Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gender and Swag

Each year when the Grace Hopper Conference happens, there is the inevitable discussion about the swag (the freebies in registration packets) given out. I have to confess that the first year I heard that companies gave out nail polish and "girlie" things, I was totally offended, but that was before I attended Grace Hopper. After attending, my whole attitude changed. Engaging in this year's debate made me stop and think a bit more about the phenomenon.

The high order message is that if you have not been to Grace Hopper, talked with the attendees, and experienced the event, you cannot even begin to comprehend it, so commenting on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of some of the details is risky.

This year, those not in attendance found it "offensive" that some of the swag included nail polish, a sewing kit, and a whistle. What I found interesting about these three particular selections is that those discussing them felt that they were sending a message that "you should look pretty," "sewing is for girls," and "if you don't carry a whistle, you'll be raped." I found these comments fascinating, because in at least two of the cases, my reaction was totally different. A whistle? Great -- I just had to buy half-dozen of those, because my son and I use them to referee soccer. And a sewing kit? Excellent -- I always scoop those from hotels so that I can fix a button or have a safety pin when necessary. Neither of these felt "girlie" to me -- they are items used by both genders in my household. Nail polish? Not my thing, but if it were clear, it would be way high on my list of handy things around the house.

I started thinking about some of the other swag I'd gotten at Grace Hopper in the past: I still use my NetApp manicure set (it lives in my office and I've had both men and women borrow the nail clipper), NetApp lip gloss -- a bit shiny for my taste, but still useful in dry climates. Girlie? Not really. A large nail file -- don't recall who gave those out, but it got used by everyone in our house. A collection of highlighters, tape measures, small toolkits, etc -- one from NSA, one from ACM. Love them all.

But let's imagine for a moment that I did think some of these items were targeting me as a woman, how would I feel? I thought about this long and hard and I realized that it's actually a feature not a bug. The thought process goes like this.

If you are purchasing swag for Grace Hopper, you know something about your attendees -- they are women. Why not put things in the bag that you think they might like? You needn't limit yourselves only to things that have to do with technology. After all, the most common conference giveaway is a T-shirt. Last I checked, that had nothing to do with technology, it was clothing. People asked, "What message are these companies sending?" I think the message they are sending is, "We know you are women and we're happy to put our name/logo on items that might appeal to you, because we value you."

Let's contrast that with the message sent when you give me a men's T-shirt. To me it says, "Hey -- here's a piece of clothing that isn't going to fit you well, but you are such a minority that it isn't worth my time to get a woman's shirt." Yeah, it really feels that way. When we ran Sleepycat and bought polo shirts, from day one we asked people to request a size and gendered shirt. Guess what -- not a single woman ever requested a men's shirt. Not ever. Our little company of 25 could afford both the time and cost (which was 0) of ordering both men's and women's shirts, but fortune 500 companies can't?

I still recall a conversation with a company, who I will politely not name. It went something like this:

  • University relations person: Can you help us recruit women? We get so few women applying for engineering positions.
  • Me: Is that a men's polo shirt you're wearing? (Said person was female and wearing a university relations polo shirt.)
  • URP: Yes.
  • Me: What kind of message do you think that sends? I think it says that your company has so little respect for its female employees that you make them wear men's clothing as a uniform. I think that sends a message that most women don't find attractive.
  • URP: Well, there are so few of us that it would cost more to order both men's and women's shirts. [Note: I don't know about all vendors, but when I order logo wear from Land's End, they do not charge me based on the gender of the shirts, they charge me based on the total number of shirts.]
  • Me: Are you really telling me that can't afford to buy women's shirts?
  • URP: Silence.

To the best of my knowledge, said company still makes its women in University Relations wear men's polo shirts.

I can hear you, "Is this really what we should be worried about? Women can and do wear men's T-shirts all the time." Yes, we do. But why? Because historically, T-shirts were men's clothing and it took decades for manufacturers to realize that your standard men's T-shirt is about as flattering to a woman as a burlap bag. Yes, I do like baggy T-shirts to sleep in and to wear to the gym, but these are probably not the most effective locations to give visibility of the T-shirt's message to the rest of the world (I work out alone in my basement 99% of the time). But if I were getting dressed to attend a function, even if it were casual, I would not wear a baggy men's T-shirt. I might, in fact, wear a women's T-shirt.

Then I got thinking more about that nail polish. OK, I don't wear nail polish (those of you who've seen my nails will immediately understand why). But wait, I am one of those women who already feels comfortable in this field. Maybe part of being a women in CS is that you don't (or can't) like nail polish or want to wear it. Maybe, the idea here is that we need to tell women that even if you do like nail polish, this field is for you. Yes! That's the part that everyone seems to miss -- outreach is designed to help those who see our field and think it isn't for them reconsider. So when companies put their names and logos on products that appeal to the women who are not present in our community, maybe, just maybe, it should be viewed as an invitation to those women. "C'mon. We're not so bad. You really can be the person you want to be and still feel comfortable in this field."

