Friday, February 22, 2008

Annoyingly sexist framing of Google VP Marissa Mayer

Originally uploaded by thisgirlangie
As an inoculation to what I am about to expose you to, here is an awesome photo of some ubergeeks from the Google-sponsored Geek Girl Dinner organized by Angie Chang from Woman 2.0. From left: Sumaya Kazi (Sun Microsystems & The Cultural Connect), Katherine Barr (Mohr Davidow Ventures), Irene Au (Google), Rashmi Sinha (SlideShare), Angie Chang (Women 2.0)

By some quirk of fate, a copy of San Francisco Magazine arrived at my house today. If you've noticed this vapid glossy magazine for aspiring Not-LA and Not-NYC socialites, you will know why I was automatically tossing it in the trash. But there on the cover were the words "Google's geek goddess", and I had to look, knowing how annoyed I was about to become.

Oh, it was so much worse than I imagined!

According to SF Magazine writer Julian Guthrie, Google's employee #20 and first female engineer Marissa Mayer is "not what you expect."

What the hell do you expect? Who is "you"? Some drooling dinosaurish idiot who not only thinks the important thing about women is a mix of prettiness, girliness to the point of infantilization, sexiness, etc but who also thinks that "we" the readers of the article would expect a gazillionaire engineer-turned-corporate-executive to be some kind of Hollywood Geek Girl stereotype with unkempt hair who needs to take off her glasses and stop being obsessed with computers to become pretty.

Soooo how are we framing the opposite of what "we" expect? Mayer "looks Grace Kelly gorgeous, a tall, blue-eyed beauty with blond hair pulled back from her fresh face. She is much livelier than you might imagine, and her clothes are anything but humdrum." This assumes "our" default expectations to be the opposite; female software engineers as humdrum, boring, un-lively, certainly not beautiful and maybe not blond.

You can see two assumptions set up here:
* Women who like computers are ugly.
* It fucking matters.

You know why it does matter? It matters because sexist and misogynist assumptions do still have a lot of power in our society. And we need to change that, by pointing out that misogyny and sexism are stupid, wrong, and undermine social trust and gender relations.

The article descends further into idiocy, still on page 1 of framing Mayer as a person and as a professional, by quoting some Valleywag posts calling her a social climber, implying that she got her job or position by dating Larry Page, and "using her looks".

Guthrie quotes a Valleywag editor saying, "Marissa is surprisingly pretty in person. That in itself is a rarity in Silicon Valley, and you'd have to be naive to think that doesn't color people's views of her." Great. This is a rhetorical strategy common to misogynist bullshitters: undermine a woman's achievements by claiming her main "achievement" is being pretty, or worse, implying she used her sexuality to get a little dollop of fake power and status from someone Actually Powerful who deserved it. When powerful smart men are friends with other powerful smart men, those personal relationships aren't framed as devaluing their talents and skills. But as soon as a woman has a personal relationship with a man, the power imbalance is assumed to be there along with a host of other assumptions about sexuality, the stereotype of a woman sleeping or flirting her way to her status. It's tokenizing; it's like suggesting women are only in tech because of Affirmative Action By Boyfriend. In other words, we are not "allowed" by history to have our own status. We only have status by proxy as given to us by men who have sexual access to us, real or implied sexual access.

I'll list through a few more of the sexualized and sexist terms used to describe Mayer. Her "throaty laugh", how she's "the only blonde in a room packed with mostly dark-haired young guys", she "acts goofy and girly", has a "ballerina posture". There's a weird setup where Mayer is described as a geeky robot, "mechanical", precise, unsexed, but then that unsexed-geek-girl stereotype is defused by her "personal passions" and "coming-out party of sorts for a new kind of Silicon Valley star." That hypothetical ghost of a robotic passionless scruffy geek is contrasted with the girly, giggly, sexy, cupcake-baking, fashion-loving, non-threatening woman who sometimes shops for purses.

"Mayer is fiercely competitive. She wants to make the best cupcake, wear the prettiest dress, have the coolest penthouse."


I think we can all enjoy cupcakes and fashion without being freaking defined by it. I'm not objecting to anyone's hobbies of geektastic cupcakes, knitting, wearing pretty skirts made for super rich people, or whatever. I'm not objecting to femminess and the deliberate, or just automatic because that's how we are, geeking up of things that are supposedly traditionally feminine.

me & Liza Sabater at SXSWi, photo by Rachel Kramer Bussel

BUT. The implication in articles like this is that women NEED a specially feminized presentation of self in order to prove that it's okay for women to like computers. That's completely stupid!

There is another problem in this article, and in the general pattern of media attention on powerful women in male-dominated fields. It's isolation and tokenizing. An article will frame the tech world as if there is only one important woman. She is always presented as the Lone Woman in the midst of techie guys. Tokenizing! Context is important. And my own context, as a woman in this field, is that it's full of heroic efforts of women in computing to make professional and personal connections with each other. Consider Mayer in contexts with other women:

* Webguild
* Grace Hopper Celebration 2006
* Blogher Business

Those images, for me, are much more powerful and meaningful than the one Guthrie paints of the Lone Blonde Chick at the party full of men. Journalists should not "disappear" women in tech by canonizing one saint who they love and hate, praise, objectify, and revile. There are a lot of us here!

