What the Criticism of Lingerie-Clad Women in Tech Got Wrong

Dear Kate’s latest ad campaign features six incredible women who work in tech. Please allow me to introduce:

  • Science and technology journalist Arikia Millikan, former editor of Wired and founder of LadyBits on Medium, a women-centric collection of musings on how technology is shaping the future of our civilization
  • Freelance social media consultant Sarah Conley, the founder of Style IT, a kickass plus-size fashion, beauty, and technology website
  • Web developer and writer Patty Delgado, the web engineering team leader at Autostraddle-favorite Refinery29, “the cornerstone of fashion, beauty, and shopping for a new generation”
  • Information security analyst Quiessence Phillips, who is AVP of Information Security Incident Response at Barclays, creator of Girltechie Campaign, and Curriculum Development Lead for Black Girls Code NY
  • “Developer Evangelist “ Rebecca Garcia, creator of Geek Girl Web, co-founder of CoderDojo NYC and 2013 White House Champion of Change for ‘Tech Inclusion’ honoree
  • Front-end developer Adda Birnir, the CEO co-founder of Skillcrush, an interactive, community-driven platform to increase digital literacy and achieve goals with technology

Impressive group, right? They’re super smart, ambitious and accomplished. Oh, also: this campaign has them all in their underwear.

Women in tech pushing boundaries! Cue the backlash. Image via Dear Kate.

Women in tech pushing boundaries! Cue the backlash. Image via Dear Kate.

Dear Kate is a lingerie company specializing in underwear with a built-in breathable lining that protects like a pantiliner. They’ve made waves in the past with their refreshingly diverse models, showcasing women who do things beyond looking sexy. Since last November, Dear Kate has been featuring collections named after inspirational women — in this case, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. Previous lookbooks have included lines named after Vera Scarth-Johnson (a prestigious botanist and botanical illustrator), Ella Fitzgerald (“queen of jazz”), and Rosa Mayreder (author, painter, musician and feminist).

Although the campaign received some criticism — “Posing in your underwear undermines the message that you aim to be taken seriously as a technologist,” Elissa Shevinsky, CEO of Glimpse Labs, notably told Time — I personally loved it. (And not just because these women look fabulous. Although there’s that, too.)

Ada Lovelace

Image via Dear Kate.

As a woman engineer, I’m very familiar with the narrow set of parameters for “acceptable” dress and behavior among women and female-assigned people in STEM. We’re supposed to look polished — but not too polished, or we’re read as prissy girls who don’t want to get our hands dirty in the lab. We’re supposed to be attractive — but not too attractive, or we’re viewed as a distraction and face liability in the field. We’re supposed to be feminine and smile a lot — but not too much, or our numerous male coworkers assume we’re pushovers. Gendered double standards aren’t exclusive to STEM, but for women who work in those fields, they’re an unavoidable reality.

Specifically in tech, we’ve seen a spate of sexist horror stories come to light recently. From Titstare to #GamerGate, the past year alone has brought numerous high profile examples of women in tech being marginalized, objectified, and generally treated poorly. So it’s not surprising that there would be heightened sensitivity and concern when a group of female tech leaders are shown in their underwear. That’s a good thing! But hold your horses, unicorns, and angry pack of wolverines — there’s more to this campaign than you may first assume.

Image via Dear Kate

Image via Dear Kate.

In an interview with Autostraddle, chemical engineer and Dear Kate founder Julie Sygiel explained:

“The majority of the responses that we received in response to the Ada campaign were positive so I think overall it was a campaign that resonated with women in technology. The criticism mainly came from women who felt it was inappropriate for women in tech to be photographed in underwear given the fact that there are still issues with sexism in tech. Many failed to look at our previous campaigns and jumped to the conclusion that we featured women in tech as a publicity stunt, when in reality, we have always featured women we admire because of who they are and what they do, not only how they look. Taken out of context it rubbed a few people the wrong way.”

Agreed; the context is everything. Women in STEM are so often shoved into boxes and told that our number one concern should be strategizing to make sure we’re put in the “right” box. This campaign subverts that, choosing instead to show women as the complex, multidimensional beings we really are. Certainly not all lingerie ads are empowering to women, but this one — which works to break down restrictive definitions of “acceptability” for women in career choice and body type — reads to me as a clear act of feminism.

“It’s been a long process undoing the brainwashing that the media imposes on little girls to make them think they can’t be beautiful unless they tread down the capitalistic rabbit hole of endless artificial enhancements,” Arikia Millikan wrote in a post on her blog titled “Why I Decided To Pose For A Lingerie Photo Shoot.” Although she initially wasn’t sure she wanted to participate, she realized, “Anyone who would sexualize me, objectify me, or treat me differently in the professional world would do so regardless of what I wore, and those who respect me would continue to. Why would I sacrifice the opportunity to be professionally photographed in what I feel is the best shape of my life? I’ve never kept myself from doing anything out of fear, especially when that fear is the burden of women alone.”