It reminds me a lot of clothing. I frequently wear dresses and skirts (yes, you may all gasp now). This is actually a conscious decision on my part. It's not that I like dresses all that much (although I've grown fond of them over time) -- it's my little message to young women out there. It's supposed to say, "Yes, you can be a girl and an engineer! You don't have to look like and dress like the guys." Now, it's certainly OK to dress casually, but that message already comes across loud and clear. The other message does not. So, that's where I come in. I have no idea if it matters or not, but I do recall a young woman telling me that a male colleague at her first job after school told her that, "She dressed too nice." (She was a tech consultant who liked to wear skirts.) If she'd never seen me wearing a dress/skirt, would she have spoken with me about it? I don't know, but I told her that as long as she was dressed professionally, her colleague was way out of line -- looking nice and/or caring about your appearance is not a crime.

So, no, I do not find it offensive that when companies put things in a bag for women at an event for women that they select items they think might appeal to some women, who we don't frequently find in our community. Nor does it offend me that one of the most popular social events at Grace Hopper is a dance party. And guess what -- a lot of people attend. Attendees describe it as one of the best parts of the conference or one of the things they most look forward to. I'm going to guess that the typical conference attendee from the conferences I attend would have a very different reaction to a dance party.

Let's try another thought experiment. What would a typical attendee at OSDI (or your favorite systems conference) think if a company handed out skirts instead of T-shirts? I'm guessing most people would think it ridiculous. And if you think it's ridiculous, but T-shirts are OK, then you're saying it's OK to give out swag specifically designed for one gender, but not OK to give out swag specifically designed for the other. And you might rationalize it and say, "Yeah, but skirts are appropriate for so few attendees ..." And then you'd be sending the message that those very attendees don't matter.


  1. Long ago, a fashionable female colleague of mine, upon seeing me wearing a polo shirt from DAC, commented, "you still wear yours? I use mine to clean the house."

  2. Ha. Yes -- I'm still using the male-sized Tshirts to clean my floors! I get them without fail at all the CS conferences in my research area, twenty years and counting.

    But more seriously, I feel that one of the messages we give girls loud and clear in engineering is that they belong so long as they don't do anything obviously labelled as feminine -- the following things are not done by engineers: wear pink, wearing nail polish, caring about fashion, high heels, carrying a mirror in your purse, sewing things, worrying about walking in the dark.

    But its ok for engineers of both genders to do all the things previously labelled as masculine, including: wearing blue, being a fan of men's football and hockey (where grown men beat each other up), drinking beer (and getting drunk), taking a group to play lasertag or paintball (i.e. simulated war), buying big electronics for our offices (beats conserving energy), loving cars and fighter jets, wearing male-sized Tshirts and so on. Now we just relabel all of this as gender-neutral and then on average men have to do nothing at all to fit into the mold of an engineer.

    Point is, *none* of these things are about being a good engineer. And none of these things are about being logical or smart either. We've just made a habit of labelling feminine -- "Girlie"-- things as "insulting". I think that in itself is something wrong about us, and a way in which we turn away the vast majority of women and girls.

    I like that Grace Hopper makes a real effort to dispell that myth, and it worked for me by making me confront this issue. So Margo, while you wear your dresses, I plan to get outrageous nail art done on a regular basis :-). And just maybe I can take the faculty out for a manicure - which BTW is alot better for your health than drinking beer

    1. I get your point, but I feel a need to pare your list down. Big electronics, cars, and jets are surely things that engineers can appreciate, regardless of gender. You don't have to be interested in war, I get that. But if you're an engineer and don't like things with ENGINES in them, well...

  3. Can those of us with crummy nails get massages instead?

  4. You should wave your USENIX Board president wand and get USENIX to offer women's t-shirts at its conferences. It's unfortunately they haven't yet wised up to that fact as well.

    You could also even get them to offer things like baby or kids clothing as well. Many of us don't need any more t-shirts, but they do come in handy for young 'uns. And they already have us pre-specify what we want at registration time, so they can order the correct #'s of each.

  5. Actually, USENIX has been giving attendees a choice of T-shirt gender and size for years.

  6. Awesome -- I was also surprised that people were upset by the sewing kit . I am always snagging hotel ones as well, but those are in cardboard boxes and get destroyed quickly. In a nice plastic case is so useful!

