Smart Is Not Beautiful: How AWS Got Women in Technology Wrong

One of the best experiences I had at Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent conference was seeing the lines for the men’s restrooms be down-the-hallway long, and I could waltz into any women’s restroom on any floor and chose from an excess of stalls in which I could do my business in. That was the only perk of being one of the very, very few women in attendance at the conference for the seven billion dollar vendor of cloud technology.

Lots of dudes. Source:

To acknowledge the scarcity of women in technology, AWS scheduled a “Women in Technology Panel” and brought together four female executives from Amazon, Netflix, and Medidata to an audience that barely half-filled the room. The session was the least popular event I attended all week, and not-so-coincidentally the largest gathering of women I encountered — for comparison, my co-worker was turned away from the session about Remind’s PaaS, Empire, and I lined up about an hour early in order to get into an AWS Lambda workshop. From the generic title of the panel, I suspected that I would not take away anything particularly new. Still, I attended the panel just in case AWS had something interesting to say about addressing the lack of women in technology.

The panelists did the best they could with the bland topic questions about maintaining work-life balance, mentoring young engineers, getting girls into coding through fashion design games, and recruiting and retaining female talent. As I anticipated, the ideas at the panel were less innovative than some of the technologies presented during the week. (To be fair, I did not attend the Diversity Circle session which sounded more promising in terms of engineering change, and instead I went to James Saryerwinnie’s AWS CLI session, which was the bomb.)

In addition to the Diversity Circle and the rather vanilla “Women in Technology” panel, Amazon kicked off a media campaign, #SmartIsBeautiful. Unfortunately, the message sent by the hashtag actually limits and undermines the mission of increasing the number of female engineers. #SmartIsBeautiful contradicts the very intent of Amazon’s media campaign because they grossly overlooked the significance of the word “beauty.”

Claiming that “Smart is Beautiful” reinforces the idea that beauty is the one of the ultimate adjectives that a woman can achieve. Intelligence is worthless on its own, but because it will make women beautiful, it is valued and desired. So, in 140 characters or less, Amazon has informed me that I didn’t take classes in set theory or computer security for the sake of understanding the laws of nature or because the topics were interesting and rewarding. No, I studied math and computer science only because I wanted to be pretty.

I understand that Amazon is trying to spread the idea that being smart is a desirable trait. Nobody, says Amazon, least of all women, should ever be ashamed of their intelligence. Perhaps by equating intelligence to beauty, says Amazon, we can tap into women’s desires to be beautiful and attractive, and thus trick them into revealing their inner tech geniuses and then buying our products!

But let’s question where this assumption that women want to be beautiful comes from. Maybe it’s induced from the makeup commercials and Victoria’s Secret Angels and J.Crew catalogues and the Broncos Cheerleaders and the Hollywood red carpet and women’s magazines and the cultural mindset that burrows deep inside of you and programs into you the constant migrainous idea that if a woman is not Beautiful, or if a woman does not want to become Beautiful, then there’s something wrong with her.

So instead of #SmartIsBeautiful, why not something like #SmartIsAWSome? How about simply #MoreWomenInTech? #GraceHopperFTW? #IWant2BLikeParisaTabriz? Or if Amazon can’t give up the idea that women should want to be beautiful, they can try #SmartAndBeautiful? At least it decouples intelligence from beauty.

While we work to diversify the tech industry, let’s make sure we don’t accidentally undermine and reinforce the sexist and racist patterns that created these imbalances in the first place. I care so much about increasing diversity in technology because it’s my way of carrying out the mission establishing that people of all skin color, gender identity, cultural origins, income, sexual identity, and physical ability are treated and fully understood as equals.* By giving people who aren’t white, cisgender males the power to shape and modify the world around them, we help deconstruct the harmful systems that created these inequalities in the first place. Think of it as debugging a program that tells society that women aren’t smart and can’t work with computers.

Amazon, if a recent college graduate who’s just barely begun her career in technology without any formal training in sociology, feminism, or ethnic studies can point out the fallacies in your #SmartIsBeautiful media campaign, you probably need to try harder. The fact that your “Women in Technology Panel” with its anodyne questions was attended mostly by people who already experience the problem while there at least 18,000 others that are not as engaged tells me that you need to try harder. The fact that you have female employees who take maternity leave and sometimes don’t come back tells the world that you need to try harder.

You employ some of the most hardworking, passionate, and intelligent individuals on earth who’ve made some incredible advances in cloud technology. Do you call them beautiful?

*This is also known as feminism, which is term that scares many men given its popular connotations with misandry and bra-burning, so I’ve learned to avoid using the word in order to be taken more seriously.

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