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Issue in Focus: Hackers and High Heels

A two-panel comic. A man in white pants and tucked-in white shirt stands behind a woman who is wearing similar clothing. She looks to the side while working on some machine at the table. She says with a stern face to him, "I am a bit busy to smile. Stand back while I test the laser."

Work spans a range of tasks and occupations at home, outdoors, and in offices. We don’t always consider everything to be work, unless it is directly linked to salary, but this by now is an old and much-hashed subject of discussion. Women’s work at home is still work even if it is unpaid. The arguments given include this – women’s work at home is paid work because men stock the larder. Men, as we have heard repeated, are more suited to the great outdoors, hunting, fishing, tracking tigers, and to combat roles in the forces. Women should, as per the societal and gender role prescription, teach, design dresses and make papads and pickles. It’s true, all of this is legitimate work, we all need clothes and pickles to wear and to eat (respectively), and whether or not we need combat, we need defence forces. I only point out the auto-pilot method of assigning gender to jobs. Certain spheres of work are assigned to each gender. If you step out of the box, as any of many genders, you are a revolutionary, bending gender. This isn’t all. If, inside the box, you do something differently and break the image and stereotype, despite doing the job that’s assigned to your gender, it’s a big deal. It could become a parliamentary issue.

The relationship between sexuality and gender is complex. The two are not the same, but are connected. Gender is a social construct, based primarily upon dividing people up into women and men depending mainly on what their genitals look like, prescribing a variety of acceptable behaviours, feelings, and occupations, among other things, for them. This differs across generations, societies and cultures. Sexuality is about the way we feel, identify and choose to live and express ourselves as sexual beings, not just vis-à-vis sexual intercourse and relationships. Sexuality for example, may find expression through clothing and accessories that may or may not match the gender prescription. In reverse, the tendency to view such expression as a code or a symbol that represents the sexuality of an individual in its entirety leads to multiple issues. The person loses identity in the visible adherence to code. You see a fire ‘man’s uniform hanging on a hook, you expect a man to grab it, wear it and run into a red fire truck to save lives. So now the uniform becomes code for who can apply for this job. You find long and shiny earrings in the pocket of this fire suit, you may think for a moment that the owner of the suit stole it or bought it as a gift for a woman. You’re not likely to think it’s the after work hours party accessory of a fire ‘man’ expressing his sense of who he is. Or a woman in a ‘gender bender’ job.

Adeanna Cooke

International model, featured in Playboy;

Established hacker and amateur computer programmer.

That’s the summary of Adeanna’s CV. Perhaps this piece should have begun with the two-finger test for virginity mandatory for female recruits to the police force in Indonesia. Or with the 27% gender pay gap in India that was in the news recently. Or the two-to-four-inch heels required dress code for women that will now be debated in UK’s parliament because Nicola Thorpe prefers flats and has fought for her right to wear them.

Who you are,

What you do,

The figure on your pay cheque and how it compares to the figure on the pay cheque of another person who is of a different gender but has the same qualifications, abilities, achievements and experience as you,

Who hires you and why,

How you are treated at home at-work and at work at-work,

Your own sense of your ability, capability, and of what is appropriate for you.

Work and sexuality? Put together like this, it’s your whole life.

In India, men earn a salary of Rs.288.68 per hour, and women earn Rs 207.85 per hour. This is median, gross, hourly salary according to the latest Monster Salary Index report. Reported reasons for this gap include “preference for promotion of male employees to supervisory positions, career breaks of women due to parenthood duties and other socio-cultural factors”. There is so much to say about those reported reasons, but absolutely nothing that has not already been said for decades, generations even, of experienced wage disparity that continues to exist.

Work and sexuality are about a range of attitudes and approaches pertinent to every aspect of life. For some women, as fantastic as it may seem, that two-finger virginity test is part of what they must clear to qualify to become cops. According to an interview with Human Rights Watch (HRW) researchers in Indonesia, it is “obligatory for female military and national police recruits who are typically high school graduates aged between 18 and 20. HRW’s research indicates that the air force, army and navy have for decades also used the test on the fiancées of military officers before marriage.”

This strange fact I share with you has emerged as the result of the going-off-on-a-tangent reading that I do when I read things like this: Salvo, an Indonesian company that makes sports apparel, was found last year to have wash instructions printed on their clothes that read, “Washing Instructions: Give This Jersey To Your Woman. It’s Her Job.” They were called out, and geekdom at social media bayed for blood.

Salvo apologised:

“The message is simply, instead of washing it in the wrong way, you might as well give it to a lady because they are more capable. … There is no intention to humiliate women. In contrast [we want to tell the men] learn from women how to take care of clothes,” Salvo wrote, adding that they “apologize profusely” for any misinterpretations.

How lovely. Love that apology. Women will roll over now and let Salvo rub their bellies. We will return later to laundry. We must. For too long women in advertisements have been sniffing steaming clean socks and undies with smiles proclaiming the highs of such romantic addiction, setting them aglow, as men sell them washing powders and/or washing machines.

