Fighting Gender Inequality In the Tech Industry, Underwear-Style

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Updated March 18, 2018

Was it a good idea to have women technology CEOs and coders pose in their underwear as a form of empowerment? Dear Kate, a company that sells “performance underwear for high performing women” has been dealing with this question since pics of its latest advertising campaign (2014) showing women techies in their undergarments were first released.

Some are not pleased with the campaign such as Elissa Shevinsky, CEO of the startup Glimpse Labs and author of the Business Insider article “That’s It—I’m Finished Defending Sexism in Tech.” She stated in Time Magazine that “[women] posing in [their] underwear undermines the message that [women] aim to be taken seriously as a technologist.” She added “This ad is like a parody,” and concluded. “I’m struggling to believe it’s real.” Natalie Matthews of Elle Magazine seems to disagree stating that “[t]here’s certainly no reason we should freak out over tech professionals embracing their feminine, sexual side…”

2014 Employee Gender Diversity Chart for 14 Tech Companies (Image: Fortune Magazine)
2014 Employee Gender Diversity Chart for 14 Tech Companies (Image: Fortune Magazine)

Dear Kate Founder and CEO Julie Sygiel came up with the campaign idea to help launch its Ada Collection, named after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. Sygiel sees these ads as part of its continuing efforts to promote real women, in this instance women in the tech industry.

Sygiel told Time “I think a lot of traditional lingerie photo shoots depict women as simply standing there looking sexy. They’re not always in a position of power and control” hence the ads showing the women coding in a tech/work environment. “In our photo shoots it’s important to portray women who are active and ambitious. They’re not just standing around waiting for things to happen.”

That may be true, but it doesn’t negate the fact that women have had a tough time in the technology industry, let alone reaching managerial echelons in the field. In the past few months several tech giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook finally released their employee demographics in response to grumblings regarding the tech industry’s lack of gender and racial diversity. As was expected the majority of tech employees are white and male (see side charts; other charts available at Fortune Magazine).

Combine the gender disparity with the ongoing misogyny in the field, women techies rightfully feel as if they are overlooked, underestimated and sometimes mistreated by their male counterparts in the industry.

But are these ads the right way to raise the issue of the lack of women in the tech industry?

When I first saw the ads the words ’empowerment,’ ‘awesome,’ or ‘sexist’ didn’t come to mind. I was mildly flummoxed about why these women were posing in their underwear with laptops. I was immediately reminded of commercials where I’ve seen young women talking about how they’re taking college classes online while in their pajamas. However, my bewilderment regarding the campaign turned into incredulity once I saw the other ‘Dear Kate’ images (where the women techies were still in their undies) with block quotes in which the women pontificated on the tech industry. This is where the campaign went off the unintentional deep end.

2014 Employee Gender Diversity By Leadership Team Chart for 14 Tech Companies (Image: Fortune Magazine)
2014 Employee Gender Diversity By Leadership Team Chart for 14 Tech Companies (Image: Fortune Magazine)

How can the quotes or thoughts of these women be taken seriously when juxtaposed with them in their undies? Sadly, it actually makes them seem vapid – like listening to a not-so-bright beauty queen discuss world hunger – which is exactly the opposite of the goal of the campaign. It’s as if the ads were trying to do a two-for-one-deal in showing that women should be proud of their bodies no matter what shape or size and that there are women breaking barriers in the tech industry.

But the problem regarding women techies hasn’t been about their actual bodies, in a general sense, but about the small number of women employed in the industry or in leadership positions. Also, why do women have to take off their clothes to show that they’re comfortable about their bodies as a form of empowerment? No one is expecting tech CEOs or leaders such as Apple’s Tim Wise, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Larry Page, Twitter’s Dick Costolo or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to drop down to their skivvies to show the tech industry that they are a force to be acknowledged and reckoned with.

Nevertheless, Matthew has a problem with the need or requirement that women should remove their sexuality from their professional lives. She says that the “idea that if women want to eliminate gender biases in STEM fields, they must first separate their sexual selves from their “serious,” professional ones” is a “double standard” that she views as “backward.”

Adda Birner, Founder of Skillcrush, and one of the women featured in the Dear Kate campaign, said to Time “I speak to a lot of women who ask, ‘Is it possible to be a woman in technology and be happy and like your work and not be sexually harassed every day?’ And showing more images of the women who are working in tech and love it and are kicking ass and taking names is a really good thing.”

Maybe we’re over-thinking Dear Kate’s ‘Women In Tech’ Ada Collection campaign in that it’s not about empowerment, sexism or exploitation. Maybe it’s just about showing women who happen to work in technology, looking comfortable in their underwear while working.

Sygiel seems to think so, stating to Elle “I believe women should be taken seriously regardless of what we are wearing, and this should hold true for all professions.”

What Matthews, Birnir and Sygiel have said sounds nice, but the fact that we’re still primarily discussing seeing these women in their undergarments, and not their professional accomplishments in the tech industry is telling. It’s just another example that women still have a ways to go when it comes to optics not being the determining factor in how they are viewed by men and women, no matter Dear Kate’s female empowerment intentions. Then again, the company is in the business of selling underwear so they may have accomplished their goal, if not anyone else’s, involved in this campaign.


