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.

Digg this


ElisaC said...

I really have to digest this because right now it's making me a little too sick. Of course, now that I think of it I've written about this treatment of Mayer specifically by the media before. here...back in 2005.

You have to wonder about the conversations that go on between Mayer and her PR team. I wish we could get her to BlogHer to talk about the media and women in tech, but somehow I doubt her PR folks would be into the idea.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Liz. I have little to add because I think you said it all quite eloquently here. But anecdotally speaking, I can't remember a profile of a man that involved quite so much of an obsession with his physical appearance and domestic hobbies. "Hey (insert successful man in tech field's name here) once this computer thing fizzles out, do you suppose you'll go back to GI Joes and Legos all day long?" Sad.

The cupcake thing just confounds me. There's a thesis, summed up in the inane ending of this article: Tech backlash leads to baking resurgence.

Nothing wrong with baking, naturally, but whatever.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis as always, Liz. And, as always, it's a shame that it is necessary.

Skye @ Planet Jinxatron said...

Whaaaa? Just insulting.

pfctdayelise said...

It was a pretty awful article.

Interviews where the journo is enamoured of their subject are awful as a rule.

To be fair on the cupcake comments, I think it's not quite as bad as you suggest, given she bought into their company. But on the whole - ug.

Kate Evans said...

You rock. This is a killer critique.

Sunfell said...

Ye gods. How insulting. Apparently fashion sense and her romantic life (and cupcakes!) are more important than what actual engineering work she's doing for Google.

And I really hate the descriptions of her as 'cold and robotic'. She's a geek, for gods sake! Let her be herself!

It's sad, really- the more things change, the more they remain the same. To some people, women are only good for one thing- and they really resent it if that woman is smarter or more capable than they are. Been there, done that, here's the scars...

Din vän said...

Yeah, I heard this many times. Every time there is a woman who is skilled and she is not malelooking people say: she might be blond and beautiful, but she is clever.
Why do they have to say anything about how she look like?
Is anyone saying anything about men: he is goodlooking but clever?

Sarah said...

Excellent response. Thanks for standing up for the geek girls.

Unknown said...

Y'know, someone should do some mock interviews of men that bang on about their looks and shopping habits.

I might have to do that.

Mackenzie said...

Pardon me while I smack my head off the wall...

Ah, that's better. Now, about the topic...

Having to choose which half of you it is OK to be kind of sucks. For the last few years, I abandoned being a girl and only showed my geek side. The first year and a half of college, I think I wore a dress once. No nail polish. I just started wearing nail polish again in January, and I got hot pink :D I love pink, I just feel like I won't be respected for my computer skills if I'm too girly. I finally feel like enough of my peers at school take me seriously that I can loosen up and wear nail polish and skirts again.

The (only, I think) other girl in my year in the CS department loves to be girly. She has lots of pink stuff, and she thinks it's cute. She won't let her girl friends see how geeky she is because then she wouldn't fit in though. She said she gets funny looks when she turns up with her pink EeePC to geeky events, so now she's thinking she'll keep that one at home all the time so nobody sees it. It's like she plays two different people who don't get to meet each other.

I finally decided that if people were going to complain about my green-on-black (like a terminal, get it?) blog being hard to read, I'd change the colors. It's now a pink-on-black blog :D I put up a poll and green is winning though :(

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I wish I had time to write about this, but for now I have to restrain myself to a few quick thoughts:

One thing that jumped out at me when reading the first page of the article -- there seems to be a generic bias to believe that software engineers are unattractive, uninteresting and desexualized.

From that perspective the attractiveness angle woudln't be out of place with an article on a male in the same position. I think the opening paragraph would work the same way in an article about Bill Gates, or Lary Ellison, or any of a number of other powerful "geeks."

Of course the article doesn't stop there it also infantalizes it's subject at the same time as it repeatedly sexualizes her, which is really kind of disturbing.

I think the desexualization of computer geeks in general and of women in the field in particular is part of the reason that we have declining numbers of women enrolling in computer sceince programs.

If women are force to choose between femininity and computer science many of the, will choose femininity.

Yes, the definition of femininity that they have may be socially constructed, sometimes repressive, and fantastically out of date -- but still a part of many women's sexual identity. And many women believe that their ability to attract suitable sexual partners is dependent on conforming to that image.

So, to the extent that this article breaks down that false dichotomy, and allows a woman to be both sexual, and technical, both feminine and powerful it takes 1 step forward. Of course that goes with the 2 steps back that your post highlights so well.

Anonymous said...

It's the typical dredge of media. Make someone more familiar by painting them in a light that you think is right. Sadly the computer culture isn't as main stream as us geeks would want.

Happy waving Stepford Wives is what the, dare I say it Christian (or any other religion) wants of women. They would prefer the submissive to the powerful, thus any opportunity to repaint perceptions they do it.

Maybe I was a little harsh there, but if we truly all want equality, we have to respect our fellow Homo sapiens as such another human being that lives, breaths, and thinks as individuals.

Yes that even extends to the very same that would attempt to warp our perceptions buy pasting cute words to such a respectable human being.

:: steps off his box ::

Anonymous said...

Wow, I love your critique! I only skimmed through that article and had the similar impression, but you helped me realize the very glass ceiling that all us geek girls have to go through.

Thanks for the interesting thoughts! I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

retrogamer said...

Thank you for your coverage of this article, which unfortunately will be seen by the general public.

As a self-described geek and software engineering professor, this type of article still bugs me on SO MANY levels (some of which you touched on).

1. As a woman: Yes I am the geeky type, and there are quite a few women who either are or are not. Women are a diverse group, and no one should be punished or called out for not being pretty or being pretty. After all of these years, that is what it is all about? It is bad enough when we aren't listened to but when our ideas come out of our male colleague's mouth then it is good. It reminds me as to why I stopped watching the Tonight Show with Jay Leno - I was tired as to how he always introduced female actresses as being pretty rather than talented while male guests were introduced by their talents.

2. As a woman in computing: Some of the things I like most about computing is that I can integrate my varied interests: avenues for art/crafts (I love this blog for video game themed arts and crafts), potential for making technology accessible to the disabled (I do research and outreach here), working with people and solving real, interesting problems. Gee, should such interests be disjoint from computing? I hope not otherwise the future will be a pretty bleak place. She has other interests - Great! That should be presented as a means to show that variety is good and a way to keep stress at bay -- and all women (and men) can appreciate that.

3. As a female educator in computing: Things are in a sad enough state in terms of how few young women go into Computer Science. Articles like this do us no service with our outreach efforts, of which I have been a part of for years. Girls (and boys) are so influenced by the media, which is seen as having some authority on the subject they report on. That article would be such a turn off! Girls and young women want to be accepted by their peers and may have low self-esteem (e.g. I'm not pretty, I'm awkward), and this and other types of articles or stories don't help at all. A geeky girl would feel that she wouldn't be welcomed and a non-geeky girl would feel that she wouldn't be taken seriously. Any positive things that could be taken form the article are lost. Such portrayals only make the work of those of us to are trying to engage girls and young women in computing and engineering all the more difficult.

My blog is just getting off the ground, and may not have wide appeal, but it is in regards to how accessible video games are to users with visual impairments. While I would have responded earlier had I seen the post, the post is in part my entry for "Share the Magic."

How would I Share the Magic?

As stated in my post I do outreach at the K12 level both with girls and with students with disabilities. The computers would make it easier for me to conduct activities at the schools or at my university when a lab is not available. I like to use engaging, hands-on activities such as Lego Mindstorm robots - where students can work together to solve interesting problems and learn about careers in computing.