Technology is a male dominated field - that is, unless you consider fashion-tech. Why do so many female founders fall under this category and how can we move beyond this label?
By Madison Maxey (Founder, CRATED)
When I was a student in the fashion department at Parsons in the fall of 2011, the air was full of self-important chatter about Project Runway's effect on OUR fashion industry:
"They make it seem like fully-lined garments can be created in mere hours."
"These girls don't know who Karl Lagerfeld is, but think that they’re ready to become fashion designers because they’ve watched a few episodes."
These bold and accusatory statements, pouring forth along with cigarette smoke from the mouths of skinny-jeaned teenagers, came from a place of fear. There are strikingly few positions for head fashion designers, but the number of fashion design majors in American colleges was growing with mounting speed thanks to the increasing popularity of reality TV fashion.
Now, just a few years later, I’m attending SXSW Interactive and the conversations around me are on the other end of the spectrum. Filled with excitement and enthusiasm for the future, CS students gush about the frivolity of grocery shopping now that they have three meals a day and unending booze provided by indulgent summer internship supervisors. They know that in sharp contrast to the fashion industry, no matter how trendy tech might become, the number of open positions is only growing.
The remarkable difference between students in these two industries (aside from amount of swag and the tightness of the jeans) isn't family income level, raw intelligence or race. Instead, it's the gender ratio. Anyone who enters the industry can’t help but notice that fashion is dominated by females and tech is dominated by males. This bias is so extreme that powerful and brilliant women founders who seek out the opportunities in the tech field often find themselves labeled as “fashion-tech” founders in spite of their extensive involvement in the web startup world at large.
A woman in “fashion-tech” makes sense to people. She may have coded, marketed, and raised capital for her e-commerce brand, but she’s much more palatable as a technology oriented fashion designer than as a high powered tech CEO. The phrase “fashion-tech” brings to mind a cute designer with a pair of glasses perched on her nose and a MacBook in her hand. She’s smart, but still fashionable, good looking and "feminine" enough not to cross any lines. She’s not too intimidating, not too aggressive -not serious competition. Unfortunately, this stereotype is not only imposed from the outside. Women often rely on the readymade image of the high-tech fashion maven to help define themselves in the tech industry.
Women continue to turn to the “fashion-tech” identity because we depend on established norms to shape our social space. Even our role models are defined by outdated gender conventions. That talented female programmer who wears great prints is a "style icon" instead of a tech goddess. When women hear “entrepreneur”, “CEO”, “tech founder,” they still can’t picture themselves unless there’s a helpful “fashion-” prefix to show them it’s ok.
While leafing through Teen Vogue Magazine recently, I was struck by one blurb which stood out from the glossy pages of vague fashion advice. An interviewer who was talking to Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield insisted that Emma talk about her hair color. Emma noted that “people do always ask that. They ask who is my style icon...” Andrew Garfield mentions that he’s never been asked questions like that and there is a strange moment of too-real-for-Teen-Vogue-reality when Emma, Andrew, and the interviewer all conclude, “It's sexism.” Women in tech are far from alone when it comes to the “fashionization” of their professional identities. The same can be said for women actors, athletes, and politicians.
As women founders, we can break these boundaries by embracing our high-tech expertise. While we’re used to questions like "What shoes will make your outfit look the prettiest and make your friends jealous?” Replacing “shoes” and “outfit” with “theme” and “terminal” just doesn’t gel. This is because the tech field is renowned for the value it places on intelligence and logical innovation. And yet, women do not feel comfortable in such an environment without the comfortable and “girly” label of “fashion” attached to their title. In today’s world, when a woman launches into an excited description of her data analysis software project, people are surprised and uncomfortable. It is our job as intelligent, female tech founders to give those people, as well as women just becoming interested in technology, something new to expect.
As someone who truly loves both fashion and technology as separate and wonderful industries, but is often only considered being associated with one of them (and I think you can guess which one), I consider it my responsibility to communicate what I do to as many people as possible. I’m not going to pretend my interests are all about looking good, because they’re not. I’m just as passionate about learning Rails as I am about bespoke garment construction techniques and the more often I explain that to people, the less surprising it will become. As Emma Stone regrettably pointed out, we women are not going to be asked the hard hitting questions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give people the answers they need to hear anyway.
So the next time someone asks you what you do, make it clear that sports data analysis for long distance runners is your passion, love and life. Don’t try to squeeze your projects into the tiny box of “fashion-tech” when they are so much bigger. Whether you’re starting something in fashion and technology or fly fishing, express it confidently and concretely so people understand what you're doing and why you'll be incredible at it. If people don't know what to think, be ready to fill them in. Stand up and sell yourself. You deserve it.
Women in tech: have you had your professional identity "fashionized"?
About the guest blogger: Madison Maxey is a creative spirit with a passion for technology. As a Thiel fellow for the the class of 2013, her mission is to improve garment manufacturing and provide insightful, technology influenced information for startup designers in the fashion industry. Get involved with her newest project, CRATED, on twitter @thecrated.