Image via Dear Kate.

Image via Dear Kate.

In coming months, Sygiel said, they’ll be working on a collaboration with the League of Ladies. “We’re excited to continue showcasing incredible women and show the world that intelligence is unrelated to clothing.”

For more, check out the #notcontroversial hashtag showing support for the campaign, and DearKates.com.

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 211 articles for us.

11 Comments

    • well that sounds good but I’m honestly confused; were feminine women feeling really limited about their opportunities to put pics of themselves in their underwear on the internet before this campaign? not trolling, just don’t get it.

  1. I had a strong reaction to this campaign that I’m still sorting. I am in STEM. I didn’t like the sexualization of tech women in this way, “see just because we’re smart doesn’t mean we’re not pretty enough to give you a boner.” Sorry to be crude but I think the ad message is crude. I’m glad that the campaign is undermining the stereotype that women can either be smart *or* attractive, but that can (and is) being effectively done by women in tech every day, with their clothes on.

    Why can’t they just show a picture of a fully-clothed role model with a caption about who she is and why she likes the product, and then show a picture of the product on a plastic form or something? Also, why are there only feminine role models, and feminine styles in this product line. That does not reflect the world I know, esp the world of females in STEM, that include many masculine women.

    Changing the way that underwear is typically advertised would be a welcome innovation that I would be much more stoked about. It’s ok if some lady wants to flaunt her feminine sexitude, but having that as a universal default for all women and products for women, i’m so over it.

    Would men in tech pose in their undies to market a product line in this way? It seems so unnecessary, for men or women. Why should people in tech have their own line of underwear? It doesn’t make sense to me, though I didn’t read their product lit links. If the company’s business strategy is built around celebrating technology, why not feature the technology used to research / design / manufacture their products, or advertise how they support women designers with philanthropy or mentorship.

    If they made those changes i would totally buy some sweet technological boxer-briefs from them.

    • I agree.
      What is the point of being in lingerie yet talking about STEM?

      It appears to me to be trying to make a point that women everywhere, who are successful can be sexy (anyone realises that)and are especially sexy in underwear. But they can be sexy and complex, because, they are subjects not objects and are defining how they choose to reveal themselves. What bullshit. These women have been asked to wear underwear for a campaign. My point is, like Rey’s point, WHY?

      This just makes me laugh it is trying so hard to please a million masters and yet looks like it is not pleasing itself.

    • The way I read these images, sexiness was kind of beside the point. I feel like the models have a lot of clothes on for an underwear ad. They weren’t posed provocatively, making bedroom eyes or touching their bodies; they were just chilling on their laptops, doing their thing. It seems practical to me that they would show models wearing the items, because it’s useful for fit comparisons. The photos with the models show me, for example, that those bras are totally not going to work with my chest.

      That’s a very good point about MoC representation, though, and honestly it’s one that didn’t even occur to me. Which it should have. If they had included some female masculinity, maybe it would have made the message clearer. That message largely being (as I interpreted it): these underwear are made for women by women, and we’re not advertising them in a way that’s meant to please men.

  2. I appreciate this article. I wasn’t aware of the ad campaign, but now I’m actually interested in Dear Kate’s underwear! (Though I notice on their site that plus sizes are priced higher than “straight” sizes, which irks me. Just even out the prices across your entire line instead of charging us fatties more; you don’t price XS lower than L, after all.) I think if this were a magazine spread about women in tech, it would be objectifying and offensive, but as a women’s underwear ad, it works. It shows awesome women wearing underwear in non-sexualized positions. I hope it sets a trend.

  3. I’m a programmer and a scientist, among other things. I read about this ad campaign and had mixed emotions. I’ll say that I had similar mixed emotions about Beyonce’s Girls video.

    I think that there is a struggle between the idea of “owning” your sexuality and femininity and being taken seriously. I believe that one of the tings Beyonce was doing, other than selling records, was saying she’s strong and drop-dead gorgeous. She knows their power in her pants, because she knows that guys think with things in their pants.

    For this particular ad, I think the more important thing that is being said is that women, regardless of their various attributes are women with lots of different attributes. It’s like the lack of saying, “I’m queer. That’s all you see and that’s all I am.” Well, I’m not just queer. I’m not just a woman of STEM. And, hey, these underwear really rock! So, good on them. If we get the sexualization out of the way, maybe we can have a different kind of conversation. Just a thought.

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