Do we have to “sexify” tech?

Last night I attended the keynote address for Social Media Week DC “smwdc” where Linda Abraham, founder and CMO of comScore; Steve Case, formerly CEO AOL; and Aneesh Chopra, formerly CTO of America and currently candidate for Lt. Governor in Virginia, all spoke.  While everyone had something interesting to say, there were clearly a few different spins taken.After the event, I met up with a friend and her colleague, a technical project manager and a social media/marketing manager, and we had some really interesting conversations about what we had heard.  This post is about what stuck with me, how that differed from them and the subsequent conversation.

One of the first things that Ms. Abraham mentioned is that startups require scrappiness.  This made a lot of sense to me if you look at being scrappy as willing to use all the resources at your disposal and aggressively pursue your goals.  There also might have been a little personal affinity for the word, given that it has been used to describe me (in the context of martial arts training).  Interestingly the initial impression of my colleagues was that it was the wrong word.  The negative connotation was overpowering the message.  

Ms. Abraham spoke about women using technology differently, and really driving social media use and e-commerce.  Men, however, are primarily running these companies or providing the necessary seed capital.  This has led her to the next logical question of women in tech.  Her biggest insight was that women just don’t throw their hat in the ring the way men do.  They tend to focus on their actual skills rather than their potential.  The discussion after the event leaned toward Ms. Abraham having been a more uninspired speaker than Mr. Case or Mr. Chopra.  It was a common opinion that we as a group (my colleagues and me not the entire audience of DC tech meetup) didn’t often think about women in tech, or being a woman in tech. After explaining my involvement with Women in Technology, the DC non-profit professional group with the goal of advancing women in tech from the classroom to the boardroom, it was easier to talk about it.  There was some chat about how most of the women who talk about the issue are on the dowdy side.  Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg were called out specifically as two fresh faces on the forefront of the conversation about women in technology.  It was noted that Yahoo might be a little dowdy in nature, a company not really seen right now as on the cutting edge.

So the question then became “Do we really need to ‘sexify’ tech?”  This was a little bit counter intuitive and I think concerning for the three of us.  There was some concern that we might be falling back into the “binder full of women” type scenario.  This isn’t the first time this has come up.  The European Union released a video in June 2012 called “Science: It’s a girl thing” that highlights women in short skirts and stilletos surrounding by images of lab equipment, formulas, etc.  This was immediately attacked as an affront to women.  It was also immediately parodied by Dartmouth graduate students in one of their science programs.  Three pacific northwest tech women, known as LadyCoders, created a kickstarter project to teach women how to be more successful in technical organizations and roles.  They identified “unconscious biases that marginalize and undervalue the female perspective” as the true issue.  Critics attacked them stating the women were “antifeminist and bowing to a corrupt system rather than working to blow it up. (Seattle Met 012313)”

The one positive is that everyone is talking about this.  With enough people talking, we can generate some critical support and find a disruptive way to increase the pool of technologist, and therefore increase the pool of women in technology.