Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sex Still Sells – or does it?
Ambassador: Jan Peters (ACM-W Ambassador for the UK)

I was planning to write my blog contribution to reflect on the falling number of IT graduates in the UK, the poor take up of flexibility and the efforts by the British Computer Society and the UK trade body, Intellect to champion and effect change. But coverage recently of the UK National Electronics Week, in early June caused me to change tack and reflect on the way companies are engaging with their users. And the effect of this on the image of the IT profession.

The cause of my consternation was the advertising by JTAG. JTAG uses models to promote their product and attract potential clients to exhibition stands. The CEO even has his own web pages featuring the models. A combination of approaches from across the world, led by e-groups, led to their recent advert being taken down following emails and phone calls to the company. These adverts called me to question all sorts of things:
  • Am I narrow minded? Out of touch?
  • Jealous that I don’t have the right behind to look good in skin-tight hotpants?
  • Confused about the role of hard hats in the electronics industry - I thought everything was getting smaller and smaller?
  • Irritated by advertising agencies?
  • Bemused? When our professionals - men and women - shout loudly that we cannot lower standards just to allow more women in and then I find that sex still sells and actually standards or products don’t matter.
  • Or cross? When my male friends and colleagues shrug their shoulders and say matter of factly “99% of their customers are men so if it attracts them to their stand then why not” and crosser still when the same cohort seem to find it acceptable that these professionals of impeccable morals, high standards and judgment are happy to concede that they would happily buy products from a stand that they had been drawn to by models. Not because they sell superior product.
  • Maybe I’m just irritated that sales, marketing and advertising agencies don’t know who their customers are. Eppendorf were drawn to my attention with their cringe-making advert for an autopippette system: Here’s the link – - it has to be seen and make sure your sound is on. Are they trying to target women? Sadly it seems more appropriate to 14 year olds and they are unlikely to have the budget or interest to buy an autopipette system. I’d like to think it was a bit of fun designed to lighten our long days.

The action taken by JTAG in light of our protests in taking the advert down shows that we can make our voices heard. If we continue to shout loudly in the right way and right places the message will get through. We work in this profession and until the images of women that are portrayed are serious and professional we cannot hope to either attract more young women in or be taken seriously ourselves.

So where does this leave us? Arguably girls and students won’t encounter these images. Hence they won’t be surprised to find we aren’t all 20 something clones with blonde hair, cute behinds and perfect teeth and only capable of leading slack jawed guys to the right exhibition stand. [Not, dear friends that I am suggesting you are not up to these Barbie perfect standards and or completely gorgeous as well as intelligent in your own right]. But how are these images going to convince parents that computing is a worthwhile society-benefitting profession for their daughters. So what to do?

I believe that we need to draw on the skills and knowledge of advertising agencies, social scientists, psychologists and education specialists developing a portfolio of ‘collateral’ in a sustained campaign to engender awareness, interest and promote action in terms of getting young women to develop the right skills. For skills are something we learn - right? and moving young women beyond the perception that they can’t do IT / computing is just that, a perception, not a reality. Our campaigns must be joined up and across our nations. The route from child poverty is through mothers. Empowering them in the support of the education of their children and widening their career options and choices is our responsibility. We must take it.

Link to other relevant blogs: