Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley
Covering Sexism in Tech
The lack of diversity in the ranks of Silicon Valley tech companies has been a subject for debate for quite some time. It gathered more steam last year, when a number of companies including Apple, Google, and Twitter released their employment numbers, but many people had been writing and working for increased diversity for years. (I wrote about it, too, in MarketWatch, back in June 2013.) And, as a recent San Francisco Chronicle article noted, with the issue now in the spotlight, a number of startups are “seeking to turn Silicon Valley’s diversity problem into profit—helping tech companies find, recruit, and retain a diverse workforce, usually for a hefty fee. Still other companies have recently added diversity services to those already offered. In tech, diversity is now for sale.”
In the midst of these developments, last week’s Newsweek cover article “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women” seemed a bit of a throwback. The controversial cover that went along with it, which got even more attention than the article itself, seemed even more of a throwback. Many pixels were spilled, on media social and not, in arguments between those who thought the cover itself was sexist and those who felt that it reflected and therefore drew attention to sexism, and/or that it was effective simply because it drew lots of attention to the article and the magazine.
TechCrunch writer Alexia Tsotsis summed up one side of the debate in an article titled “What (Some) Silicon Valley Women Think of Newsweek” (complete with provocative spoof of the provocative Newsweek cover). She first took Newsweek to task for “[b]andwagoning on after lengthy articles in The New York Times and a very public campaign to collect startup diversity data,” and pointed out that the piece recycles the “requisite tech sexism horror stories.” (In fact, one of the most shocking direct quotes included in the Newsweek article, about women not having “mastered” linear thinking, attributed to a Silicon Valley investor, was also quoted word for word in a July 2014 article in Wired UK. With sexism being so rampant, surely there are other shocking quotes to be found?)
Then, Tsotsis turns to the Newsweek cover, which she describes as “a visceral gut punch”: “It portrays a woman without eyes, in a short skirt, getting her behind clicked on by a big black cursor. (Whoever these Silicon Valley people are who are thinking about women like this, they are not doing it on their phone or a tablet.)” She then argues that “Newsweek’s faceless and sexualized symbol of women in tech is… basic and reductive. We have worked so hard to broaden the scope of what we can be, in Silicon Valley, in the world, and here comes Newsweek… with an image that bluntly, sloppily trivializes how painfully that progress was won.”
And that is, indeed, the issue. Maybe stereotypical cartoons can draw attention to a critique of stereotypes (though would it really make sense to illustrate an issue like, say, anti-Semitism by creating a new anti-Semitic cartoon?), but the tone of this particular cover is not critical. It’s playful. It’s breezy. The “woman” on the cover is clearly young, and dressed in a very short red dress (whose hem is being lifted by the oversized cursor). She is also wearing very high-heeled red shoes. She has no eyes or nose, but she does have a very red mouth—and she looks back—almost gamely—over her shoulder at the cursor lifting her skirt. If the piece is about “what Silicon Valley thinks about women,” the cover visually “quotes” the misogynists.
Ironically, though the article itself focuses on the story of one particular startup founded by two women to illustrate the problem of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, the reader has to scroll down quite a ways before getting to a photo of those two women entrepreneurs. What if those two real women had been on the cover? Their experiences were apparently seen as interesting and representative enough to illustrate the broader issue, but their faces weren’t. Instead, the key image of the piece (which, the cliché goes, is worth a thousand words), gives voice to those who demean such women.
As Tsotsis notes, the cover “gets to subconsciously influence a bunch of kids accompanying their parents on trips to the grocery … perpetuating what it purportedly denounces — It makes women feel excluded, sexualized and degraded as it tries to point out how bad it is to exclude, sexualize, and degrade women.”
In response to such criticism, the author of the Newsweek article came to the defense of the cover’s designers; she said the backlash was “totally misguided” and added that "For… people to be coming out being outraged by an image as opposed to actual [sexist] behavior is just petty.” That’s a false dichotomy, though: one—or many—can clearly be outraged both by sexist behavior and by a cover that trivializes (and perhaps perpetuates) the problem. Maybe the next time Newsweek writes about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley (and yes, we need many more such articles, to keep the attention on an ugly reality that will take some time to change), it will take a page from a different startup highlighted by the San Francisco Chronicle: Gap Jumpers “sells software that helps tech companies evaluate job candidates based on talent alone. The company offers different skills tests to vet people applying for job—a blind audition conducted via computer.” Some cursors aim to lift women, rather than skirts.
Photo by streunna4, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.