Where individual identity or the expression of sexuality bows to prescribed and accepted codes, there is so much about work that is clearly gender-categorised that one could write a manual. For a magazine byte like this, I find myself strung on a line somewhere in between laundry and cyber space. So I shall return to hacking and geekdom, this time with Katie Mousourris. Who’s Katie Mousourris? She’s Chief Policy Officer for HackerOne. HackerOne checks security codes for bugs and vulnerabilities, empowering companies to protect data. She’s also the ex-employee of Microsoft and she hit the news recently for having sued Microsoft for gender discriminatory practices, negatively impacting salaries and promotions of women employees. Remember Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft, who when asked how women in technology should get ahead, said they should depend on karma? One could take the view that karma’s better than two fingers or one could take the view that karma is two fingers. Or give karma the boot.

Anyway, here is some more of Adeanna’s story and the stories of other women who are hackers. What’s interesting is that in many listings of women hackers on the Net, they are referred to as beautiful, hot chicks and such. So it’s supposed to surprise you that they hack. Frankly, the world we live in is so gender programmed that it does often surprise most of us when hackers are women! They have become the subject of sociological study and psychological analysis like this: “British sociologist Paul Taylor and MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle have spun theories from the Freudian (crackers have a masculine desire to ‘penetrate’ into an unwilling system) to the sociological (men seek ‘hard mastery’ over abstract systems while women seek ‘soft mastery’ over social situations.)” Then, on the website of Women Who Hack, I read the description, “Casual get-togethers for women (cis & trans*) and genderqueer persons interested in hacking, making and technology”.

There is something at these frontiers of geekland that challenges gender discrimination, allows individuals to be who they will, anonymously and openly. As Jennie Lamere says, “The computer doesn’t know if you’re a boy or a girl. People make a big deal out of women in computing, but really it’s just you and the computer.” To be a virus-wielding warrior you don’t need to be more than a 10-year-old hacking a game to grow cabbages faster. Your gender simply doesn’t matter. Also, to write code, or break code, you don’t have to wear code. So no high heels unless you’re a fan. When companies in the real world (as opposed to virtual) try to manage this gender-free geek using the same old principles of patriarchy and stereotypes, things don’t work so well.

I mentioned heels. The kind that Julia Roberts didn’t wear at Cannes this year. The kind that Pricewaterhouse Cooper wanted receptionist Nicola Thorp to wear, nothing less than 2 to 4 inches, but she refused. So they docked her pay. I wonder what would happen if a male employee of PwC came to work in heels? I have to say, though, that this story has a good ending. Over 1,00,000 people responded within 48 hours in support of Nicola’s petition, Make It Illegal For a Company to Require Women to Wear High Heels at Work. Portico, the management company responsible for supplying ‘man’power to PwC reviewed its dress code and issued a statement saying, “We are totally committed to being an inclusive and equal-opportunities employer, actively embracing diversity and inclusion within all our policies and procedures. We are therefore making it very clear, that with immediate effect, all our female colleagues can wear plain flat shoes or plain court shoes as they prefer.” That’s not all. Because Nicola’s petition has received more than 1,00,000 signatures in support, the matter is going to be debated in UK’s parliament.

Work and sexuality have a huge relationship in men’s lives as well. I pick here just one occupation of interest to me: care work. When you’re in hospital and you ring for the nurse, you expect her to come in, smart and clean, skirt, stockings and a smile or a frown depending on her temperament. When it’s a he, you get confused. Now there is great effort at bending the stereotype in the real world and in the world of TV entertainment. I read Boys Don’t Nurse with great interest. Written in 2009, the article spoke of the ruling by a Madras Court upholding the state government’s ban on men pursuing a diploma course in nursing. I couldn’t track this story further, but I did go to the website of the Tamil Nadu Nursing Council where I read, “Nursing is a dynamic and varied career choice. As well as being a respected profession for both men and women, with numerous rewards and opportunities, every day is exciting and unpredictable”. I am assuming after reading this that things are different in 2016. Then I stumble upon Bangalore’s Male ‘Nurses’ Defying Norms. The article interviews some male nurses, some of their patients and colleagues and seniors, and it builds a good case for men in care work. However, when I read an article like this I still feel the gender bias entrenched in perceptions that express a preference for ‘sturdy male nurses’ in surgery. So it’s the value of the ‘sturdy’ male nurse, as opposed to? What? A wilting wallflower who smiles at you as she holds your hand before surrendering the real care work to the men? Perhaps I should let it go and feel happy that some things are changing, in their own way and at their own pace.

That brings me back to laundry. The familiar woman’s job. Or is it? Could it be that things are changing? The Ariel ad (below) shocked me, it’s so good. The Titan Raga ad is a lovely thing to see. Yes, Indian advertising is changing, perhaps because people are changing. Perhaps advertising will change people. Perhaps the connections, attitudes and perceptions around work and sexuality will be discussed and debated till we can be who we are and who we want to be, at home, in the office, in or out of high heels. Until everybody at home takes turns doing laundry.