To be overly generous, I would like to mention that after the first 3+ pages of utter crap, Guthrie did write a good, interesting, middle section to the article, which straightforwardly describes Mayer's background in computer science, her interviews at Google, and her early work experience there, including the sort of oh so wacky "Nudist on the Late Shift" geek-culture stories about Wacky Startups that we can't really avoid and that I do still enjoy hearing about and living in the midst of. So I'm not slamming Guthrie's basic competence as a journalist and writer, and the article is not all fluff; it's way less fluffy than you'd expect from SF magazine, that society rag for the more droolingly idiotic of the rich and famous.) Then we hit some more stuff about being a party hostess and cupcake making, Mayer's childhood doll collection and background in "precision dance team" which must be a lot like what in Texas was called "drill team" and meant cheerleaders doing dance; and more bilge about underneath her Geekitude and corporate executiveness Mayer is "still that geeky super-normal enthusiastic girl". What? I'm still trying to decode what "geeky super-normal enthusiastic girl" means. The effect to me is of deliberate girlifying of a brilliant, competent, powerful adult, in other words infantilizing them in order to make them less threateningly powerful-seeming.

I can't even dignify the paragraph about Mayer's dating life with a quote; it was just dumb. FFS.

But the end! The end was the worst! "Does Mayer ever see herself going completely low-tech and focusing (professionally or otherwise) on art, entertaining, baking, or fashion? " You know, what would have to be wrong in an interviewer's head for them to ask that question? What the hell? Why would anyone ask that question of one of the most powerful engineers at an extremely successful company, a person with a couple of degrees in computer science and many years of experience in the industry? "Oh... just wondering... have you ever thought of forgetting about this lil' ol' computer thing and sticking to cupcakes?"

I can''t wait to hear what my colleagues on Systers, BlogHer, and Linuxchix have to say here. I was also thinking that as a response we could add some good detail to Marissa Mayer's Wikipedia page.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Socialtext, and ongoing Wiki Wednesdays

I haven't been posting here very often as my medical and disability issues got kind of intense. I went on short-term disability for a couple of months, and am going to stop working full time for a little while. While I'm leaving my job at Socialtext, I'm going to continue contracting for them on an occasional basis.

Working at Socialtext was an intense experience, less like drinking from the firehose and more like being blasted by a giant non stop river of information and communication. It was very interesting "ambient work." I hung out with my co-workers on many wikis, on chat, irc, over email, and sometimes in person.

Tony Bowden, Casey West, and Dan Bricklin worked with me on an open source release of Socialcalc and on planning its possibilities, as well as working on open source licensing and legal issues. I was on call any time for Ingy döt Net to test his wiki hacks and help him debug, and Perl goddess Kirsten Jones was always around to help me with my questions. I got to hang out in Socialtext's co-working space and have some great conversations with Adina Levin and Pete Kaminski, and especially appreciated Adina's willingness to listen and to take time to act as a mentor. Chris Dent wrote so much great & thoughtful wiki theory and thoughts on software development; I just wish I had gotten to pair with him on a project, but maybe sometime in the future. It was great working with Jon Prettyman, Chris McMahon, Shawn Scantland, and Ken Pier on new releases, and any time I got to work with or hang out with Lyssa Kaehler, Zac Bir, Melissa Ness, or Brandon Noard it was a pleasure. Probably the nicest part of working at Socialtext, I mean besides the decadent hot tub parties, was getting to team up with Luke Closs, whose super clear explanations and agile coaching totally rocked my world. Seriously, I can't say enough good things about the engineering, support, and QA crew at Socialtext.

Then, I think of how Socialtext basically paid me to spend time helping with things like BarCampBlock and Wiki Wednesday. The Wiki Wednesdays were especially lovely. It was kind of funny, because all the literary readings I have run in the past turn out the same way; an eclectic crowd of people who don't know each other and wouldn't otherwise have met, kicking around ideas in a laid back atmosphere -- rather than big events that are lecture-style. I also really like to find interesting people who are not the usual suspects; who are total rock stars but in a small niche that is not visible to people who are rock stars in other niches. Anyway, it was through Wiki Wednesday (and sometimes through random co-working arrangements) that I met fun and inspiring people like Eugene Eric Kim, Jack Herrick, Eszter Hargittai, Bryan Pendleton, Betsy Megas, and Philip Neustrom.

Wiki Wednesday is continuing, run once again by Socialtext's social media visionary Ross Mayfield. I hope that a good crowd of people from different wiki communities, platforms, and companies will flock to the event. Other local wiki events coming up: the Freebase User Group run by Kirrily Robert at Metaweb, which just happened, but another one is coming up in April. And then, a fantastic-sounding wiki event I haven't been to yet, Recent Changes Camp, which will happen May 9-11 in Palo Alto, and which I hope will be as good as the past ones in Portland and Montreal.

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