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Techweek Chicago Steps It Up

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As a member of the Chicago artistic community, I am consistently at a loss for words when people ask me what I specialize in writing about. Like many other art school students, I feel pigeonholed by labels to describe myself and my work. It’s easiest to just say that although I am a cultural journalist, my work intersects in the space between visual art, design, technology, and community (with a dollop of philosophy). I often explain that even though I’m getting a masters in arts journalism, my dream gig is to be an editor at WIRED, not Artforum. Unavoidably, the one label that comes along with what women writers, journalists, and artists research, make, and share is just that: they are women.

Not just as a woman, but as a writer focusing on art and technology, I had of course heard about Techweek Chicago and was pumped to check it out. I still am. But my enthusiasm has now been spliced with curiosity, anger, and even more ambition to dissect tech culture thanks to this:

Image from Paul Lee (@iPaulLee)'s Twitter feed, June 3, 2014

Image from Paul Lee (@iPaulLee)’s Twitter feed, June 3, 2014

Yes, this was an actual invitation sent to attendees for a charity event called the “Black Tie Rave,” which has since been cancelled after a very just outcry from Chicago tech leaders.

It is very, very easy to see this as yet another opportunity to decry the male-dominated, “brogramming” undertones of the tech industry, but I’m more curious here about this image’s backlash and the quick turnaround that the conference has taken for damage control. The event organizers have apologized, held open discussions about the roles of women and minorities in the tech industry, and are planning more.

The key issue here, though, still lies within the apology statement from chairman Iain Shovlin:

“The last thing we want to do is alienate anyone in the community, and we sincerely apologize if this event or imagery is offensive to you.”

“If” this is offensive?

I don’t know if I’m most offended at the ridiculously skimpy outfits and the air-kisses, the pandering copy, or the really shitty invitation design.

I’ll still be attending Techweek to see how things have progressed (as well as check out the overly pink branded “Fashion Tech” summit, the only one where women are the majority of the speakers), and will report from the trenches.

2 Responses to Techweek Chicago Steps It Up

  1. Tech Guy says:

    As a passerby, I Came across this thread and it seems you’ve given this event a fair amount of consideration.

    Knowing this, I’m curious to get your perspective — when this came out, the public apology from ‘Chairman’ Iain stated that these pictures were taken from a TechWeek event that took place earlier this year.

    These were women who chose to attend a TechWeek event, dressed like this, and have their pictures taken in this style with these gestures (kissing on cheek/acting flirtatious).

    I’m all for more women in tech, more underrepresented groups in tech, more people interested in tech in general. But the most initial backlash came from an individual Paul Lee who is an investor (works at LightBank in Chicago). His former post was leading digital for Playboy. Is he trying to atone for past actions?

    This whole thing seems over sensationalized and almost as though there are really other motives at work here.

    Thoughts?

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful feedback on this, and you do bring up some great points to elaborate on how this incident with the invitation unfolded and that it’s certainly not as clear-cut as it seems. I think that, as in any conversation about gender diversity in any industry, it’s very easy to be skeptical about the motives of those criticizing the system while also profiting from it at the same time– the last thing that public-facing leaders want, especially within a field such as tech where women are consistently underrepresented as developers and innovators, is to appear not to be on the side of potential investors/customers/collaborators.

    That being said, I do agree that this whole thing with the invitation has been slightly over-sensationalized; how is this any different than exploitative and insensitive images that populate every industry? However, the fact that this is garnering so much attention is at least bringing some formal dialogue about this issue that continues to run rampant in tech to light. My big criticism of that, though, is that these talks being held about diversity and women’s roles were added on as an afterthought to the incident. Why weren’t they incorporated into Techweek’s summits before?

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