My Opinion

Does feminism have a place in the web design world?

Men With PensLast Monday a groundbreaking essay was published on Copyblogger with the somewhat puzzling title Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants. In it blogger, writer and owner of the famed design firm MenWithPens James Chartrand outed himself as a woman in a man’s name. This linguistic sex change itself was far from revolutionary. After all cross gender pseudonyms are hardly anything new in the writing world and on the internet with it’s relative anonymity, it is hard if not impossible to know if the person you are presented with is the person behind the screen at the best of times. What made this article so important (and so incindiary) was the reasons for this seemingly insignifficant charade and what it led to: By writing under a man’s name, James discovered that not only was her copy more accepted by her peers but she was paid almost double for the same ammount of work. Which leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: Sexism and gender bias has found new fertile grounds in the otherwise modern and forward thinking web.

A woman’s work is never done

I grew up in Norway, a country where women are constitutionally treated as equals, where stay-at-home moms are often frowned upon and where International Women’s Day on March 8th is celebrated by parades of women carrying huge red flags. And yet even in my home country women are frenquently short changed both in terms of pay, promotions and hirings, not to mention the stil prevalent problem of sexual harrassment and deliberate alienation. True, the situation for women in the work force today is vastely different from the one of women only 20 years ago. But to claim that women are now equal to men, that gender no longer plays a part in the hiring process, project appointments and salary negotiations, makes you the proverbial ostrich sticking its head in the sand. We may be converging on equality somewhere down the road, but we are far from there.

The problem now faced by women in the workplace (and everywhere else for that matter) is that whereas in the past the bias and discrimination was blatant, explicit and counscious (watch just one episode of Mad Men and you’ll get the idea) the sexists of today are for the most part not even aware of what they are doing. Asked up front why a manager chose to send Jack on assignment rather than Jill he may answer “it’s because Jill has a family to take care of” thinking this is a perfectly reasonable explanation. It’s not: it is supressed gender bias. “But it’s true!” you might say. Is it? What if I said that both Jack and Jill are married with two kids. The argument would still be put forward and would still be just as sexist. Our society is rife with inbred assumptions about gender roles such as the established fact that women are responsible for their children. But this is not a fundamental truth, it’s a social invention. Why can’t Jill’s husband take care of her kids while she’s away on business like Jack’s wife is expected to do? This is but one very basic example of how sexism has gone under ground.

We all make assumptions, most of them wrong…

What James experienced while writing under her own name was a version of the hidden sexism I just described, one that is present on the web as well as in real life. Due to perscribed gender roles taught to us by everyone from our peers to our parents to popular culture we have a built in tendency to make assumptions, purely based on gender, about how well people are able to do things. And while women are often thought to be more creatively inclined – more artistic if you will – the skill set necessary to do more technical tasks, be it a car mechanic, a program developer or a person dealing in the ruthless world of commercial blogging, tends to be attributed mostly to men. And for this reason we tend to trust men more than women when it comes to searching out information in these fields. Just think about it: Make a list of all the blogging, web design and technical writers you know and read and you’ll find a major male dominance. And I bet you’ll also find that more often than not the women writers are more focused on design and aesthetics. But this isn’t necessarily their choice: My theory has long been that there are scores of female writers out there who in spite of their skill can’t get a foot through the door because of this gender bias. And with James revelation my assumptions have, at least for one writer, been confirmed. Now I’m left to wonder how many other women in men’s names there are out there.

Feminism and the art of shooting yourself in the foot

In the days following Chartrand’s revelation the debate has been raging on the web. But not over what you think. The most inflammatory debates have been over whether James really is a feminist or if she betrayed her sex by taking on the role of a man. And this latter stance, professed loudly and often obnoxiously with vile accusations of gender abandonment, is the one taken by militant feminists. In fact this type of reasoning is one of the staples of feminism and is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons feminism, and with it equal rights for women, is not gaining ground as rapidly as it should. To put it plainly I believe feminism has become a dogmatic belief system rather than a fight for equal rights. And I think that’s why a lot of women who want to call themselves feminists also hate feminism.

male not equal to femaleWhereas feminists of the past were fighting for the right to be treated as men’s equals, modern feminists have a tendency of veering towards the extreme view that apart for a few minor anatomical differences men and women are exactly the same. “Gender is a societal invention” they say “and the ideal world is a society witout gender”. (To me that just sounds like Maoist China and I seriously would not want to live there). And from this dogmatic and quite bizarre stance follow some logical but irrational conclusions, from which the criticism of James is based:

If men and women by nature are exactly the same and gender is a societal invention (created by men to suppress women), women who operate within the confines of these societal inventions are in fact enforcing them and thereby hindering the progress of women’s rights and equality.