  7. Great post. I think you bring up a lot of important points about perception and gender and technology. The problem is that the technology field has an identity crisis. No longer is it acceptable to be a bunch of men programming in a basement. So when wonderful conferences happen, like GHC, that encourage diversity (specifically women) in computing, what we don't want to do is turn the women who are there off.

    The resounding message about the conference swag you mentioned is that it was offending. Yes, women in computing do paint their nails. Yes, women in a big inner city do need a whistle (although I think they would be better served by calling 911). Yes, women do need to be able to fix our clothes on the fly. And yes, women do need to fix nails. THe PROBLEM with this swag is that it emphasizes the wrong part of why women are at a conference. They emphasize the woman and not the technologist.

    For instance, I got a pink USB car plug in my bag. Amazing swag. This is because it emphasizes being a woman and in love with technology - rather than just one side or the other.

    I get it. I'm a woman. Please don't pigeon hole me as a woman alone -- which is what the offensive swag did. That is what I felt like saying as I looked at that stuff.

    Last, I think *any* time when a decent section of 3,600 women are offended by the swag, no matter how a particular person thinks about it, the recruiters should go back to the drawing board.

  8. Margo, I'm with you on this. I don't mind that what gets put into the swag bag is targeted towards the female me with items that are predominantly used by women. If I don't find them useful, then I do what normally do with any swag I get from conferences - give it away, donate it or toss.

    What I do find offensive is when my gender acknowledged by giving me a pink or purple version of what the guys get: Pink cup, notebook, flashlight, hammer or USB stick. Don't even bother.

  9. This year was my first GHC (I'm a student), and I was actually pretty happy with the swag. EA Mirror? Cool. Lip balm? Just what I need. Sewing kit? Meh. Nail polish? I actually love getting my nails done. Quite a few companies still printed female-related slogans or symbols on their shirts, even if they were male sizes.

    I mean as a whole, I feel that wanting to dress girly is dependent on the female:male ratio across the company. I'v e worked at enough companies with high male:female (mostly startups with great culture) to become comfortable in embracing my style. I guess if you work at a place that is business or business casual, it's a little more difficult to do that.

    I wouldn't say I'm pure girly or pure techie - there are many males out there that aren't pure nerds either. By giving this female-themed swag, it's making women more comfortable in embracing their non-tech interests.

    So I'm surprised that people got offended by the female-themed swag. Perhaps it's different for those who have worked in the tech industry for many years.

  10. Brother, is this ever a first world problem. We got to attend a conference dedicate to celebrating women in technology (a great field that I have been in for 33 years), and we complain about the free stuff in our bags.

    I was at a session when the woman in front of me at the mike complained about this exact thing. She was wearing bright pink shoes with nail polish and hair to match. It was almost too much to take.

    I love my pink USB car plug because I can find the thing. If I did not, I could find any number of 16-year old girls who would adore it.

    We have struggled our entire lives denying the existence of reality: girls tend to like girly things. We adore the girls who do not like girly things, too. The only thing that counts in CS is competency.

    Let's work on getting girls in K-12 excited about programming to solve real problems, and when we have done that, we can start complaining about pink gifts.

  11. Margo, I agree with you. When I think back over many years of swag, all of it from technical conferences, the items with the longest lifespan in our house are all gender neutral and non-tech related. I don't need the technologist in me emphasized, particularly. The items I have used the most, and therefore, accomplished the primary task of putting the company name in my eyesight the most are: large cloth bags, first aid kits, decks of cards and games, and drawstring backpacks.

  12. Microsoft Research always gives out female t-shirts. I think VMware and some other companies also give out female t-shirts.

  13. I struggled with the swag myself. Despite being a woman who generally doesn't like "girlie" things, I appreciate things like the pink USB charger because it says, hey, we think you're technical enough to want this gadget but we're doing something to make it "special" instead of the same thing we put in every other conference bag. That said, I was surprised that there was, on the balance more girlie stuff than techie stuff (although most of the stuff was neutral).

    T-shirts on the other hand, I'm with the OP all the way! Well, almost all the way: I think (supposedly) women's polo/golf shirts are barely better than the men's ones. In fact, I'm more likely to wear a men's t-shirt than a women's polo/golf shirt. But back to t-shirts... I actually was most bothered by the companies that slapped a girlie logo on a men's shirt. The others you can chalk up to laziness and at least they had plenty of small sizes in stock (unlike at most conferences), but when you take the time to print something all girl-power-y but you put it on a men's t-shirt, that's just completely not getting it. I really liked the design of Google shirt with the skyline and conference info, but I will probably NEVER wear it, because it's a men's t-shirt. The Microsoft shirt from the same night? I've already worn it IN PUBLIC (and gotten compliments) despite the fact that I do not actually love Windows Phone. In the battle of fit vs content, fit wins every time for me.

