Apparently the well-known women’s bathroom icon had a secret. That triangle dress was never really a dress at all. It was a superhero cape, and we’ve been looking at her back all this time.
Now that her identity is blown, she’ll use her superpowers to take on one of the most heated issues in technology today: the underrepresentation of women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematic) fields. The brainchild of Axosoft’s Tania Katan, the new graphic leads the charge for the company’s #ItWasNeverADress campaign, which just launched Thursday at the Girls In Tech conference in Phoenix, AZ.
“[The bathroom lady has] been in that stiff, triangle dress, looking uncomfortable for a long time,” Katan told me over the phone. “There’s something about that being a symbol that represents us, that doesn’t represent us at all. And we’ve just accepted it.” No longer. Already, the new graphic (designed by Shane Rymer) has gone viral, thanks to press from places like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.
Since every superhero has an origin story, I called Katan to find out more about her spokes-icon’s, as well as her own.
Holding Out For A Hero
Katan, an artist and writer, never imagined she would wind up in technology. And yet, after only working at agile project management company Axosoft for three months, she’s already leading her company’s effort to support women in technology.
According to the Progressive Policy Institute, 730,000 high-skill tech jobs were created between 2009 and 2014, and women only accounted for 26% of them. It’s not necessarily that women aren’t interested in technical fields. But, reports the Wall Street Journal, they wind up pursuing healthcare instead of technology.
Can a new bathroom icon create positive change for women in tech fields? Katan hopes so. And that’s just the beginning.
RW: Tell me about yourself and how you came to Axosoft.
Tania Katan: I come from arts and culture. Prior to coming to Axosoft, I was a curator of performing arts at a contemporary art museum. For a tech company to look at me and say, “Oh! Here’s this creative and conceptual thinker, who’s also a disruptor,” and think, “We want that”—I think they were both excited and scared about hiring me.
This campaign was a culmination of all the creative arts training that I’ve had, all the intervention “arts” training, and then being with a cool, collaborative tech company that’s interested in this agile way of functioning. They asked, “What would your current employer say was a challenge they had with you?” I said, “I think it would be the same I had with them, which is that I move very fast, and the museum institution worked very slow.”
Axosoft said, “Don’t worry. That won’t be a problem here.”
— The Mary Sue (@TheMarySue) April 30, 2015
RW: How did #ItWasNeverADress come about?
TK: Basically, we signed up as the lead sponsor for Girls In Tech for many reasons. We have a CEO who is a woman [Lawdan Shojaee], but not only is she a woman, she’s really dedicated to furthering a generation of women in STEAM fields. On our staff, we have both men and women who realize there’s a disparity with women in the tech fields specifically, and across the workforce.
Lawdan said, “We’re doing this conference, and I want to come up with a big idea.” We had a brainstorming session, including myself and my colleague, Sara Breeding. Nothing came of it [initially]. So we went for a little walk. I was thinking about symbols that represent women, and that are easily identifiable for mass culture.
I thought of the bathroom lady. We’ve all seen her. She’s been in that stiff, triangle dress, looking uncomfortable for a long time. And if she’s a symbol that represents women, then no wonder we’re feeling trapped, rigid and uncomfortable. There’s something about that being a symbol that represents us, that doesn’t represent us at all. And we’ve just accepted it.
— Lawdan Shojaee (@lawdan) April 27, 2015
But what if the dress wasn’t just a dress? What if it was a cape, and we were just seeing it from the wrong side? In fact, what if we were just seeing her from the back side, and in front, she’s actually a superhero? I took out a pen, and made a copy of the woman. Literally, with like three lines, there was a whole woman that we revealed right there. It was a profound perception shift.
This thing that I encountered every single day, and thought very little of … if you switch your perception, a really powerful symbol of what it means to be a woman was embedded in that. I thought this was huge, and Sara was like, “Uh-huh, I see it too.” We co-opted this symbol that has existed in the world, and offered another way of viewing it. With that, we created this campaign.
RW: What are your intentions with the campaign?
TK: We are all optimistic people here, and we knew it was a good idea. So we handed out stickers at the conference, and we created a landing page.
We didn’t expect it to blow up so quickly. We’re really pleased about it. But we didn’t know what kind of conversation people wanted to have, or how they wanted to share or engage. So the website, ItWasNeverADress.com, will do several different things: One, it will be a forum for both women and men to share stories, images, ideas and videos about what it means to change perceptions and assumptions. Two, we’ve been getting hundreds of emails about stickers and T-shirts, so we’ll [start with] giving away stickers.
— Hayley Ringle (@PhxBizHayley) April 27, 2015
We’re ordering them now, so I would say, by the beginning of next week, we’re going to start doing it. In the meantime, people can go to the website now and enter their email.
And third, we’re in talks with Arizona State University.
RW: What role will Arizona State University play?
TK: Well, people do these things, and then they sell shit. And basically what you’re doing is, you’re commodifying a conversation, and we’re not interested in that. So we decided that if people buy stickers and shirts, part of the proceeds will go to fund a scholarship for young women who are coming from low-income and wish to pursue something in the STEAM realm.
CANNOT UNSEE. pic.twitter.com/5MKLfnppRP
— Jamie Kruger (@thekroog) April 29, 2015
So I’m in talks with Arizona State University, and they’re really excited about it. If everybody wants to buy stuff, [those sales can] fund a young woman to further her education. This is radical thinking. Axosoft has been totally supportive and really behind every step of this.
ASU has been really vocal about this bridge between science, technology, engineering, mathematics—and art. We believe these programmers, these coders, really are in fact artists. They’re working with a language, taking all this language and trying to distill it down into one line that is, at the same time, totally universal and hyper-specific. That’s what artists do.
— Alanna Vagianos (@lannadelgrey) April 30, 2015
RW: On your site, it says “In science, technology, arts, mathematics, politics, houses of worship, on the streets, and in our homes, insightful women are often uninvited, overlooked, or just plain dismissed.” So, is the “women in tech” issue just the beginning?
TK: We’re right now in the wake of the Ellen Pao trial, Sabine Mahmoud in Pakistan being gunned down in the street. Women in technology is at the forefront, but there’s also a way larger conversation. Women in their own homes aren’t respected or valued for who they are or the skills they have. So we use the technology [conversation] as a launching pad. As you can see, everybody’s retweeting and responding—it’s resonating. Some are in technology, some are not. Some are in diverse disciplines.
It’s just the beginning of a conversation that people are excited to talk about, share ideas and engage.
RW: It sounds very ambitious.
TK: It’s funny. “Ambitious” is a word I would never think of. Because to me, this is the beauty of the Internet. People will dictate how big it gets, right? They get to decide. It’s as ambitious and interesting as people want to make it.
Photo of Tania Katan by Blythe Vrindavana Rymer, courtesy of Tania Katan
Correction: The post attributed the new design to Margaret Calvert, who created the original stick figure version of the bathroom sign. The designer of the adapted version is Shane Rymer. The article has been changed to reflect that.