In other words, the only way the ideal equal society feminists want to achieve will ever come into existance is if women start behaving as genderless entities and men realize they are wrong, shed their evil sexist ways and conform to their new roles as equals.

Which is completely rediculous.

This attitude is doomed from the start. Not only does it have a premise that is ludicrous – that there is no qualitative difference between men and women – but the strategy that it derrives is horribly counter productive: Rather than showing men that women are their equals, this strategy portrays women as weird and disconnected angry people with a chip on their shoulder the size of a small planet.

James got it right – and that makes people angry

Let me turn this on its head for one minute and consider the plight of women as a product with men as it’s primary demographic. How do you sell a product? By making the target demographic feel like they need it. And how do you make them feel like they need it? By making them identify with the characters in the commercials and posters – the ideal customer.

Following this simple principle, the best way of marketing gender equality is to make the target demographic, the oppressive man, identify with the product, the oppressed woman and thereby understand his mistakes by seeing himself from the other side of the glass ceiling. But this is a pretty tall order: You can’t start underpaying all men or subject them to systematic demotions to favour female employees. A version of this strategy, affermative action, has been used extensively throughout the world to even the playing field. But although it has been effective in balancing the workforce numbers where gender, ethnicity and other visual minorities are concerned, it has also caused an unintended negative bias that now colours all these groups: Many people not included in these groups now believe that the groups of people that need affermative action to get ahead are in fact inferior by design and therefore not worthy of their jobs.

What James did was, allbeit inadvertantly, approach the issue in a more indirect way wedging herself into the “good old boys club” to prove her worth. I can’t help but think of her as a covert infiltrator trying to bust up an organization of biggots but that would do her a disservice and paint her peers in an unneccesarily bad light. She just did what she had to to get ahead, and in doing so she proved a point in a way few others could: As a woman she was ignored and underpaid, but as soon as people saw her as a man she was treated as one of the best, because she is. In other words gender trumped quality! But rather than just sit on this astounding and disturbing fact she chose to go public with it. And by doing so she forced her male peers as well as her many thousands of readers to come to an uncomfortable conclusion: Gender really does matter. Way more than it should. Because who amongst us can say that the revelation that James wears women’s panties didn’t immediately change our understanding of her as a person as well as her writing?

In one short essay James succeeded where feminists have failed for decades: She made men identify with her and realize that they are undercutting their female counterparts for reasons that have nothing to do with talent or productivity and everything to do with gender bias and downright sexism. It’s a bitter pill to swallow but one that we can no longer leave on the side of our plate. Now the publishers, editors and readers of the world are faced with a some painful questions: How many of the male writers I read every day are actually females writing under male pseudonyms to be taken seriously? And why  does the gender specification provided in a name alone change my understanding and acceptance of a piece of work so entirely? After all to borrow some words from Shakespeare, what’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Why not so also with the fruits of our creative minds?

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.

5 replies on “Does feminism have a place in the web design world?”

If women are so superior to men, why do women leave it up to men to determine their wages? They should be determining men’s wages. Quit whining and grow a penis.

First off, when did anyone say women are superior to men? The argument has always been that women are equal to men. I’m not going to pretend you don’t already know the answer to your own question but I’m going to answer anyway: The majority of managerial and executive positions are held by men because men tend to promote other men. It’s a vicious cycle upheld in large part by men who for one reason or another don’t want women to succeed. If you don’t understand this simple correlation you can count yourself among these people. Which is not something you should be proud of.

Your reply misses the whole point. If women are equal to men they should have just as many managerial or executive positions as men. Actually, considering women outnumber men, they should hold more executive positions. In response to your absurd premise that men don’t won’t women to succeed – if equal, women should succeed in spite of what men want.

In all honesty, I was only making an attempt to be funny with my preceding post. I actually laughed out loud thinking about it as I drove home from the office that day. I do believe men and women were created equally, and God doesn’t favor one over the other. However, God also made us different and assigned us different roles. That doesn’t mean women can’t own businesses or run corporations (or even the country for that matter — Palin in 2012!!) but it does explain why they are typically in a more subservient role in the home, church, business, government, and throughout the world in general. It is God’s intended order.

I love feminism, but I have a issue when feminism goes from being an issue of women being equal to men, to being superior to men. That’s not what is at the heart of gender issues; I feel many second wave feminists become hypocrites themselves.

@Paula Minnings

I totally agree with you – feminism is about create equal opportunities and reducing gender subordination. It is NOT about making women greater than their male counterparts.

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