Cade Metz’s profile of Google engineer Melody Meckfessel in Wired builds out a couple of themes: She’s a people person in a field dominated by people who are socially maladroit and she’s a woman in a male-dominated world.
It makes the latter point first, with three paragraphs about how Meckfessel dresses.
Her Google wardrobe included hoodies and t-shirts and blue jeans — standard engineering garb — never blouses, skirts, or dresses. Those were for the rest of her life.
Sigh. “The Woman at the Heart of Everything Google Builds” and yet first 3 grafs are about her wardrobe. http://t.co/il8MdKlKhN
— Sara Libby (@SaraLibby) July 9, 2013
Metz’s reporting on Meckfessel’s wardrobe isn’t irrelevant — it sets up his exploration of how Meckfessel attends to her own work and home lives, and how her work streamlining the coding process at Google has made it easier for her coworkers to do the same.
It’s undeniable, though, that journalists often use sartorial choices as a way of imparting information about women they’re writing about. And that’s a device to which male subjects probably don’t have to worry about as much, a point on which I’d welcome some statistical evidence. Media organizations covering Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster last month zeroed in on her pink sneakers — admittedly a killer detail, but as Name It Change It’s Allison Adams has noted, different from the treatment Rand Paul got when he employed a similar tactic in the U.S. Senate.
An Associated Press’ story about Paul’s filibuster, for instance, describes his outfit in its 12th paragraph; Davis’ shoes lead an AP story about her parliamentary maneuver. The New York Times led with the shoes as well, though they later dropped down a few paragraphs and their color vanished.
“This is Davis’ first time in the national spotlight, and it’s a pretty big deal,” Adams wrote. “To erase her identity and refer to her as ‘pink tennis shoe lady’ or ‘ex-teen mom’ is not only insulting, but also takes away from her accomplishment and could potentially damage her future campaigns.”
That’s not idle speculation, according to Name It. Change It., the organization for whom Adams wrote that post. The org has published research that strongly suggests media mentions of women candidates’ looks — positive or negative — hurt their political fortunes. Former U.S. Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once challenged interviewers who asked about her favorite designers whether they’d ask the same question of a man. Her pantsuits and even her cleavage have inspired epic fascination among journalists.
You don’t have to look far for other examples: Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Juliet Eilperin wrote a piece about White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler that called her shoe choices “legendary” (Eilperin followed that with a companion piece on Ruemmler’s footwear).
Slate blogger Amanda Hess (with whom I’ve worked at three publications, including this one) wrote that mentioning the brands and styles of women’s shoes “are a scourge on journalistic profiles of powerful women“:
For some journalists, reporting that a woman wears high-heeled shoes of various colors and origins apparently passes for a weighty detail that gives some insight into the subject’s character.
Describing dress is a tactic journalists even turn on one another from time to time. Last year Washington, D.C., media blogger Betsy Rothstein wrote a piece about the “Sexpot” Twitter avatars of “campaign and White House reporters of the XX persuasion.” Rothstein promised further exploration of the topic but appeared to abandon it after what felt like the entire Internet rejected the piece. Another FishbowlDC series about the looks of a Washington publicist resulted in a lawsuit.