How to Appear Incompetent in One Easy Step

Amber is a Capital Markets Technology consultant who currently works on Wall Street making trading platforms suck less. If she’s not online kicking ass in PvP, you can probably find her somewhere on the Lower East Side, kicking ass on the pool table. She blogs at idiosyncratic-routine.com.

[Content warning for ablist language in the excerpts]

Leslie Sobon’s blog post “Get a Geek in Five Easy Steps” was a maelstrom of fail. In an Engadget editorial piece, Laura June has done a great job of explaining why the advice is terrible:

Its source:

This piece is on an official AMD blog, and Leslie Sobon is writing in her capacity as the vice president of one of the company’s departments. As such, her attempt at lame Carrie Bradshaw-isms are out of place, unprofessional and an embarrassment to the company that she works for, even if there’s a standard “opinions expressed here” disclaimer attached to the blog.

Its perception of women:

Sobon’s advice is like any ladies’ magazine from the 1950′s, in that she assumes you have nothing in common with your prey (you are man hunting, are you not?), that you never will, and that that’s okay. In fact, changing everything about your actual self in favor of a new, improved, less truthy “nerdy” girl is the best way to go about catching one of these rare and beautiful creatures.

Its perception of geeks:

Sobon, who has worked in the “high tech” industry for most of her professional life (she put in eight years at Dell before joining AMD in 2006), seems to have only encountered a pop cultural stereotype of nerds, not actual human beings.

Correct on all counts, yet the Engadget response barely scratches the surface of the reasons I was filled with enough rage to track the author down on twitter and give her more than 140 characters of my mind.

Before jumping ahead, though, let’s tackle the idea that the piece was meant as “humorous,” “tongue-in-cheek,” or as a [poorly executed] “satire.”

Exhibit A: Sobon’s July 2010 AMD blog post entitled “What Women Want“:

There are a lot of mixed messages here. For example, women don’t like “pink” marketing, but also don’t buy “black” computers. We “don’t like buying PCs,” but account for 66% of the market. Unlike the “Get a Geek” article, she throws out a perfunctory nod to women who build their own computers, but notes that technical jargon can be detrimental to the buying experience.

Moving past the lack of innovative thought or cohesive message, the “What Women Want” article indicates that Sobon truly believes that the average female PC shopper is a bastion of female stereotypes – relying on word of mouth rather than technical specifications, disregarding price for emotional connection, yearning for a luxury buying experience, eschewing in-depth knowledge of the product to be purchased, and caring more about form than function.

For my dollar, she’s probably not wrong. Most women don’t run overclocked, water-cooled systems, work in science or technology based industry or know the difference between an FPS and an RPG. But guess what – most men don’t either.

Sobon has fallen prey to the fallacy that the amalgamative line-of-best-fit woman she has created as a tool to sell the most widgets (she is, after all, trying to pitch AMD products at the end of the day) represents the majority of women in reality. She’s shoved aside all the diversity of women that don’t fit her model and written to a fictional audience that, should it actually exist, is unlikely to cull its dating tactics from the blog of a company that produces tiny things in sterile rooms.

The map is not the territory.

I could forgive Sobon this transgression if she were a lowly Marketing Department lackey, stuck churning out clip art laden PowerPoints all day. In fact, I could see a variety of these “What Women Want” points being used internally to jumpstart a brainstorming session for a new advertising campaign. (Not that they should, but I’ve worked in product development, and trust me – the internal vision of the end consumer is rarely flattering.)

But PowerPoint lackey she’s not. Leslie Sobon is the Corporate Vice President of Product Marketing for AMD. She should be the one to encounter an article like “Get a Geek” and stare slack-jawed at her monitor, wondering what kind of lack of oversight would allow something so amateurish to exist on a corporate sponsored blog.

I’m not going to waste space bullet pointing the outdated and incredibly inaccurate assumptions that most women are computer illiterate temptresses who will date someone with whom they have little in common, so long as the rewards package is good enough … and that all geeks (who are all male in the first place) are poor dressers, uninterested in sports and are so hard up for female attention that they will become captivated with any woman who deigns to speak to them at a “TweetUp.” Rather, let’s take a look at the more insidious assumptions which perpetuate a system where my tweet positing the article’s sexism garners me replies such as “The article is definitely guilty of playing to gender roles, but sexist it is not.”

<facepalm>

Don’t worry, the same user takes the time to educate me about what sexism is:

Sexism is the belief or attitude that one gender is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other.

Thanks for that. Again, I’m not going to belabor the many ways in which the article implies women are less likely to be competent users of technology and more likely to be ok with subjugating their interests to that of a male, while that male need not pander to hers, or even the axiomatic heteronormative perspective.

