Behind every provocative magazine cover lies an article whose worth we can only determine by actually reading it. Newsweek’s cursor-lifting “upskirt” cover appeared last night, and initial outrage poured forth on Twitter, as it so often does. Then the article, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” was published. And it became clear, to me at least, that the cover was an extremely accurate representation of the content. Was it unnecessarily titillating, too? Maybe, but if it brought readers in, I think it did its job.
To me, this provides a good lesson that we shouldn’t judge a magazine story by its cover. I bear no great love for sexist images, but I also think cover design is a particular form of art-meets-advertising which exists be ambiguous, to invite us to turn the pages and find meaning. So, if we want to be educated media consumers, we ought to consider these kinds of covers in the context of whatever they are promoting.
The Newsweek cover image, a cursor lifting a long-legged female icon’s skirt, teased — quite literally, I suppose — a deep dive into sexism throughout the tech industry. The piece is eye-opening even for veteran feminist media critics, pinpointing a problem of which anyone who uses social media or apps should be aware. Just as our technology is physically made by overseas wage slaves, it’s funded and envisioned by bros who make The Wolf of Wall Street look relevant.
The article, by Nina Burleigh, begins in perhaps a silly way, by introducing two anonymous startup partners, before revealing them to be women working on a mentoring app for women. Yet the anecdotes that follow this introduction will chill readers to the bone. From venture capital and tech firms that are overwhelmingly male to routine denigration of women’s intelligence to blatant sexual harassment, it’s all in there.
For instance, women are self-financing while men can rely on VC networks:
The financing gap between male and female entrepreneurs is massive. VCs typically fund women at the lowest levels—$100,000. The Kauffman study found the majority (nearly 80 percent) of female entrepreneurs didn’t get venture capital but used personal savings as their top funding source.
And women’s intelligence is insulted to their faces:
“I don’t like the way women think. They haven’t mastered linear thinking.” This was how one investor turned down Kathryn Tucker’s pitch for RedRover, an app that helps parents find kid-friendly things to do, which has since launched in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta.
But most of all, Burleigh details a level of casual misogyny, including groping and worse, that feels as though it belongs at the beginning of a 1980s advertisement that ends with a woman looking at her boss and declaring, ‘This is sexual harassment, and I don’t have to take it.”
The women of Silicon Valley do have to take it, for now, because the harassment lawsuits being filed right now are still in early stages, while articles like Newsweek‘s are just starting to expose the depth and breadth of the problem. Once you finish the piece, looking at the cover is no longer shocking. It feels accurate.
One of Burleigh’s most compelling point is that the culture of the Internet reflects its creators. Everything from Siri to Gamergate is the product of a patriarchal system of funders, entrepreneurs, coders and designers:
It’s inarguable that white, upper-middle-class young men have applied the new technologies to make things that reflect their desires and culture and foisted them on the world. Women who complain about sexist video games get death threats from legions of boyfans conditioned by formative years on the Xbox controller to believe it’s their right to rescue—or maybe assault—wasp-waisted half-naked damsels in distress. And the anonymity of the Internet has proved relatively more menacing to women. None of these ill effects are deliberate, but they are built into designs and products created almost solely by one gender. As recently as 2011, for example, Apple made a Siri who could find prostitutes and Viagra but not abortion providers.
In other words, the things feminists routinely freak out about on the Internet are directly related to the problems outlined in the Newsweek piece. So instead of merely being upset about the cover itself, we need to help women in tech organize, get funding, and encourage them to either shame or sue the crap out of the people who are discriminating against them.
We have every right to love or loathe the Newsweek cover, but the information the story contains is too important to ignore.