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