Defying Expectations: Real Women Do

Full disclosure: I’m a member of Phi Sigma Rho, a national sorority for women in engineering and engineering technology, so this is a topic that’s always been near and dear the my heart. The subtitle to this blog post is the motto of one of my sorority’s chapters. ‘Sup, UCLA!

So, in my first post, I alluded a bit to the motivation behind this blog. Namely, that in the past few weeks, it seems like women in STEM fields and industries have been receiving more (negative) attention than usual. Part of this is the direct result of certain current events, like Sheryl Sandberg’s publication of her book Lean In and Adria Richards’ firing from SendGrid. Part of that is the result of listicles about hot or sexy women in science and tech that judge women solely on the basis of their looks rather than their accomplishments.

Let’s spend a couple minutes talking about the latter. And to start the conversation, I’ll introduce yet another topic near and dear to my heart – jeans. Specifically, Levi’s.

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I love jeans. I really, really do. I live in jeans – every day of every season. Since I’m in California, land of the ever temperate seasons, jeans are almost always weather appropriate. And since I work in a very casual lab where I want long pants that’ll cover up my bare flesh from the dangers of chemical spills, jeans are my daily workday uniform, too.

So I was SO EXCITED when Levi’s launched their Commuter line a few years ago. SO FRAKKIN’ EXCITED, GUYS. I don’t cycle to commute to work, because I work rather far, but I do ride my bike around town occasionally, and I’m always on the look out for pants that’ll enable me to do that without blowing out at the crotch. Seriously – when my jeans die, it’s because of crotch holes. Always crotch holes.

This is a pair of jeans made specifically for the bicycle commuter. It’s water resistant, microbial resistant, blowout resistant! It has a higher back rise so my underwear doesn’t show while I’m leaned over my handlebars! It has a special loop in the back to hold a U-lock! It has reflective tape sewn into the hem for night riding! These are exactly the pants I’ve been looking for!

But … the Commuter line is exclusive to men. And because of the waist/hip ratio difference between a men’s cut and a women’s cut, I’ve never been able to make this work for me. And trust me, I’ve tried.

Here’s what Levi’s was marketing to women at that time instead:

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Notice a wee bit of difference here?

This is an advertisement for Levi’s Curve ID line for women. Which I’m told is pretty awesome, but that I’m just a tad too bitter to try for myself. The concept behind this line is that women are shaped differently, and thus need different jean types to cover their differently shaped derrieres.

Which is a great thing to recognize – women do indeed have differently shaped bodies, and it’s always a treat when a manufacturer recognizes this. But when comparing the Commuter line to the Curve ID line, we notice some differences.

  • Though I’ve chosen to contrast two advertisements featuring images of human butts, the women’s butts are sexualized. They are hot butts. Their function is not to ride a bike, but to be hot.
  • The men’s advertisement is about a functional pair of jeans, with functions that will make riding a bike easier. The women’s advertisement is about a decorative pair of jeans, with functions that will make butts more aesthetically pleasing.
  • The men’s jeans make it easier to ride a bike. The women’s jeans make it easier to … be hot. The male advertisement appeals to an active function while the women’s appeals to a passive one.

Do women ride bikes? Yes. Do men come in multiple shapes? Yes. Then why is Levi’s marketing the Commuter line only to men and the Curve ID only to women? Why not a unisex Commuter line, or advertising campaign targeted towards skinny as well as muscular guys?

Because tradition dictates that men are defined by what they do while women are defined by how they look.

Okay. Let’s end that tangent there and bring it back to the listicles that partially inspired this blog.

Last week, the minor internet debacle of the week in tech news revolved around the poorly thought out publication of ComplexTech’s list of The 40 Hottest Women in Tech. Subtitle: our digital beauties.

Included? The sexy host of Maxim Magazine’s Sirius radio show, in a micro schoolgirl outfit.

Excluded? Ory Okolloh, who founded the government watchdog site Mzalendo to watch over corrupt legislatures around the world. Video game designer and co-founder of Sierra Entertainment Roberta Williams.

But they were added back in after the backlash started, so no hard feelings, right?

These are women who have accomplished things. Women who have done incredible things. But in this slideshow, they’re reduced being judged their looks alone, because as women, that is what is most important about them. You don’t just see this in tech – the same appearance based insults fly at powerful women everywhere, from Hilary Clinton to Oprah to Beyoncé. Somehow, what they do is less important than how they look.

“The women we feature in the magazine are ornamental. I could lie to you if you want and say we are interested in their brains as well. We are not. They are objectified … We provide pictures of girls in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars. It is ornamental.”

– Esquire U.K. editor Alex Bilmes

That’s another quote from last week. (What a week, right? No wonder I started this blog to rant about it.) But it cuts to the heart of it.

Why do women in STEM have an inherently more difficult time than men in STEM or women in different fields? Because not only do we subvert the tradition of women as decorations, but we do it by accomplishing things in traditionally male dominated disciplines. When a woman succeeds in a STEM discipline, or even exists in a STEM industry, she defies the cultural expectation that these jobs be left to men, or that she remain a decoration rather than a person of accomplishment.

STEM women do. Simply by being, we defy expectation and tradition. But by doing, we push the world forward.

For more on the topic of the conflicting messages aimed at young girls in STEM disciplines especially, read this excellent guest post by Rim at Scientopia.

For more on why it’s not actually all that flattering to be included on a hot scientist list, read this Jezebel post discussing BusinessInsider’s coed rebuttal to ComplexTech.

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