Beth Granter

Freelance digital consultant for charities

Girl Geeks get their knickers in a twist about cleavage

Last night I went to my first London Girl Geek Dinner. The first talk by Dr Elisabeth Kelan involved lots of statistics from her research about gender and working in teams, with the main point being that a 50:50 split works best. She was criticised by someone in the audience that her statistics didn’t show anything new and that there was little difference in her results whatever the gender balance anyway. She rebutted this very intelligently, by explaining that each set of results showed a *slight* benefit when having a 50:50 split for each factor tested, and therefore the sum of each would show a significant benefit. Also she pointed out that just because common sense tells us something is true, lots of people still disagree and therefore it needs to be proven by research – and this was the first research to prove that a mixed gender team works best in a professional context. Dr Kelan went on to attempt to dispel some stereotypes, using her statistics. One example was that 98% of men in the top positions have children, whilst only ~50% of women in top positions have children, therefore (she believed), this was evidence that women are NOT more likely to request flexi-time than men. My only criticism with her talk was with this ‘fact’. To me, that statistic does not prove that men might desire flexi-time more than women. To me, it just proves that the top men with children are able to have their children looked after by their lower paid female partners at home, so having children is not an obstruction to them gaining top positions, whilst women are much more likely to gain top positions if they have not had children, because (I presume) if they do have children, they are expected to take on most of the responsibility of childcare and flexi-time is not an option.

After dinner, Julie Lerman gave a talk which began with her explaining how in the 80s she had felt the need to dress down in a professional context, because her previous feminine look had attracted the wrong kind of attention from male peers. She explained how more recently, she has been pleased to see young women at male-dominated geek events are able to dress ‘cute’ without (as much) damage to their reputation. Then she showed a picture of a conference speaker’s avatar/conference picture (which she had removed the head of to protect the woman’s identity) which was taken at a typical ‘MySpace angle’ and showed some cleavage. The woman clearly had no bra on and you could see some nipple points through her unbuttoned grey t-shirt. To me, it was an inspiring image. I thought, “Yeah, go on girl! You are proving that women can be hot and intelligent at the same time! You are breaking down that stereotype of an ugly butch geek girl by shoving your cleavage in everyone’s face.” However, Julie said that she found the image saddening and was upset that the reaction to her conference talks was often revolving around a discussion of her boobs rather than what she was talking about. Julie went on to show pictures of herself being herself and to say how important it was to present your ‘true self’. Julie said she wanted the session to be interactive, and for us to shout out when we liked… so I did.

I briefly said that to me, showing her true self might be exactly what the Cleavage Girl was doing. Julie responded saying that that might be true, and that as it is a complicated issue, that’s why she hadn’t said anything in person to this woman – Julie thought maybe it was a generational issue. Quickly, everyone had something to say. There were two very outspoken women – one who thought the same as me, and said that if women had shown their breasts in a context like that years ago we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. Basically, that Cleavage Girl is liberating us all instead of continuing to pretend that Geek Girls don’t have breasts.

The other woman appeared very upset, shouting out “No, no! You’ve got it all wrong! She is objectifying herself by using this highly sexualised image! You can be feminine without being sexual!”. This woman went on to explain that research by Stonewall had shown that when someone is allowed to express themselves how they choose, they are more effective in the workplace. To me, this was far to close to the anti-sex, anti-porn feminists of the 1970s. Why do we think that a woman’s sexuality is separate from her ‘true’ self – like a dirty secret she should keep in the closet? Insisting that a woman portray her professional, intelligent self in a desexualised manner means that we are positioning sexy women as unprofessional and unintelligent.

The general feel in the room was that there was a line between making yourself attractive in a professional context (e.g. putting on makeup) and being provocative – and apparently this woman had crossed it. But who are we to set this line for others? Maybe this woman thought that she had not crossed the line, for her, crossing the line might be going completely topless online. In other cultures, showing your hair is crossing the line, and many feel that those cultures are behind ours in terms of women’s liberation. How is this different?

Additionally, an Online Community Moderator said that it was in women’s best personal safety interests to not put pictures like this online. She had experienced people being stalked online as a result of posting personal pictures of this kind. I do get her point, but to me, this is too close to saying that women should not wear sexy clothes out at night because they are more likely to get raped. The fault is with the rapist, not with the woman for what she wore. Similarly, we should be protesting about the reaction Cleavage Girl got – we should be shunning those bloggers who sniggered and discredited her speaking online. It is the reaction that is the problem and should be stopped. Cleavage Girl in my opinion, is certainly not at fault.

I am tempted to create a Girl Geeks for Cleavage fanclub.

5 responses to “Girl Geeks get their knickers in a twist about cleavage”

  1. Very interesting post, I’d have to agree with your view on the provided stats. On the issues of “Cleavage Girl” I don’t think a woman should be forced to hide her sexuality in the workplace as long as she is dressing within the guideline set for both men and women. I also think it’s wrong to assume a woman is objectifying herself because she shows a hint of femininity, as long as shes not acting in a manner which compromises her job integrity I don’t see a problem. On the flip side of your cultural reference topless women were seen as common and nonchalant as topless men in many cultures before western influence came along. In the end I think it’s all about fairness and equality if women have to cover up from head to toe then men should to, maybe one day we’ll get to the point where so many people don’t view a woman’s breast as something so unforgivable.

  2. Hi Elizabeth – thanks for the clarification – that’s why I was confused on that point, so I’m glad to hear I’d understood the statistics.

    In terms of getting men to work flexibly, I think the biggest change we should all be campaigning for is to make paternity leave equal to maternity leave, to give male-female couples a fairer choice when deciding who will stay home to look after the baby. Also this will make employing a woman no more financially risky than taking on a man. I have actually spoken to a small business owner who will not take on recently married young women because he couldn’t afford to pay maternity leave.

  3. Just a point of clarification: I did not mean to suggest that women don’t need flexible working. The figures I quoted rather show the opposite: something is happening that keeps women with children away from organisational leadership positions and this is despite of the fact that almost all companies in the UK offer flexible working. What we found is that the uptake of flexible working is highly stigmatised for men and for women. The only way to change that is to get men to work flexibly too. This would reduce the stigma of the ‘mommy track’.

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