Boys Club

VOCO’s Sexist Ad Demonstrates That the Tech Industry Badly Needs Women

Where is gender equality in a field so famous for innovation? By Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Jean Kilbourne.

Last week, the voice-control technology company VOCO sent out an ad featuring a hypersexualized image of a woman’s legs, along with the slogan “Play with my V-Spot.” Jolie O’Dell, a reporter at VentureBeat, called out VOCO for objectifying and demeaning women, and the public outrage fueled by’s subsequent #NotBuyingIt campaign forced the company to temporarily delete its Facebook page and censor user comments.

The objectification of women and girls in advertising is a serious problem. It encourages men to see women as a collection of body parts rather than whole people. Ads like VOCO’s disempower women and make them feel like second-class citizens. It’s the same message women receive daily from the rest of the media--that their value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in their capacity to lead.

Yet it’s especially troubling coming from a community where the voice of women is so sorely lacking—especially in leadership positions. Need we remind you, one woman at the top is not enough.

So how can we convince the tech world that the lack of women in its workforce and in the pipelines to leadership is critical to any company’s success? Should we argue that including and marketing to women is in fact better for the bottom line–especially since women make 86 percent of household consumption decisions in America? To quote our friend Gina Bianchini, "Marketers need to be reminded that the boys club is co-ed now."

Or should we state the facts: women perform better in math and science through grade school than boys, are graduating at higher rates, and are more often pursuing secondary degrees—and should thus be your top recruits? Should we discuss the studies suggesting women make better managers and are more likely to practice transformative leadership when given the chance?

Or should we simply point out that by discouraging 51 percent of the population from entering the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), let alone succeeding, you are limiting your company’s potential for innovation? That making an effort to better represent women in advertising, to recruit them at younger ages, and to invest in programs that increase interest in these fields early on, makes plain sense for your business?

We could make these points, as those working for women's equality have done for years, but the truth is, many continue to say (if not publicly, then internally): Well, we've been doing pretty well without a lot of women around, haven't we? We've made billions of dollars while paying women less and with barely any women on our corporate boards, right? No one can deny that we've been leading the world in innovation and creating revolutionary products for years that have drastically changed, and in some cases, improved human life, all while often ignoring women completely.

So if it ain't broke, why fix it?

Here's why: Though things may not seem broken to you, things are certainly broken for your daughter. Broken for all the girls in elementary school down the street. Their possibilities in life are quite limited.

They live in a world where becoming a leader anywhere—let alone in technology—is statistically far less likely than for a boy on the same block, in the same house. They live in a world where the chance of seeing a children’s TV character that is female and a scientist is far less likely than seeing one who is hypersexualized. A world where being bullied online for the way they look—being criticized for not fitting a false ideal of beauty—is the norm. And being praised for an interest in engineering or math is an exceedingly rare exception.

Can we say this isn't a broken system in which to grow up?

But we believe in Silicon Valley. We believe the tech community is more than what this VOCO ad might suggest. We believe you are not willing to sacrifice the potential happiness of half the world for your own profits. We believe you know how to do the right thing.

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Isn't this the industry that revolutionized the American workplace with 20-year-old CEOs, open office design, ping-pong tables in break rooms, and world-class chefs on-site—taking risks, at great cost, to make things better?

Are we not willing to bet on the benefits of fostering a more diverse and representative workforce—to create marketing and mentoring programs that speak to everyone, instead of a few?

Are we not willing to fix this broken culture for our daughters?

Will that be the final word on gender equality in Silicon Valley? That we didn’t go the extra mile?

Or are we still the world’s leading innovators?