For Women in Tech, Femininity Isn’t the Enemy

Why I'm OK with SXSW's 'Girls' Lounge'

Goodness, some people sure were fired up about the free manicures, hair and makeup that were offered to female attendees at SXSW at the Ipsos Girls' Lounge:


Before I weigh in, let me first confess that I've never been to SXSW and that I'm unlikely to attend unless someone sponsors an Introverts' Lounge.

Kat Gordon, illustration by Alex Fine

So is theming a women's lounge around beauty sexist? Possibly. Is the name itself—the Girls' Lounge—in need of rebranding? Yep.

I concur with the folks who raised these very real objections and welcome the fact that they deem it worthy of a conversation. Yet I see so much online response objecting to the menu of services rather than noticing three key things:

1. The services are optional. The sisterhood's the real draw.

Like it or not, women are the minority at tech conferences and many tech events are so unwelcoming to women that they now list a "Code of Conduct" on their websites so that participants will remember to be respectful.

Until we achieve somewhere near parity in attendance (and speaking roles), there's a need for places crafted to make women feel welcome.

I see things like the Girls Lounge more as an organizing principle that's lightweight and fun than a mandate to "polish or perish."

Who cares if you partake or not? It's a flame around which to gather. Not all men golf, play poker, or smoke cigars, but they're likely to show up to a gathering that's a who's who of folks whose orbit they want to be in.

Until the whole of SXSW is female-friendly, I can't fault pockets that overtly state they are. I'm encouraged by the fact that the event had a dedicated pumping room for breastfeeding moms and hope they'll consider other policies like a No Interruption Policy on panels.

2. Good hair = catnip to speakers.

On the subject of finding female speakers, Nancy Hill, CEO of the 4As, famously said, "Women are the last to commit, the first to cancel."

As a conference planner myself, I know how herculean an effort it is for many women to get out of town for a speaking engagement. If the beauty services of the Girls' Lounge allowed female SXSW speakers to squeeze in a little confidence-boosting zhushing, then I'm all for it. (In full disclosure, I got a blowout in Cannes at the Ispos Girls Lounge, which was a half-hour of luxury that never would have survived the relay race of my escape from home and work to travel 5,000 miles for a voluntary appearance on the Palais stage.)

3. Pink isn't weak. Lipstick isn't bad.

On the heels of the worldwide "Like a Girl" phenomenon (thank you, Judy John), I'm left wondering when we decided that makeup was the enemy or that pink signified weakness.

When did we allow certain expressions of femininity (not all, mind you) to be categorized as uniformly diminishing?

Yesterday, I read a blog post that perfectly summed up my feelings: "Femininity is not less than masculinity. It is a different kind of strength, but it is powerful and wonderful and deserves our respect. And that respect is way, way overdue. Why do we associate weakness with wearing lipstick? Didn't lipstick-wearing women do the tough task of giving birth to and raising many of us? Weren't suffragettes rocking high heels when they fought for, and won, our right to vote? Wasn't Rosa Parks in a skirt when she became the catalyst for a civil rights movement? There is nothing fragile about feminine power."

I type these words with my ragged, unpolished fingers, attired in a T-shirt and yoga pants, with my hair in a messy bun. This is heaven here in Palo Alto. But if I'd been in Austin, you better believe I'd be dipping my feet into a hot tub and chatting it up with the cool women of SXSW.

While there, I'd pull the lounge organizers aside, thank them for making women a priority, and gently suggest they make the beauty offerings secondary and their business-minded guest speakers the priority.

That's what I would do. How about you?

Kat Gordon is the founder of The 3% Conference, an event that strives to elevate and expand female representation in media and advertising. Follow her on Twitter at @KatGordon.