Underwear company Dear Kate is known for using nontraditional models to give real women confidence boosts: previous lookbooks have included athletes, dancers and bloggers. But their newest campaign, featuring prominent women in tech coding while wearing nothing but their underwear, may go too far. Feminists argue the pictures compromise the fight for women to be taken seriously in an industry plagued by accusations of misogyny.
"Posing in your underwear undermines the message that you aim to be taken seriously as a technologist," says Elissa Shevinsky, CEO of the startup Glimpse Labs and author of the article "That's It—I'm Finished Defending Sexism in Tech," on Business Insider.
In the campaign for the Ada collection—named after the world's first computer programmer Ada Lovelace—founders and CEOs of tech companies pose in bras and panties with laptops balanced on their knees at fashion blog Refinery29's offices. The pictures, while not quite Victoria's Secret ads, do show plenty of bare skin. Proponents say the campaign is empowering—similar to recent girl-power advertising that pushes everything from Dove soap to Under Armour sportswear.
"I run a company and you’re trying to have gravitas when you’re a CEO. I was a little bit like, 'Is it a bad idea to participate in an underwear modeling shoot?'" says one of the models, Adda Birnir. Birnir is CEO and founder of Skillcrush, a website that aims to teach people—and especially women and girls—tech skills. "But it’s a feminist company...and I think it’s so important to support companies that are doing work like that. That overshadowed any of my concerns."
Dear Kate has a reputation for creating underwear that's functional and attractive. Their technology provides extra protection for women during their time of the month and for new moms. Their advertising tends to focus on empowering real women. Founder and CEO Julie Sygiel said she was careful to have conversations with the models about how they would pose.
"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," she says. That's why she asked the women to code in their underwear in a real tech workplace. "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."
Along with the pictures are quotes from the women about how to ask for a promotion or advice on succeeding in the industry. The result is kind of bizarre: images of women in an office setting wearing nothing but lacy underwear juxtaposed with messages exhorting them to lean in. At the very least, it could send mixed messages about how to get what you want in the work place.
But Birnir says the shoot brings attention to some of the few women who are succeeding in the tech industry--even if the attention is on how they look. "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."
It's novel approach to combatting the well-chronicled sexism in the tech industry. Only 18% of computer science degrees go to women, and just 20% of software developers are women. And of those women who do join the tech industry 56% leave mid-career according to research from the Harvard Business School.
Some leave because they feel they cannot excel in the "boys club": Researchers at Wharton, Harvard and MIT found that when they played investors two recordings of the exact same sales pitch—one read by a man, another read by a woman—the investors preferred the idea when read by a man’s voice two to one. But many women in the industry also complain of sexual harassment. Leaders of well-known startups like SnapChat, Tinder and Rap Genius—to name a few—have all been embroiled in sexual harassment or misogyny-tinged scandals this year alone.
"In Silicon Valley, now more than ever, there is a tension between being seen in a romantic or sexual way and in a professional way. Presenting yourself undressed has inherently sexual overtones, and undermines being seen as a serious technologist," says Shevinsky. "This is true for both men and for women. Prominent male technologies also follow norms for dress and lifestyle, so that the public focus is on their work not their personal lives. "
"This ad is like a parody," Shevinsky concludes. "I'm struggling to believe it's real."
Skillcrush's Birnir says she recognizes that posing in underwear has inherently sexual overtones. "But I just don’t think that the photos are in any way demeaning or overly-sexualizing. I think every one of the shots is really beautiful and empowering," she says.
Another one of the models, Quiessence Phillips, an information security professional who heads up the development at Black Girls Code—which aims to increase the number of women of color in technology—says that she was drawn to the campaign because they showed the diversity of women in technology. "The example that I set and the work that I do speaks for who I am. So taking a tasteful pictures in underwear which is the same as being in a bathing suit, to me, didn’t make a difference," she says. "I thought it was showing a positive image." She doesn't expect that the high school- and middle school-aged girls she works with at Black Girls Code will see the campaign, but if they do, she thinks their takeaway will be that many different types of women can be successful: "We’re showing that women in tech come in all shapes and sizes."
But employers, investors and even coworkers who can now Google these women and see them in their underwear may not agree that the campaign is empowering. When I asked Birnir if she thought that posing in underwear would undermine a woman's chances to get funding or get hired, she said: "I don’t understand why that would have any impact on the decision-making process."
"I don’t know," she added. "If this makes a sexist investor that much more sexist, I don’t care."