A Pink Collar Tech Ghetto?

Jolie O’Dell, who is one of my favorite people in the world tweeted something yesterday that got the women of the tech world (and many men) up in arms:

Jolie's Tweet (for my blog)

It also ignited quite a lively backchannel conversation amongst the various women in tech groups I’m part of. The reactions (including mine) ranged from “I can see her point, but ‘embarrassment’ is a harsh way to put it,” to “OMFG &*#(&#)@#*@!” Mine was somewhere in between, but the biggest thing that struck me was how familiar it sounded.

And it isn’t a familiar because I’m a woman founding a fashion/shopping site, it’s familiar because in every single profession where the population of women starts growing, the same thing happens and the same sentiments get voiced.

As the number of women doctors grew, there was (and still is) an outcry because female physicians outnumber male physicians in pediatrics and female residents outnumber male residents in family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pathology, and psychiatry.

I’ve heard the same said about women lawyers: they pick ‘softer’ forms of law to pursue such as non-profit, family, government and general practices. Women are less likely to run a firm or become partners at a firm and more likely to be in-house council.

But this isn’t the issue. Nature or nurture or interests or whatever, if more women choose to practice medicine, law or do startups around the stuff we are familiar with, I’m not too concerned. I figure as time goes on and our entrance into professions becomes more common, things will even out. What I’m concerned about is the sentiment around the decision to pursue more feminized versions of these professions. The feminine itself is negatively valued.

Feminine = Soft/Bad/Stupid/Shallow/Underachieving/Embarrassing ??

Think about how we assign value to certain things like: logical vs. emotional. Or independent vs. dependent. Or analytical vs. intuitive. I’ll bet when you read the words, you instantly understood what ‘gender’ was assigned to each (and when I say gender, I don’t mean men vs women. I mean masculine vs. feminine.). Neither is better or worse, but depending on the context, there is a differential in how they are valued. And in the tech industry, being emotional, dependent and intuitive is a death sentence…unless you are a man who has a ‘proven’ record (proven being the uber masculine differentiator).

The same goes for types of startups. Business tools = good. Analytics = good. Content aggregators = good. Productivity apps = good. Shopping = bad. Fashion = bad. Babies = bad. UNLESS…you are a man. Diapers.com was founded by two men. They are super rich now. Zappos.com was founded by men. They’ve done pretty well. Amazon, Bluefly, Kaboodle, Shopstyle, Stylefeeder, eBay…the list goes on. One could argue all of the founders behind these have done pretty well for themselves and even the sites that aren’t super popular were acquired for good money and had good exits. I don’t know…sounds like a shopping (baby and fashion) startup is a pretty solid, awesome, smart, hardcore, good, kickass type of startup to have.

So why is it so embarrassing to have so many women entering the startup world through such a lucrative entry point?

Because, well, it’s embarrassing because we are so few and there is so much hope pinned on our performance. We’ve been begging and screaming to get included and then we show up in high heels talking about designer snugglies and nailpolish. Damn these women being all womeny talking about women stuff! Who invited these ones to the party? Where are the serious female entrepreneurs?

Right here. In high heels. Wearing great nailpolish (I swear by this stuff…it’ll extend your manicure for…nevermind). I’m emotionally and intuitively navigating through this. And I’m dependent on more people than I feel comfortable with: my customers, my users, my co-founders, my advisors, my boyfriend, other startups, my friends, the weather, the economy…you name it.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2005, it took me about 6 months to deny myself my femininity. It wasn’t fashionable to be fashionable. I moved to SF with a closet full of designer dresses, suits and shoes and within 6 months all I was wearing were jeans and t-shirts. I am ecstatic to see photos of events filled with women in dress clothes and high heels. My only embarrassment lies in that I didn’t have the *erm* balls to be the woman I am back then.

Instead of embarrassed that there are so many women doing startups involving fashion/shopping/babies, I’m proud. I’m proud of a truly inclusive tech scene where women can women, men can men, women can men, men can women and all sorts of other genderific combinations thereof. And I, for one, welcome the pink ghettoization of the tech startup scene – at least for the time being – because it means women are making a grand entrance. And what an entrance it is!

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Categories: Buyosphere, community, entrepreneurship, personal

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.

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26 Comments on “A Pink Collar Tech Ghetto?”

  1. September 14, 2011 at 20:20 #

    Brava!

  2. Daniel Riveong
    September 14, 2011 at 20:24 #

    Hi Tara,

    I know this opens up a lot of issue that no blog comment can ever address. But, let me step back and ask what values do you think society should focus on…

    Are we okay, (to use your example) if women lawyers tend to do become in-house councils while men tend to be come partners in a law firm? How does the effect the power balance in society, economics, and politics? Are we okay with that? Or do we need to have a 50/50 split? Should it be legally required? Or say 50/50 split for C-level management?

