The myth of the ‘cool tech girl’

And why she’s dangerous

In my early twenties I tried out the ‘cool tech girl’ thing. When you’re early in your career and one of the only women at a startup, it’s easy to fall in to the ‘cool girl in tech’ trap. The cool girl in tech is similar to the one Gillian Flynn outlines in her book “Gone Girl”— here is her description:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.
Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

That last line says it all: Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

The cool girl in tech plays ping pong, drinks beer at work, is “one of the guys”, participates in inappropriate slack .gif threads, says things like “she’s overreacting”, “I don’t consider myself a feminist, I just work hard”, “I’ve never experienced discrimination at work”. The cool girl doesn’t call out sexist remarks, she laughs at your ‘jokes’, she defends you to other women, and helps silence them. The cool girl is ‘one of the boys’.

Go ahead, shit on me, and shit on them, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

As in Flynn’s book, the cool tech girl is a myth. She’s a coping mechanism, not a real person. By creating environments that don’t feel safe for women, we are forcing women to cope by reflecting the patriarchal norms that oppress them — like a warped funhouse mirror. Identifying strongly with the folks keeping you down in order to ‘deal’ is an age old coping mechanism for women and people of colour.

If you don’t feel safe to be yourself, you’ll find someone safe to be.

‘The cool girl’ trope is complicated further when you consider race. As a straight white woman operating in a space of immense privilege, this is a persona available to me. I fully acknowledge that it may not be a mask available to all women — sexism is compounded for, and can manifest very differently for women of colour.

We have to stop letting people think ‘the cool tech girl’ exists

I knew the cool girl persona was harming me years ago when I started to experience some scary sexism, the -send you angry sexual messages and follow you home- type. My ‘cool girl’ tech guy friends looked at their shoes and kept hanging around the guy scaring me. “Common, I’m sure he didn’t mean it”.

I didn’t last long as the cool girl, my wake up call was real.

The cool tech girl is a toxic myth, she helps men feel safe in their sexism. She enables the persistent and perpetual gender discrimination in our field. She’s hurting you, and me, and she needs to fuck right off already.

When the news broke about (I roll my eyes as I write this) an Uber board member making a sexist comment about women on boards at a town hall about sexism at Uber (facepalm) — I saw men write in comment threads “he probably thought it was OK, he’s probably friends with Arianna and thought he could be funny, it was just a joke.”

Read: he thought ya’ll were cool girls and you’d be cool about it.

As a community, we need to put this trope to bed. I am not an authority, but I have some ideas on how we all can help (men included):

Mentor young women in tech

Be a role model of how you can lead a successful career while supporting women, people of colour, disabled and LGBTQ colleagues. Challenge the people around you to get better and do better. When you see young women trying out the ‘cool girl’ persona, spend some time getting to know them. The more women feel empowered and supported, the less we’ll need this harmful persona.

Address casual sexism head on

I’ve been ‘the feminist one’ for years, and it’s not easier than pretending to be cool — but it feels a hell of a lot better. When you see sexist, racist, or shitty behaviour at your company, speak it. Challenge corporate norms and values that can lead to sexist nonsense. If one of your corporate values is “aggressiveness”, start there.

Rid your company of toxic bro-culture

Don’t reward good behaviour with scotch, don’t tap kegs at 12pm, and don’t host video game or ping pong tournaments. Don’t call your employees “rockstars”. Shine a harsh light on some of your internal slack channels. If your company doesn’t perpetuate the kind of culture that makes women feel like they need to be ‘one of the boys’, they won’t need the coping mechanism of the ‘cool tech girl’.

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