In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Elle does a source analysis and read-along of an article on Google’s female hackers, and advises cautious optimism along the way.
Honesty Time, loyal readers: it’s been a hell of a week. On top of being already over-scheduled, things popped up that were out of my control, and as a result I am filled not so much with Righteous Fury and the Desire to Find Relevant Links as I am with Righteous Exhaustion and the Desire to Nap Forever. So we’re going to do things a little bit different this time. There will be fewer assertions, and more questions. Fewer links to outside research, and more invitations for all of you to weigh in. (Did you even know you could comment on my posts! You totally can, there’s a little button on the bottom of the page and everything — Richard promises to actually moderate in a reasonable amount of time!). So this week’s reaction will basically be “Elle live-reads and reacts to an article she and Richard thought was interesting.” I promise next week I will have the time and brain capacity to write a full post. Or at least the time to pretend I have the brain capacity to write a full post. For now, come read this article with me about women on Google’s security team!
So I want to be really, really excited about this article, because women are very much under-represented in tech fields, and I think it is great that women’s contributions to a male-dominated industry are being recognized. These are Exciting Things.
That being said, I have a couple concerns with this article right off the bat. The first is that while the article is titled “Meet The Badass Women Of Google’s Security Team,” the article only discusses four women, and doesn’t make it clear if these are the only women on the security team, or the only photogenic ones, or the only ones that would talk to the reporter, or only the ones who were actually deemed “badass,” or whatever. Saying “meet the badass women” and then only being introduced to four ladies is kind of like when you go to a restaurant you’re really excited about and there’s only four things on an artfully large menu. You’re pretty sure those four things are going to be awesome, but you’re also pretty sure you would have liked to have seen more things, or at least been told why there are only four things on that menu. Having only these four women, without any context as to how much they represent the demographics of their company, makes me think that Google knows that Silicon Valley had a reputation as a boys’ club and in a desperate bid for attention and good publicity was like “No, we totally have female employees! Important ones! Ones that do things! We have… four. Four female employees that do important things.”
My second concern is the location, and some of the content, of the article. The article is on the site Refinery29, which is a self-professed “fashion and style” website, and it actually looks fun and like I should check it out more often. It does not, however, look like the kind of place where you would normally see stuff about tech issues, and the fact that only one of the women, the “Security Princess” Parisa Tabriz, has been covered in multiple other articles about Google’s security team makes me think that either this article is a pet project of a particular writer (which is cool), that Google couldn’t convince more “respectable” news outlets to write an article about their female employees (which is bad), or that the author and/or Google really was going for aesthetics (which is also bad, but supported by the “Lisa Frank on Instagram” filters on all of the pictures of the women).
Now, granted, some-to-a-lot of the info in the article is pretty neat, and again, I like the visibility for women in tech. All of the women share some really interesting information about their roles in Google, Parisa Tabriz and Emily Stark both directly comment on the common stereotypes held about hackers and software engineers, and Elisabeth Morant reveals that one of her side projects is to work with a group at Google “devoted to improving the media’s depiction of women in tech.” That is legitimately awesome.
Yet based on what makes it into the article, neither the author nor the subjects seem really interested in discussing what is the underlying issue of the piece, which is what is it like to be a woman in this particular field.
Tabriz dances around it a bit in her discussion of stereotypes, but designer Rebecca Rolfe tries to sidestep a direct question about gender in tech by bringing up a “hilarious” anecdote about bathroom lines. When asked “What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced being a woman in tech?” she replies, “There are definitely talented women on the Chrome security team, which is great. There is one detail about working in tech that has always surprised me: bathroom lines! A lot of times, the guys have to wait in line. It sounds ridiculous, but on the day that I head to the restroom and there’s an equal number of men and women lined up outside the doors, I am going to jump for joy.” Which is the interview equivalent of saying “Oh look, a distraction!” She answers a direct question with a sidestep about there being talented women on her team, which is awesome, but definitely not the answer to the question she was asked. Then in her attempt to distract from the question with her discussion of the bathroom lines, she actually presents a grim reality—that the stereotypical “bathroom line” problem is reversed at Google, where there are so many more men than women that the men (who have the advantage of not needing as many stalls and thus can usually make quicker escapes) are actually the ones tapping their feet in impatience while they wonder if their bladders can actually explode. (In case you’re wondering, about 30% of Google’s employees are female, and in the “tech” part of Google only about 27% of employees are female, which helps explain the bathroom disparity.).
And some of the information in the article sounds like it came out of an OkCupid profile. We find out that Elisabeth Moran enjoys tennis, that Emily Stark likes to bake pies, and that Parisa Tabriz personally chose the title “Security Princess” because it added a sense of “whimsy” to her job. I literally cannot remember the last time any male tech figure was asked about his hobbies in a profile, or showed concern for how much whimsy was involved in his job description and asked to be addressed as the Engineering Dauphin. On the one hand, this might be a positive sign, where we are humanizing the tech industry, adding some arts and humanities back into the sciences, and showing more concern for employees as being whole beings. On the other hand, it might be a sign that we don’t take the jobs of women as seriously as we do the jobs of men, and therefore are more likely to want to peek behind the curtain of their employment to see what they “really” do.
The overall gist that I get from the article is that Google is trying very, very hard to be seen as the “cool,” gender-conscious tech company. This maaaaaaybe has something to do with the fact that a couple of months ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt got called out by his own employee for repeatedly cutting off and speaking over the sole female panelist on a panel about diversity in tech at SXSW. It’s like an Onion article, only real life. (This is intriguingly the only publicity I could find that included Elisabeth Morant, as she is the one who identified the woman who questioned Schmidt, Judith Williams, who also happens to be the head of the Unconscious Bias program at Google. You go, Judith Williams. Four for you, Judith Williams).
If Google is trying to correct its CEO’s misstep by drawing additional attention to the incredible women in its workforce, I can think of a couple ways to improve their technique.
First, while it’s always great for women readers to be exposed to depictions of other women in various fields, women are only half of the equation when it comes to gender issues. It is just as important for men to see representations of women in different fields, especially fields that are traditionally the domains of men. If Google really wants to increase the reputation and visibility of these women, having the article published on a website that probably has a predominantly female readership isn’t the best way to go.
Second, don’t let the knowledge that this is an image-repair piece, and that these women are representing a minority in their field, be the elephant in the room. Confront it head on. Ask Rolfe a follow-up. Ask Monsant more about her “women in tech” project. Ask Tabriz why she went with “Princess” instead of “Queen.” (I think when you invent your job title, you also get to put yourself at the head of the monarchy.) Long story short, I feel like a genuine effort to address Google’s gender imbalance and the perception thereof would entail more… well…. effort.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not doing a critical analysis of the optics of gender balance in the tech industry, she studies gender in popular culture.