    I agree that to say “girly stuff is bad” is a downright wrong – but yet, if women only do the “feminine” pink ghetto stuff – is this where women should be in society, where men tend to start both fashion and analytics companies, but women focus on the “soft” stuff? Where women become nurses, but men become heart surgeons?

    Should we encourage women and men to do both? And make sure it’s not lopsided for either gender/sex? Is that too “facist”/social-engineering and we should instead let chips fall where they may, as long as no one judges or discriminates?

    PS: Your sentence “The feminine itself is negatively valued.” – makes me think of this:

  3. September 14, 2011 at 20:26 #

    Great post Tara.

    Peer @jolieodell’s tweet – does that mean that men should be embarrassed by all the car and gadget sites they have founded over the years?

    Tired of the metric that that which is stereotypically male has more value/is more important than that which is stereotypically female.

    If people are starting a new business – they need to pick what they are passionate about .. period. It’s a tough enough road as it is.

  4. Noelle
    September 14, 2011 at 21:46 #

    Great Post.

    You CAN kick-ass in a Tiara wearing pink. If you don’t believe me, just ask a drag queen.

  5. Mary-Ann
    September 15, 2011 at 00:34 #

    Thing is though, a lot of these sites are lightweight in the problems they solve (and so are the stereotypical cars/gadgets male sites)

    I can’t see how it’s a good thing for the users of these sites to be encouraged to spend more time on clothes and makeup, never mind the founders. Wearing lovely clothes, makeup and shoes is great but I don’t see how it takes so much effort.

    Babies are a different matter, they are or should be important to everyone and it’s not the fault of women if men are ignoring startup opportunities in that area.

    I also think that a lot of the acceptably masculine startups would benefit from having women involved, I think Mayer and Sandberg have added immeasurably to making Google and Facebook ready for mass adoption.

  6. September 15, 2011 at 03:27 #

    Fantastic response to Jolie’s tweet, as well as to the responses we’ve seen this there. Much needed!

  7. September 15, 2011 at 03:56 #

    Ditto Tereza — Brava.

  8. September 15, 2011 at 04:25 #

    @Daniel

    I’m not saying women should women only. I’m saying that women should be proud of feminine pursuits/interests/angles (as should men), too. But you are right, this would take a textbook to explain the problems with the statement that it’s embarrassing for women to do fashion/shopping/baby startups.

    @Mary-Ann

    Lightweight? I don’t know. They attract oodles of attention. Is it what people need THE MOST? Nope. But that is a whole other issue. Ask anyone in the social good space how easy it is to build something that does good. Investors want profit. Users are apathetic. I think it will evolve. I like seeing women IN GENERAL in tech, I don’t care if they are doing ‘turn the world into Barbieland’ apps. It’s about freaking time that they arrived.

  9. kikito
    September 15, 2011 at 07:41 #

    I did get the logical/emotional and analytical/intuitive “gender adjective assignment”.

    I did not get any particular connection on “independent vs. dependent.” though. It felt like “introverted vs extroverted”, or “good dancer vs bad dancer”; I saw no gender connection at all.

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing (I’m from Spain), or maybe I don’t know people well enough. Or maybe all my friends and family are weirdos.

  10. September 15, 2011 at 08:54 #

    Love your thought, Liz, re: “Tired of the metric that that which is stereotypically male has more value/is more important than that which is stereotypically female.”

    Why we must put gender onto type-of-business-started is beyond me.

    What I have experienced, meeting thousands of mom entrepreneurs through running The Founding Moms, is the morale, spirit and savvy of the women attempting to, or successfully running, their own businesses–whatever the content. It’s a boon for any woman to run her own business (and any man, for that matter) and to discourage it at all is to discourage contributions to a successful, thriving society.

    And btw, when people hear that I run The Founding Moms, they often ask, “Aw, cute–is that for mommies starting up baby businesses at their kitchen counters?” The majority of our thousands of members are lawyers, accountants, publicists, brand and marketing experts and women who are thriving running brilliant non-shopping, non-baby businesses.

  11. September 15, 2011 at 09:16 #

    Just think of the Mad Men quote… “You can’t be a man. Be a woman. It’s powerful business when done correctly.”

  12. rick
    September 15, 2011 at 11:03 #

    Hmm – Isn’t it that so many women founded startups are ONLY about those things though? I took Jolie’s point to mean that women should be founding startups not only in those areas but also in other areas, e.g big data, analytics, various enterprise services, etc.

    Let’s invert this – if men founded only gadget, sports and car related companies and women did not only fashion, kids and related companies but also were doing all of the hard core tech stuff would it be wrong for a guy to tweet something like “Guys, quit founding gadget and car startups. At least for the next few years.”?

    I don’t think the ‘female interest’ startups are of less value than the corresponding ‘male interest’ startups… but I’d like to see more women founding startups outside of those areas *too*.

  13. September 15, 2011 at 16:27 #

    Either Miss O’Dell was not thinking when she tweeted that comment or she knew exactly what she was doing, hence the reaction.