Rather, there are more subtle turns of phrase that reinforce sexism specifically with relation to the geek community. As a femme woman who works in technology, an avid sci-fi gamer type, and dater of more than one “geeky” guy, this is the stuff that just chaps my ass:

  1. Implicit association between a Good Man and a Geek
    Some men are geeks. Some men are douchebags. Some men who are geeks are douchebags. Shocking!!! In fact, the historically anti-female (or female devoid, at best) stereotypical male geek environment has been the basis for some good articles about why geeks aren’t the answer to every girl’s relationship woes.
  2. Lack of any discussion about a male non-geek trying to get a female geek
    Some women are geeks. Some women aren’t very good at getting laid. Some women who are geeks aren’t very good at getting laid. Granted – this advice is just as terrible when the gender roles are reversed, but a nod to the possibility of trying to woo a female geek would have gone a long way to mitigating the fail.
  3. Assumption that a geeky guy could or would be useful in every broken-technology/stuff scenario
    Writing QA scripts for 10 hours a day does not magically imbue one with the ability to troubleshoot my wifi connection. Similarly, being a network administrator doesn’t magically imbue one with the ability or desire to dig up my yard and fix a broken sprinkler.
  4. Implication that women would rather secure access to specialized labor/skills via … let’s call it “sexual outsourcing”… than by learning to do things that are useful themselves, while men wander around aimlessly, waiting to be objectified for said labor/skills, devoid of any desire to see seen as complex people with emotional needs.
    The basic premise that geeks are useful because your gadgets break (which, uh, I thought women didn’t actually use in the first place) is as ridiculous as saying you get sick a lot, so date a doctor, or you have a lot of legal problems, so bag a lawyer. It’s a wonder any mechanics in New York ever get dates. So few women in the city own cars.
  5. A woman’s ultimate goal is to get married
    “Most geeks don’t wear pants. They wear jeans or shorts. Just get over it and wait for the ring to diversify his wardrobe.”
    …There are no words.

The bottom line is that Leslie Sobon’s writing is lazy and it reinforces gender and subculture stereotypes. Remembering that Sobon was writing for the least common denominator of a mythical female softens the blow somewhat, should she have been sixteen and posting to her tumblr blog. As an article directed at a general adult audience on the official blog of a publicly traded technology company, however, it is inexcusable.

5 thoughts on “How to Appear Incompetent in One Easy Step

  1. Laughingrat

    Huh. I wonder if, like many women, Ms. Sobon feels compelled to compensate or apologize for her power and status (as an executive, in this case) by performing femininity to the extreme in other ways. Maybe that’s why she’d post so much sexist nonsense? Either way, yuck.

  2. Jayn

    Implication that women would rather secure access to specialized labor/skills via … let’s call it “sexual outsourcing”… than by learning to do things that are useful themselves

    So much for ‘female empowerment’. I’ll admit that around here my husband is more likely to handle technical stuff than I am, but if I didn’t have him around I’d feel perfectly comfortable trying to deal with it myself. And there are certainly areas of tech where he comes to me for advice.

  3. Shauna

    This article reminded me of that old reality t.v. classic Beauty and the Geek. Insulting in many of the same ways… congratulations, Leslie Sobon, you have all the feminist sensibility and insight into geek culture of Ashton Kutcher.

  4. Lisa Harrigan

    If it is a hardware problem, some times my hardware designing hubby can help. Some times, I’m on my own. If it is a software problem, sometimes my software writing son can help. Some times, I am on my own. I’ve learned a lot about computers that way, so I’m not complaining. And Intelligent end user is always a useful tool.
    When it came to buying my latest computer, I looked up the specs and pretty much figured out what I wanted and how much I wanted to pay. Then I went into the computer store with the hubby, so that he could check out the Hardware side, because Usually the sales people know nothing about the hardware and the hubby could be sure that I got the hardware I wanted. The Sales Guy kept trying to talk to the Hubby, hubby kept on saying “It’s Her computer.” I went and found another sales guy (there were no gals). At least this one listened to me and pointed out the different computers that had the specs I wanted. Hubby made sure it had all the connections and boards I wanted and I finally bought MY computer.
    It has Intel inside. :)
    If you want my son, please know how to cook pizza, do laundry, balance the check book, and keep the social calendar. Oh and play a mean game of Mario Kart. It’s about the only time he talks. :)

  5. Dorothea Salo

    Thank you for writing this so that the rest of us don’t have to.

    Leslie Sobon, I am ashamed of your writing, and I dearly hope that you are too. None of the tech gear that I buy has AMD innards to the best of my knowledge. This makes me happy; it saves me the effort of boycotting your company.

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