What do you think about the Dear Kate underwear campaign? Below is a one-question survey to voice your opinion.


Hashtag Hesitation: How some at American University are wary, while others embrace social media in the classroom

College students attend lecture with their laptops (Photo/Tulane University)

Note: Article was originally posted April 2, 2011 on American University’s graduate news site,

American University is hosting a three-day Social Learning Summit this weekend to promote new media and its use in academic institutions.

The event aims to bring together students, educators, researchers and professionals to learn and exchange information on a “broad swath of topics at the intersection of social media, technology, and education,” according to the event website.

The use of social media by AU students may have increased rapidly in recent years, but its use in academic programs has been slower to develop, according to AU senior and SLS coordinator Alex Priest. This weekend’s gathering aims to change that.

Alex Priest, BSBA, AU 2011 is president of the American University Social Media Club (Photo/Jeff Watts, Social Media Club)


Facebook has taken over as the “social network of choice.” While other outlets such as Twitter have become popular as a social media and networking tool, Pew states that just 8 percent of online teens say they ever use the micro-blogging tool.

According to Priest,  the “advent of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and other mobile apps” is as significant as previous technological milestones such as the “impact of email and the telephone.”   Despite this, he says, many on campus may be “less receptive” to social media in the classroom.

Priest said that the term “social media” is awkward and is sometimes misunderstood. “Any form of communication, any medium that allows for two-way communication… to allow you to interact with each other” is social media, he says. He believes that maybe if people looked at social media in terms of an “engagement” that it will help them to understand it better.

Professors and social media

AU Professor Scott Talan, another AUSMC faculty adviser, said that students “don’t know what they don’t know” about social media. Though younger users may have grown up using social media, such familiarity may not translate to fully exploiting its capabilities. While Facebook has become wildly popular, Talan said, if technology is not intuitive, people — even young people — won’t use it.

Scott Talan, Assistant Professor, School of Communication, American University (Photo/American University)

Talkin’ bout my generation

Talan said some professors still see social media as another way to fracture student’s attention spans. However, he does not see this as a valid argument against using social media in the classroom.

“Students are distracted by daydreaming. There will always be distractions,” he said. But, he also sees SLS as a “big opportunity for [professors] to learn and use social media” in order to understand it better.

Talan added that most staff on campus are “digital immigrants” in that they “haven’t grown up with this stuff.” He said that faculty are the “last generation” in that will be part “analog” and part “digital.”

“Different generations have a different comfort zone with technology,” said John Hussey,
He says some faculty are uncomfortable with social media because of the “barriers of technology” and the “stigma” that may be associated with it. He said that faculty still see Facebook as a place for “posting baby pictures” and Twitteras a tool for letting people know “what they had for lunch.”

John Hussey, Web Communications Manager, American University (Photo/American University)

There isn’t an official AU push for faculty to become more adept with social media tools, according to Hussey. However, he said that there are more that 70 AU offices on Twitter and approximately 40 professors have Twitter accounts.

Hussey said there is no need for a “PR campaign” in order to “pitch” professors on social media. “The adoption of social media has happened all over campus,” said Hussey. “The professors will have to get on board.”

To help ease faculty’s comfort with social media tools, Hussey’s office has held unofficial group meetings durign the past year to answer technology questions from professors and staff. He plans to officially schedule monthly meetings as a place to help faculty feel more at ease with using social media.

“They need to get past the technology to understand what it offers,” said Hussey.

Social media in the classroom

Though some students and faculty may not have fully embraced social media, a few AU professors have incorporated it into their classrooms.

During Fall 2009’s ‘snowpocalypse’ AU Professor Rhonda Zaharna used Facebook to hold class during a snowday when campus was closed. “It was the first time that I ever used Facebook that way,” she said.

Rhonda Zaharna, Assistant Professor, School of Communications, American University (Photo/American University)

Discussion questions were posted and answered via the social network during the scheduled classroom time. Since then Zaharna has used Facebook along with YouTube to “generate discussions” about assigned readings in her class.

Though Zaharna has been using Facebook she hasn’t discussed her usage of social media with other faculty members. “I’m still too new to it to be advising anyone” on how to use it in the classroom, she said.

Lauren Feldman, assistant professor in the School of Communications, said Facebook is easier to use as an interaction tool with students — such as to extend classroom discussions — because they are on it several times a day anyways.  “Getting students to use Blackboard . . .  was more of a challenge” because students didn’t use it consistently.

Feldman said that the fear some professors have that social media will take the place of actual teaching is due to the educators not “having quite figured out how [they] should embrace social media.”  However, she said that it’s important that faculty “understand that students’ approach to learning is diverse” and that they have to “go where the fish are” to get through to them.

Though Feldman has embraced social media, she said that it would not replace other forms of learning, but will merely be supplemental. “Tweets will not replace papers and blog posts are not going to replace reading,” she said.

Social media redefining the classroom

The social media landscape is constantly changing, making it hard to keep up or determine what will be the next big thing.

Social media beyond the Web will be the next big change, according to Talan. Faculty and students will eventually be using social media tools such as e-textbooks, iPads and smartphones in the classroom.

But real change depends on users adopting new technology. The “real challenge,” says Priest is getting people to have an “open mind.”