I wish I had been able to read about women in tech in fashion magazines when I was a teenager. Maybe then I would have decided to become a woman in tech, too.
That was my first thought on reading Elle Magazine’s profile of Parisa Tabriz, “Meet Google’s Security Princess.” Tabriz, a white hat hacker who predicts how criminals will try to break into Google’s data centers, is no stranger to technology and business publications. But for her to appear in a woman’s magazine is a novelty.
To its credit, Elle’s profile of Tabriz is lengthy, nuanced and portrays her as an intelligent and capable security engineer. But parts of it also made me cringe. To see what I mean, join me for a close reading.
The Woman For The Job
Congratulations, Elle writer Clare Malone! You’ve scored an interview with a top Google security official. So why not make sure your readers know all about her hair, clothes and (lack of) makeup?
Sure, I get that clothes are a quick way to describe a profile subject to an audience. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with a woman who rocks her own personal style. But Tabriz’s all-black wardrobe and the fact that she eschews makeup suggest that appearance is not a very important part of her personality. There’s more than one way to practice femininity, after all.
I also get that Elle has an audience to cater to, one that cares a great deal about fashion. But when the same magazine did an interview with actor, tech investor and Steve Jobs portrayer Ashton Kutcher last year, it only briefly mentioned what he was wearing (“faded jeans and a gray T-shirt”) and that he used to model professionally.
“I didn’t touch computers up until college,” Tabriz tells her interviewer, demolishing the notion that women aren’t qualified for technical positions since they didn’t start early enough.
Of course, the last guy to say “women haven’t been hacking for the last ten years” by way of explaining why he didn’t fund their startups, Paul Graham of Y Combinator, had to say he’d been misquoted and make a very big show of it.
Tabriz doesn’t perceive gender as a negative for her, though she thinks she “may be a little more pushy than the [female] stereotype.”
So much of this profile focuses on Tabriz’s unique characteristics: her skill at math and science, her competitive nature, her driven curiosity about her compromised college website that her to determine the hacker’s modus operandi. And that’s what’s important.
Of course Tabriz isn’t the “female stereotype.” No woman on Earth is. But to separate her in such a way to imply that she’s “not like the other girls” makes it seem like Tabriz didn’t succeed because of her motivation or skill, but because she’s somehow better at being a woman.
"Security Princess" is a self-appointed job title! If you knew me, you might consider it ironic, or self-deprecating, but it's not sexist 🙂
— Security Princess (@laparisa) July 15, 2014
Easily the best snippets of this profile are the sections in which Malone describes the nitty gritty of Tabriz’s work as a white hat hacker for a lay audience.
Of course, some women in technology might find it a little condescending to read Malone likening black-hat hackers to thugs who swipe expensive handbags: “not only do they swipe the Birkin, but they rifle through the crocodile-skin datebook to find new victims.” But let’s give the magazine the benefit of the doubt here, given its very specific audience.
Tabriz herself supplies quotes that make the highly technical nature of her work extremely approachable to a non-techie audience. For instance, she describes steganography, the craft of writing coded messages that are hidden in plain sight, by its very low-tech history:
A Greek emperor would shave a slave’s head, tattoo a message on it, let his hair grow back, and then say, “Go over to that other emperor.”
Further allusions to Tabriz’s skill at “think[ing] like a criminal,” make it clear what Tabriz does every day—even if you only know about hackers from the movies.
Let’s Talk About Gender
Still, you can easily write a profile of a man in tech without discussing how his gender affected his career, either as a stand-in for a personality trait or as a hurdle to overcome. A high-profile woman in tech? Not so much.
Malone aptly notes that when it comes to a woman in a male dominated field, to not discuss gender in the workplace would be to miss out on half the story. In Tabriz’s role at Google, gender is a daily consideration.
“If you have ambitions to create technology for the whole world, you need to represent the whole world, and the whole world is not just white men,” she told Malone.
Gender issues at Google, of course, have been grist for discussion for a while. Former Google vice president Sheryl Sandberg noted in her book, Lean In, that male Google engineers nominated themselves for promotions far more frequently than women.
Likewise, in the Elle article Tabriz mentions that the young women she mentors at Google sometimes have trouble asserting themselves. The impetus is on women to make their own opportunities, and if they fail, they’re not leaning in far enough.
One way to help women in tech? Make them more visible, just like this profile does. (Though they might stand out even more without all the overt nods to gender.) Then maybe a young woman flipping through her fashion magazine, like I used to do, will discover a tough, capable role model taking a career path she’d never considered.
Lead image used with permission from Parisa Tabriz