Emma Stone was right to call out sexism in the media. Will other actors join her?

Time to end "rabbit food questions".

Something strange happened during an interview in American Teen Vogue last week. Exhausted from interminable questions about her hair and her ‘style icons’, Emma Stone called bullshit in the best way possible, to much applause. Listing the types of inane questions that she, and not her male co-stars, usually face, she concluded simply: ‘It is sexism.’

Of course, Stone is not the first actor to kick back against the overwhelming stream of questions women face in interviews over their diet regimes, their make-up routines and their exercise schedules (and let’s not forget how they could possibly manage to be successful while also having children).

Helen Mirren was famously furious back in 1975 when Michael Parkinson asked her whether she found that her ‘equipment’ hindered her in her aspirations to become a serious actress. She was so pissed off that she still mentions it in interviews. (Or rather, it is still asked about in interviews, and referenced in columns such as this. And thus the media feeds itself.) 

Stone and Mirren’s travails with interviewers lead us to question whether anything has really changed since 1975. Successful women are still being asked about their bodies above all else, sending the message that our appearance is what defines us; that it is our most crucial asset. Interviews by Cosmopolitan and its ugly sisters often follow an established pattern: a structure so predictable and formulaic in nature, and therefore so familiar, that Mhairi McFarlane’s pisstaking Ultimate Celebrity Interview quickly went viral earlier this year. In such interviews, cutesy little fillers such as ‘umm’, ‘er’, ‘you know?’ are interspersed with endless commentary on what the subject is eating and wearing, both at the time and on a daily basis. Invariably, the body shapes paraded on the covers of these magazines owe as much to Photoshop as they do to a personal trainer.

These women are often described as ‘impossibly thin and beautiful’, but then a piece of token advice is always offered up to remind us that we should feel bad for not achieving these heights of graphically enhanced impossibility. ‘I just eat a spinach leaf once in a while and sometimes jog from my front door to the taxi.’ Most of the time, the celeb is ‘just like you, honest’ - and allegedly dines out regularly on bacon and cheese-stuffed pizzaburgers. The subtle implication is that your failure to reach a similar state of physical and mental uniformity is an inadequacy on your part.

That can be enough to trap you into an insecurity so deep that you find yourself buying the same magazine every single month,  hoping that a ‘beauty secret’ will be revealed, as if Oracle-like knowledge of looking like Natalie Portman after you roll out of bed in the morning has just been waiting to be revealed inside the glossy pages of Grazia.

Even magazines that usually offer enlightened commentary fall short at this final hurdle: Stylist’s weekly interview with a ‘career woman’ differs notably to the interviews in its male counterpart Short List by unnecessarily mentioning the food eaten during the day for each woman they report back on, dangerously correlating calorific control with financial success.

Saying that, it’s hard to tell whether or not Stylist even asked for dietary information from their interview subjects. Perhaps women have been so indoctrinated by celeb food diaries and diet articles that a monotonous recital of every substance that has passed our lips is becoming second nature. It’s hard to know what came first: the corn fed, free-range organic chicken or the Duchy Originals egg. Either way, it’s clear that this obsession with women’s bodies is not just something celebs have to worry about.

Those reputable social scientists at Littlewoods recently conducted a study in which 2,000 women were asked to envisage their perfect bikini body, the result of which was an alarming composite image of a vacant automaton in sunglasses (they had evidently neglected to ask Tanya in Wigan for her favourite set of celebrity irises.) The tedious predictability of such shallow, familiar lines of enquiry leads us to conclude that no Western Woman is now safe from being asked about her arse as she goes about her daily business. It’s a sad state of affairs when squatting goes from signifying living rent-free in a bohemian utopia to something you do to make your posterior look like J-Lo’s. Will we be asked about our cankles next time we fill in a census? And next time a woman dares to say something insightful in a public role, will she forever carry the caveat ‘not just a pretty face’?

Which is why it’s so wonderful to see women biting back. When Anne Hathaway was recently asked how she lost ‘so much weight’, she drily asked her interviewer if he was scouting for personal advice, and assured him that he looked great as he was. Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, highlighted how a journalist had asked her male co-interviewee ‘an interesting, existential question’ while subjecting her to ‘a rabbit food question'. Seeing these women react with  wit to the inane probing of celebrity hacks is nothing short of joyous.

If things continue in this vein, the celebrity diet/fitness/hair formula will come to be replaced by the requisite ‘sexism in the media’ question, and soon we’ll be reading confused responses to halfway-house questions such as ‘how does your hair feel about the glass ceiling?’ and ‘do your abs have anything to say about the unfair division of domestic labour?’.

So next time someone in a white coat approaches you on your local high street, clipboard in hand, to ask how you feel about your bum, you are perfectly entitled to turn around, drop your keks, and yell ‘WHY DON’T YOU ASK IT YOURSELF?’ Feminism is nothing if not an accumulation of small victories.

Emma Stone faces the media. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.