    Honestly, the comment is completely absurd on many levels. What the hell does it matter what type of startup business a woman launches? The point is she’s doing it! We need to encourage it and provide all the support and guidance they need.

    Are we really going to say that http://www.birchbox.com/ she not have been launched? I say no, it’s an absolutely brilliant idea and solves a HUGE problem in the beauty/cosmetics industry. I should know, because I worked in the industry for over a decade. Now Birchbox has sparked launching various versions of that same type of business, meaning the “box” business. So kudos for them!

    Like Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. You can call it help, support, encouragement, or whatever, we need it in any form we can get. And preferably I would like to receive that help while wearing my fluorescent pink, peep-toe pumps.

  14. September 15, 2011 at 20:34 #

    Well done. The beauty of a woman entrepreneur, ANY woman entrepreneur is that she is doing something about which she a) has passion and b) sees a place a where she can fill a need. If that is fashion, cupcakes or motorcycles – GO FOR IT. The idea that startups in what are being classified as ‘feminine-based’ interests are ‘embarrassing’, strikes me as extreme.

    I’m proud of your eloquent response. I’m equally proud of the women who are brave enough to start their own businesses – despite the naysayers. It is hard enough to gather your own gumption without having to worry about whether or not your passion is ‘good enough’ for the tech-girl next door.

  15. September 16, 2011 at 04:08 #

    I think you’re running the equation the wrong way round. It’s not “Feminine = Soft/Bad/Stupid/etc”, it’s “Feminine = Fashion/shopping/babies”.

    Doing something which perpetuates the myth that women can/should define themselves in terms of the clothes they wear, the shops they go to and the desire for children is doing women a disservice. That, I think, is the point that Jolie was making.

  16. September 16, 2011 at 06:15 #

    I’m sorry Ian, but I beg to differ. I don’t understand why women are criticized for doing something that is typically female, as opposed to men that NEVER get criticized for doing something typically male. I understand that Jolie O’Dell would like to see more creative startups being launched by women that are not focused on those areas, but it doesn’t give her the right to criticize and put us down for having launched those types of businesses.

  17. Fiona McDonald
    September 16, 2011 at 07:46 #

    I think part of the problem here is that successful female tech journalists feel that they need to deny their own femininity in order to be taken seriously in a male-dominated industry.

  18. September 16, 2011 at 08:08 #

    Missro has a point, men do not get criticized for doing accepted “male” things. Yet, I will be very honest and say I do get tired of women only thinking about going into traditionally female areas.

    It is one thing when it is your passion, it is another when you do not even think about anything outside of your gender role.

    Great dialogue.

  19. September 20, 2011 at 09:35 #

    Fiona,

    I think you hit the nail on the head! Why are fashion and babies considered light weight? Fashion is a multibillion (if not trillion..) dollar industry. Every person in the world wears clothes.

    Every single person was once a baby! People are never going to stop having babies.

    The real problem here is that these industries are not taken seriously because they are associated with the feminine!

  20. September 23, 2011 at 10:19 #

    You gals are gonna love us: http://www.kissappgames.com/portfolio

  21. LaLaLa
    September 28, 2011 at 21:45 #

    The 1980s called, they want their radical feminist crap back because they realized it doesn’t work for real women. Embarrassed? Because a woman is using her right to make the choices that are right for her in life? Please. Some of you imitation men posing as high tech workers need to get over yourselves…and face reality. You’re a woman whether you like it or not, and we’re at a point where women don’t and shouldn’t have to be anyone but herself and it’s pink and girly then so be it.

  22. September 29, 2011 at 03:50 #

    It is as silly to get embarrassed by women doing girly startups as guys doing masculine gaming startups and writing recruitment adverts looking for “hardcore developers” and the like.

  23. October 6, 2011 at 06:35 #

    It is slightly depressing as a woman to see my colleagues/peers become trapped in the stereotypes of what, apparently, represents femininity. I’m glad there’s another intellectual woman out there that is also a bit upset about this.

    You cannot define feminine or masculine in any way aside from standard or common physique and the biological processes that go along with that, anything else if a perception based value so its definition can mean many different things – to many different people.

    Yet, saying that, it’s still common place for woman not to voice their opinion because it may be insulting to someone, or to choose to benefit another person (family member especially) over themselves, but that is part of the nurture versus nature debate. Why does this happen? And is it society to blame for enforcing stereotypes? Are females really not as enthused about some topics as men? Even more significant is how someone’s upbringing shapes them early on.

    From my own (albeit, limited) discoveries I’ve witnessed young girls who are taught to not press boundaries as children, say in direct contrast with a young male sibling. How many woman are encouraged to pursue activities that are not just simply deemed appropriate for girls versus boys?

    I do not want to be apart of a global community where the statements of a woman who has a strong opinion is brushed aside because others feel it’s not “nice” enough. We’re not all sweet and dainty, some of us are honest and tough.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] This was originally posted at Tara Hunt’s blog. [...]

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