I am guilty of writing sexist ‘women in tech’ headlines
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Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Geektime's managing editor, writing headlines, among other things. Photo credit: Rinat Korbet / Geektime

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Geektime's managing editor, writing headlines, among other things. Photo credit: Rinat Korbet / Geektime

Geektime’s international managing editor explains how the tech media, including herself, can stop writing sexist headlines

Despite being a woman, having a background in social work, and trying to be a conscientious media professional, I realized something unfortunate recently. I am guilty of writing sexist headlines about women entrepreneurs.

When we write stories that focus on the “woman” aspect of a tech executive, we try to make the headline reflect this by clearly showing that the article is about a woman entrepreneur. That makes sense. That in and of itself isn’t harmful.

For example, I think these headlines are fine and simply highlight the achievements of women in tech:

Built by Girls: Why AOL’s new VC fund will only invest in women

9 Irish women CEOs and founders that are making their own startup luck

10 inspiring women in tech from Asia and the Middle East

However, what is problematic is when a headline about a woman is not as impressive when it is about a man instead. Headlines that begin with “This woman did X thing that was amazing”, just sound bizarre when replaced with “This man did X thing that was amazing”.

Even if headlines with the structure of “She founded a startup that became successful” are replaced with a man instead, reading “He founded a startup that became successful”, this also does not sound as impressive in the context of a man accomplishing the same feat as a woman. Unfortunately, we still expect men to be entrepreneurs whereas for women (even women readers), we don’t.

I think the headlines below, all of which I have written, are problematic for the reasons described above:

This woman created a dieting app on maternity leave – now it has 8 million downloads

This woman had two babies and grew her startup from $1M to $10M in annual revenue in two years

She created the first big women’s blogging platform, then sold it for tens of millions

Let’s stop using headlines that begin with “This woman”

Chen Levanon, CEO of ClicksMob - and one of the victims of a sexist headline. Photo credit: PR

Chen Levanon, CEO of ClicksMob – and one of the victims of a sexist headline. Photo credit: PR

After consulting with several team members, some women, some men, they all agreed that that the “This woman did X” headline was the most offensive construction. They also affirmed that starting a headline with “She did X” was less heavy handed, gently indicating to the reader that the article is about a woman without tokenizing in the same way. Still, there might be less sexist ways of phrasing this headline.

And I agree: From now on, Geektime will stop using this headline format. Done. The last thing I want to do is negatively influence readers, helping them internalize the notion that women in tech are rare and less is expected of them.

However, it would be a disservice to the tech community to stop this post and merely applaud our site for checking ourselves (or in this case, myself) on our sexism. We also need to understand why the “This woman did X” headline construction is clickable.

Why it’s hard: Identity headlines get clicks

Kyai Mullei, an entrepreneur we wrote about and was racistly impacted by a "This person did X" headline. Photo credit: YouTube

Kyai Mullei, an entrepreneur we wrote about and was tokenized by a “This person did X” headline. Photo credit: YouTube

According to the New York Times, 2015 was officially the year we obsessed over identity. And we did too. Because it works.

Many of Geektime‘s most popular articles have some kind of identity element to it, whether they are about startups founded by people from a certain country, racial group, or gender. If you take a look at Geektime’s top viewed current articles, 4 out of 5 of them can be considered identity articles: Two are about women, and two are about startups from specific locations.

Screenshot of Geektime at the time of reporting. Photo credit: Geektime

Screenshot of Geektime at the time of reporting. Photo credit: Geektime

However, if we’re calling ourselves out on sexist headlines, we need to highlight other tokenizing headlines as well. For example, these “This tokenized person did X” headlines also garnered an immense amount of traffic and using the same logic as the sexist headlines earlier, could be construed as anti-Semitic, racist, or Third-Worldist:

This Satmar Hassid just sold his company to Microsoft

This Kenyan-American entrepreneur saw opportunity in his parents’ homeland — what he found was a lot more

What complicates the matter is that many of the readers of these articles are members of the groups represented in the headlines. These clickbaitey headlines are so effective because readers, particularly ones that find articles on social media, love clicking on stories they can relate to. The “This Satmar Hassid” headline, for example, did very well in New York, New Jersey, and Israel: all places with large Jewish populations.

I’m not saying that we should back off writing about identity issues. They’re important since they highlight groups that are underrepresented in tech, and are oftentimes popular. But we need to avoid writing about identity in tokenizing ways. A good first step is by not publishing any headline that begins with “This woman,” or “This Kenyan-American,” or “This Satmar Hassid,” etc. Ultimately, we need to highlight impressive people innovating in their fields and give them the respect they deserve — and not diminish their achievements with pigeon-holing headlines.

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Laura Rosbrow-Telem

About Laura Rosbrow-Telem


I am a social entrepreneurship enthusiast: This is what happens when a former social worker becomes a tech journalist. I mostly write about startups, technology, peace and justice issues, cultural topics, and personal stuff. Before Geektime, I was an editor at the Jerusalem Post and Mic.

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