How do you get teenagers to think feminism is cool?

Like it or not, feminism has got a PR problem.

Last week we took part in the Think Feminism debate at the Girl Guide Association Headquarters. Their CEO, Julie Bentley, ruffled a few feathers when she took the post following five years with the Family Planning Association and declared the Guides “the ultimate feminist organisation”. One of the reasons such a statement was so inflammatory is because some members of the Guiding community felt that the “angry man-hating feminist stereotype” (a type which grew, like many effective lies, from an element of truth that has since been exacerbated by the right wing media) corrupted their wholesome image. They didn’t want to be associated with its bra-burning associations. And can you blame them?

Of course, the only thing the Girl Guides are burning are camp fires, and they’re having a laugh doing it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be feminists. The discussion indicates real progress. This is an organisation with half a million (female) members, and they are spending serious time thinking about ways in which to engage teenagers with issues surrounding gender inequality. What they choose to do could have more impact on the feminist future than the actions of any other organisation this year. Because, like it or not, feminism has a PR problem that needs sorting.

As far as we’re concerned, the jury’s still out as to whether or not the word itself needs, to slip into publicity speak for a moment, a “rebrand”. We certainly know from what young women are telling us that “feminism” is a dirty word, for a variety of reasons, perhaps most significantly because it’s “angry” it’s not “sexy” or “feminine”. Young women also expressed the feeling that feminism wasn’t really “for” them – that it was too complex and alienating and that they didn’t have the correct terminology. If you’ve read anything else we’ve written then you’ll know that we don’t see anger or verbose pomposity as effective recruiting tactics, but we need to go further than this and try and think about ways in which we can get young women thinking about gender inequality.

You’d think that feminist mothers would beget feminist daughters (some assume that, like obesity and alcohol dependence, social liberalism runs in families) but it’s often not the case. Listening to your mum talk about the barricades and women’s lib is difficult when Rihanna is waving her bum in your face under the guise of empowerment, and meanwhile the boys at school have some incredibly perplexing footage on their phones that you have to practise pretending to laugh at. Even the most Guardian-reading, muesli-knitting children can transform into strangers during their teenage years, exposed as they are to a culture where being cool means everything, and usually involves hotpants.

Whether or not feminism can ever be truly “cool” is another matter. It probably won’t ever be, cool being as it is associated with a special kind of fag-in-mouth don’t-give-a-fuck apathy. Feminism is the opposite of insouciant. Try being nonchalant while a cocky teenager says “but we don’t need it anymore”. See? Telling young people what to do in an angry voice just simply doesn’t work. Teenage girls have enough drama in their lives without you adding to it. In our experience, having someone (especially your mum) telling you that you HAVE to be a feminist, very rarely, if ever, makes you a feminist.

Rather, feminism is something that many women come to by themselves. Contrary to what cynical marketeers might say, adolescent girls are not idiots. Just because they’re being told that the main things they should be thinking about are sparkly nail polish and blow job technique doesn’t mean that those are actually the only things on their minds. On the contrary, the teenage years are the time when many of us begin to develop social consciences, hence the startling upsurge in girls announcing at the breakfast table, aged 13, that they have decided to become vegetarians. They have a keen sense of injustice (perhaps the keenest), if only someone non-geriatric would bother to talk to them about it.

Unfortunately, it’s not looking as though the government is planning to put equality on the national curriculum anytime soon. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for them to do that. A patriarchy setting up courses to teach young people about the evils of patriarchy? Please. They don’t teach feminism for the same reason they don’t teach pupils about the electoral system: they don’t want you to know. And they’d have an uprising of teenagers on their hands (“but Miss, I thought we lived in a DEMOCRACY? This first past the post system is BULLSHIT.”)

Thus, if the government is refusing to shoulder the burden, it’s up to other organisations to fill the void. The Girl Guides are already doing it, as are initiatives such as MediaSmart, a brilliant not-for-profit that distributes teaching materials to schools in order to help children think critically about advertising. The most successful grass-roots organisations (see UKFeminista) are the ones that provide support and topics for discussion, rather than parroting ideology. It shows an understanding that many women come to feminism of their own accord, after having experienced sexism or misogyny, and not because they have been lectured into it. Just encouraging young women to talk about the issues surrounding the sexism, the media and celebrity culture yields some surprisingly passionate responses. Similarly, projects such as Everyday Sexism and Who Needs Feminism? allow women to contribute their own thoughts without anyone judging or taking the piss – a crucial element, especially for teenagers, as well as reflecting the impulses of a generation who are growing up with Tumblr and internet memes.

So there is a lot of great work being done, but there needs to be more. As we speak, young women are setting up discussion groups in their schools, reading books and blogs and magazines such as Rookie (a particular success story– it doesn’t bang on about feminism, but gender equality is subtly central to its entire ethos), and hopefully starting their own. We know, because they’re sending letters to us about it, but we also know that many of them still feel like “the only feminist in their village”, and that more of us need to get out there and show them that they’re not alone.

Rhiannon and Holly will be speaking at the New Statesman Centenary Debate "What is the most important issue facing feminism today?" on 4 April at Conway Hall. More details here.

Girl Guides in their campfire hats in 1947. Photograph: Getty Images

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.