Late last month, in the midst of several recent and prominent examples in the steady stream of stories about the challenges that women in the tech industry face, Complex.com published its list of “The 40 Hottest Women In Tech.” Tone deaf move, fellas! People were understandably upset. Maybe if it had been published a month or two earlier or later, a big website that caters explicitly to the libidos of straight dudes tossing up a list that ranks accomplished women on a scale of “hotness” would have just been another eye-rolling example of the sort of overt-yet-casual sexism that women in the industry (and many others) have to deal with on a regular basis. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. The author of the piece, Luke Winkie, went to The Daily Beast to explain why he’d taken the assignment and how, after his editors got their hands on it, it didn’t turn out the way that he’d planned.
Luke is my friend, and I know the position he was in: Dude is a young freelancer who got offered almost a month’s rent to write something that he knew was kind of shitty. He thought that he could make that shitty thing a little bit better (he wrote at the Beast that he “got the idea that maybe we could make a list called ‘The Hottest Women In Tech’ sound as earnest and empowering and good-hearted as it could possible be”), and then it didn’t work out. I’m not here to defend the guy – he can do that himself – but I can relate, because I had been in similar positions in the past. When you’re a straight, white, cisgender dude who benefits materially from living and working in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic society, it’s easy to overestimate the amount of power you have.
Being a dude in a sexist society can make you feel really powerful. It’s like riding a bike down a very gradual hill: you’re pedaling, so you know you’re working, and you’re humming right along, so you are pretty sure that you’re awesome at bike-riding. You maybe don’t even notice that you’re riding on a shallow decline if you’ve been doing it for a long time, because that’s just what riding a bike is like, for you. Then, if you have a reason to turn around and start riding up the hill, you learn that the reason it’s been easy isn’t just your great cycling skills.
It’s easy to believe that you can fight sexist systems even while you’re part of a sexist framework, if you’re a guy, because you’ve probably been able to accomplish a lot within sexist frameworks. But those systems are bigger and more powerful than you.
I’ve written stories like “Five All-Girl Heavy Metal Cover Bands We Love!” I’ve convinced myself that I could just big-up the ladies for rocking hard, and still take that paycheck. But that’s not how it works. It’s a lesson that everybody who is in a position of privilege who is given a platform needs to take to heart: You can’t change these systems from within. You can’t challenge sexist norms from inside the belly of the “10 hottest women in [whatever]” beast. And when you think that you can, it’s just your privilege talking.
If you’re a dude who wants to do the right thing, then you can’t play the sexist game. That’s true for young journalists taking jobs like the Complex.com list. It’s true for dudes who think that they can totally pull off a sexist joke, because of how not-sexist everyone can see they really are, and they’re really making fun of people who make those jokes in earnest. [Jessica's Note: I believe these are called "hipster sexists"!] It’s true of guys who opt to sign on to participate in panels or other professional activities that, coincidentally, consist exclusively of other straight white dudes like themselves. Even if you enter into these situations with good intentions, and even if you’ve been convinced by a lifetime of privilege that you can get the benefits of the sexist set-up –—whether that’s a paycheck or some prestige or the laughs of the people who didn’t get the joke — without being part of the problem. The fact is, a lot of your power comes from sexism. You can’t use sexism to beat sexism.
Ultimately, the lesson that guys in this situation need to learn is that when it comes to reinforcing sexist tropes and playing the sexist game, the only way to win is not to play. An editor at Complex.com who wants a list of the “40 Hottest Women In Tech” knows what he’s paying for,and anything you turn in that doesn’t fit that bill is going to get smoothed out. The sexist machines are fueled by the participation of guys who enter into them with good intentions the same way they’re fueled by the participation of guys who think that women should be flattered to be ranked according to their hotness.
Ultimately, the only way to really challenge those systems is to starve them. That’s a lesson that I’m pretty sure my friend Luke learned last month, and that I wish someone had told me when I was starting out. Sexist systems don’t care about your intentions. If you want to make a difference, you have to challenge those systems directly. You can’t change them from within.
Read more from Dan Solomon on DanSolomon.com.