as these in this specific context, exacerbate that issue big time in a context where there are so few female founders as it is. I’m glad this conversation is being had because if people read it with the article, it unplugs that undercurrent and what I believe to be the wrong message to female founders both aspiring and current.
It seems the general consensus amongst critics is that, in the context of commercialised and sexist culture, women are incapable of exercising judgement and meaningful choice. This view aligns with outdated ‘top down’ theories of media influence (e.g. Bullet/Hypodermic, Agenda Setting Function) which assume audiences are passive. However, the criticisms Startup Daily received demonstrates that women and men are capable of actively engaging with content, and not simply accepting every media message. The comments quoted in this article demonstrate that women and men are capable of questioning what they see and develop their own interpretation of a media product, based on their individual lived experiences, cultural influences, education, family and so on. As such, it’s not definite that female founders, both aspiring and current, will come to the conclusion that they have to be sexy (whatever sexy means) to become leaders. It’s also not definite that men will feel entitled to be surrounded by sexy women. The issue is not black and white. Although the media can certainly shape public opinion, we need to move past the idea that women and men are passive consumers of media. As a media company, we certainly don’t question or underestimate our audience’s intelligence.
Instead of talking about more pressing issues like gender disparity in the tech industry, we’re talking about an image of a female founder representing her own brand and expressing her own identity. In light of the public outrage and distress witnessed following the publishing of last week’s article, it would be ignorant to trivialise the importance of this discussion. Obviously, how female founders should be portrayed in the media and how a female founder should portray herself is worth discussing. However, only one person answered when I asked what would have been a socially and politically appropriate image to use in the context of the article: “in a setting that seems more gender neutral”.
I’ve thought long and hard about this, and this is the best gender neutral image I could come up with: a grey rectangle. (Admittedly, I’m running low on creativity after a weekend of painting).
Given Jane’s image signifies femininity (as explained above), I can only assume that this critic is uncomfortable with femininity because it’s been historically associated with weakness. To that, I can only say it’s time to move on. Young women today are trying to free themselves of the constraints of second wave radical feminism and represent a new wave of feminism in a more emancipated culture. Previous gender regimes (i.e. first-wave and second-wave feminism) focuses on what women should not do, whereas the ‘new sexual contract’ encourages “capability, success, attainment, enjoyment, entitlement, participation, and mobility” (McRobbie in Butler, 2013, p. 45). As Jess Butler explains, “Requirements for the postfeminist “new deal” include occupying positions of visibility, agency, and capacity through participation in education, employment, and consumer culture; abandoning a critique of patriarchy and relinquishing political identities; and engaging in a range of practices that are ‘both progressive but also consummately and reassuringly feminine’” (ibid).
There are certainly issues with postfeminist theory, in that it tends to use women who are young, heterosexual, middle-class and white as examples of ‘the sexually liberated female’ (e.g. TV shows like Sex and the City and Ally McBeal, films like Bridget Jones’s Diary, and pop stars like Miley Cyrus). If we embrace women of all ages, races, sexualities and body types, then we can move past the politics of exclusion, and talk about what are most important: diversity, equality and justice. After all, isn’t it just a case of women hating other women if we don’t accept that women are diverse, with diverse tastes, styles and interests? As Rosalind Gill (2012) notes, these discourses “pull towards judgements about ‘explicitness’ and ‘exposure’ rather than questions about equality and justice.” Let’s agree that Jane is a strong, successful woman, who is active in the creation of her own public image, and that women are active consumers of media, capable of drawing their own conclusions, and shift the focus back to encouraging gender parity in the tech industry.
Attwood, F. (2006). Sexed up: theorizing the sexualization of culture. Sexualities, 9 (1), 77-94.
Baumgardner, J. & Richards, A. (2004). ‘Feminism and Femininity: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Thong’. All About the Girl (ed. Anita Harris and Michelle Fine), 59-69. London: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2013). For White Girls Only?: Postfeminism and the Politics of Inclusion. Feminist Formations, 25(1), 35-58.
Gill, R. (2012). ‘Media, Empowerment and the ‘Sexualization of Culture’ Debates’. Sex Roles, 66, 736–745.
Featured image: Computer engineer barbie. Source: Associated Press. Credit: Mark Lennihan.