  14. Personally, I *would* (and do) order a men's t-shirt rather than a woman's style. I simply prefer the cut of men's T's. I will probably never wear the GHC shirt I got last year (did not attend this year), as it's just cut too 'clingy' for my taste. I would have preferred a man's cut. But the point is, there should be options for ALL. :-)

  15. I'm in process of setting up an all girls computing club, and we are certainly going to be spending considerable time in designing a girlie tech pack and program which will aim to 'delight'. I have no problem with 'girlie' stuff, what I do have a problem with is the negative associations that those 'girlie' things are subject to. It seems that just about any area that comes within the feminine realm acquires this negative status which is at the very least condescending.

  16. Regarding this statement in the opening post:

    "Outreach is designed to help those who see our field and think it isn't for them reconsider."

    Indeed. And the way to accomplish is through discussion and demonstration; mentoring and peer support; eliminating misconceptions and preconceived notions; and facilitating success. It is up to us as members of our field to make STEM appeal to girls and young women. Companies can put their logos on products that appeal to women until the cows come home and it is not going to make an ounce of difference with respect to bringing more women into our field or their job applicant pool. It might, however, have the opposite effect.

    I don't know about you, but I had never heard of Lab126 prior to the Swag Bag. But now "Lab126" == "The Rape Whistle Company" in my mind, and perhaps the minds of others. I just googled and learned that Lab126 is a division of Amazon and developed the Kindle. So instead of the whistle, they could have done, say, a tiny-kindle-shaped low-capacity usb drive on which they included a gift code for a free eBook. If you are at a tech-related conference either as member of this field or someone considering the field, my guess is that you like to read, like usb drives, and like free eBooks. This sort of swag is useful, inoffensive, gender independent, and it connects their brand name with who they are and what they do. That they instead gave us whistles is a thousand different kinds of marketing fail.

    Raytheon on the other hand, I had heard of. They should have provided key chains with little satellites. Space is awesome, miniature satellites are cute, and promoting brand recognition is good business. Raytheon has nothing to do with sewing, but based on the logo on the outside it would appear that "Raytheon Diversity" seems to think people not currently in their field would find a sewing kit handy. Not a politically savvy move IMHO. (And since when do you need a mirror to sew a button onto a shirt??)

    Dropbox lip balm because... nothing complicates your life quite like chapped lips? Lip balm is not offensive, but it's also not smart (or targeted) marketing. They could have instead given out trial pro accounts. I pay for a pro account. Once you get hooked on Dropbox you will wonder how on earth you ever lived without it.

    Reuters is guilty of "shrink it and pink it" -- not to mention lack of color coordination: Who has a car interior in which hot pink matches? ;) But jokes aside:

    The minute you start trying to appeal to the stereotyped image of a group, you are bound to offend those who feel they don't fit that stereotype. Things get worse when the group is a historically underrepresented population, which is most certainly the case in our field, because you are in effect poking a sore spot and everyone starts talking about it. And when you're at a conference "everyone" is there and the negative energy starts to feed off itself. And whether you care about offending people or not, or feel people are being silly/sensitive or not, it doesn't make a difference. The end result is that the discussions detract from the very purpose and goals of the event.

    All a long way of saying, I think the swag bag contents are a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, but a lack of sufficient consideration of the implications.


    p.s. Props to Expedia for getting it right: Attractive, solid, neutral-color luggage tags provided at a conference by a company in the travel industry is brilliant. Thanks Expedia!

  17. I offered an extra shirt I received to a male colleague. It was navy blue with androgynous (yet geeky) content from a world-renowned and loved organization in tech. But, it was a ladies tailored XL. He declined the offer immediately.

  18. I think it is about giving everyone the choice of swag. For example, I am a woman but sometimes I may choose the male t-shirt, which is cut looser and will not encourage people I meet that day to stare at my chest. But if I feel assured or confident enough that they would not, I may also pick the women's t-shirt.

    This extends to other swag as well. It would be nice if organisers chose swag that they thought people might like and take with them, regardless of their gender. Yes, even at Grace Hopper, where the target audience is female.

  19. If we're thinking about swag in terms of bringing people deeper into the field research like this might be of interest:

    Betz and Sekaquaptewa found that images of conventionally feminine women in science fields actually demotivated female middle school students and decreased their perceptions of their likelihood of success in science and math. Girls appeared to see these images and, instead of thinking “Oh, I can like makeup and clothes but still do science!”, they thought, not unreasonably, “Oh, great, so I have to be smart and still meet all the demands of conventional femininity, too?” Instead of inspiring girls, the images were threatening, making them feel less likely to succeed in science and math.

    And yes, I know complaining about swag is a totally first world problem. I was totally relieved that the bags weren't pink though.

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