Why That List Of The "40 Hottest Women In Tech" Is Absolutely Disgusting

Can we stop valuing women's perceived "hotness" over their accomplishments yet?

Mar 26, 2013 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

HI KIDS! I'm writing to you this week from beautiful San Francisco, where I am attending a massive convergence of creative and brilliant nerds at this year's Game Developers Conference (GDC to its friends). 
Sure, GDC is not the kind of event you'd expect a "women's lifestyle" site (I think we all uniformly hate this designation here but it's one we live with) like xoJane to cover, given that game development, like most technology fields, is so ridiculously male dominated. I mean right now I am writing this from the GDC press lounge and even amongst the PRESS, I'm looking at a room filled with 32 men and 3 women. Not including me. 
BUT GDC coverage is happening because my bosses have this thing where they let me write about pretty much anything I’m interested in, and I’m interested in this.
I’ve also come with a little bit of an axe to grind. 

Chilling outside the convention center. Axe not pictured.

Over the weekend I was at a different nerd conference, the more fan-focused PAX East in Boston. In one panel I attended -- a panel whose subject matter was in fact gender -- a panelist repeatedly referred to women as "females," which prompted me to go run and tell Twitter, "If I hear "females" used to refer to women one more time..."
This resulted in some conversation on my feed, in which a few dudes sincerely asked why this was a problem? (It also resulted in a lot of Ferengi jokes, because I am followed by a lot of awesome nerds.) The point of contention seemed to be that sometimes you need to specify a type of thing. 
This wasn't actually what I was talking about, but to be clear: At best, "female" can be used as a modifier, as in, "I had a female cab driver on the trip to the airport," which is actually true, and which always makes me want to go, "HEY A LADY CAB DRIVER!" like Frank Sinatra's character in "On The Town."
But while "female" is occasionally appropriate as a modifier, I find its use as a noun super irritating myself. There are a few reasons for this. The most obvious is that calling women "females" takes their gender and makes it their primary identifying characteristic -- it suggests that a person is presumed to be male, the default and the "norm," unless noted otherwise. "Females" are female first and absolutely everything else they are in their lives -- scientists, screenwriters or Supreme Court justices -- is secondary to their gender presentation.
Can we agree, at least, that women's womanyness is NOT the most important part of who they are, and constantly suggesting this is so actually hinders women in their lives, let alone their professional careers? 
I mean, I don’t deny that being a woman definitely influences how I am treated and perceived by the world in which I live. But it is not necessarily the thing I want others to find most central to my existence. Because there are days when I spend whole minutes going about my life without thinking about the fact that I'm a lady. Until some douchebag reminds me.
Unfortunately, even as a modifier, "female" (or "woman") can be annoying, because it reinforces a cultural ideology that affirms that there are certain things women are not “supposed” or expected to be, such that they need special recognition. Like a "female astronaut," which was one of the examples in the Twitter conversation that followed, or a "female construction worker" or a "woman CEO." 
I'll give you an example. If I'm talking about the specific equipment needs of female astronauts, then noting that they are female in such a way is understandable. In that case, there may be gender-dependent distinctions that need to be considered.
If I'm just talking about them being astronauts, like, in general? I don't need to explicitly note that some of them are women. I'm not saying it's EEEEVIL or even ANTIFEMINIST to do so -- I'm just saying this is a tiny little linguistic thing we do that we could really skip. Because when we start calling "women astronauts" just "astronauts" then we are doing something small to break down the ideology behind the notion that women astronauts are somehow strange or curious or unexpected unicorns (this is also true of my lady cab driver, so don’t think I’m above this sort of thing). 
I'll give you another example.
Last week Complex magazine ran a list of what they called the "40 Hottest Women in Tech." (No, I am not linking to it, because blech.)
It sorta blew up the Internet, not least because, in the same week, a woman named Adria Richards was fired from her job at a company called SendGrid after publicly calling out the sexual comments she overheard being made by two men at a tech conference. 
Richards identified the men on Twitter -- and posted their photographs -- and one of them was also fired as a result. Richards herself lost her job once her employer became embroiled in the backlash against her -- backlash that included explicit threats of rape and violence and death against Richards, some illustrated with gruesome pictures.
Richards got fired publicly, via Facebook, which, yeah, man, only in the future could this shit happen. 
Richards’ story is not important because it is unthinkable or unusual, but just the opposite. Women who work in this industry are as likely to expect such behavior as not. Courtney Stanton -- one of many awesome people I know who are employed in technology and who are also women -- wrote about it on Buzzfeed:
As a woman who's worked for years at both large tech companies (mobile, web) and small tech startups (mobile, video games), who currently works by day at a multinational Internet company and works by night as a video game developer, this is just another thing that happens. I expect this every year, multiple times a year. Whom it happens to and what the consequences are for the individuals don't change much year over year — and the conversation around it doesn't seem to evolve much either. I've gotten so sick of it happening in the games industry, I started my own conference for game developers in part so I could attend at least one event a year where I didn't have to expect this kind of thing.
Of the many other tech-employed women I know, all of them have stories, some more chilling than others, of rampant sexism and harassment in these fields -- and the difficulty of doing anything about it. It is part and parcel of the experience.
But sometimes it just gets to be too overt, like when a men’s magazine publishes a list of “hottest women in tech” immediately before a significant technology conference which several of the listed women will be attending and who will ALREADY be having to face the standard level of sexist bullshit, let alone the increased volume provided by having so recently been publicly ranked in hotness. Like in case any of them forgot they were also women.
Because no matter what women do, their ability to also be "hot" is culturally more important. 
The Complex list includes some worthy names, but for all the wrong reasons. The selected ladies tend to be young and conventionally attractive. I’m sure the list was intended to be “complimentary,” as though women are always more invested in hearing that they're pretty than in being congratulated on their good work, but unsurprisingly it fails on every level.
One of the women included in the list is another person I know -- Leigh Alexander, a journalist who commands such respect from her colleagues that I’d be happy if I ever get one-tenth as much admiration from the people I work with. Leigh is smart, incisive, and a consummate professional, and in any gathering of game journalists I am present at (which happens frequently given that my husband also does this work) people will speak in awed tones of her ability to cover events, to write quickly and clearly and well on any subject. She is legend, her gender irrelevant to her reputation.
On the list, Leigh is captioned, “One of the most prominent woman journalists in video games, Alexander has written extensively on feminism and female identity in and around games culture.” [Emphasis added.] Which is to some extent true. But it’s also an absurd reduction of what she does, and makes it sound like these are the only things she writes about. Because women only do women things, right?
The same can be said of her 39 other companions on this list -- why is their work, which is diverse and impressive by its own right -- being reduced to their perceived “hotness”? And how on earth is this going to make things easier for these women who are already fighting a professional culture that works to exclude and other them?
The author of the Complex list has since written a follow-up apology on the Daily Beast, saying he had struggled with the decision to take the job in the first place, and intended the original piece to be more positive and “empowering,” and that the draft he submitted was edited, without his input, to remove some of the less conventionally attractive (and older) women and to include more sexy young things, which he acknowledges undercuts any efforts he made at being more “inclusive.” 
But then his original draft, included in the Daily Beast post, identifies Brenda Romero, a 30-year veteran of video game development, as being “best known for her marriage to John Romero,” another game developer. Said marriage just happened last year, so ostensibly thirty years of pioneering work are less impressive than whose wife she is.
But I don’t want to tar the author too much -- it's not a question of whether the writer or the magazine is evil. This is rather a reflection of an industry culture that continues to be dominated by the work of men, and so even a careful effort at making a “hottest women in tech” list as non-objectifying as possible is going to fail, as there’s just too much built-in objectifying and belittling going on already for a subtle approach to win.
And given the timing, this particular list looks like straight-up trolling, no matter if that was how it was meant. It’s trolling all the women currently heading to a conference where odds are good that, at least part of the time, they’re going to have to hear sexual comments or face unwanted advances or just be reminded that whatever the quality of the work they do, it will be some time yet before it’s considered as worthwhile as that done by a man. Where they know that if they speak up about these issues, they may risk their jobs in the process. 
For now, this list has reminded us that they’re still “women in tech,” or “female game developers” or “women designers” doing lady things as ladies, and not just people working in technology-related fields. And in a week like this, that’s not just an outrage -- it’s a damn tragedy.
Posted in Issues, sexism, STEM, technology, GDC