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Feminism and Corporate PR: the Circus of Empowerment

Encouragement helps in an imbalanced world, but can applauding the work of powerful women because they're women be patronizing? Isaac Simpson invaded a glitzy PR-fest to run the question past Silicon Beach's female CEOs.

Photos by the author

If a journalist relies too much on PR people, if she's lazy or afraid to ruin relationships, she'll end up writing pieces that are more or less advertisements. Many, many stories in big newspapers are actually written by hard-working PR people behind the scenes and then transmitted to the public via a so-called "journalist." PR influences journalism in the same way lobbyists influence Congress.

The power of modern PR is part of the reason why you see stories on the same topics going viral over and over again. When someone in your feed shares an article called "Powerful Ad Shows What Little Girl Hears When You Tell Her She's Pretty," ostensibly about female oppression, but with an embedded video of a telecom commercial and two paragraphs of text about how powerful it is, what you are seeing is not journalism but advertising.

The phenomenon known as "Silicon Beach," the referential name given to the swell of tech companies in Los Angeles—like Silicon Alley (New York) and Silicon Prairie (Texas)—is less a reality than the product of good PR.

Silicon Beach is recognized, in advertisement-journalism, as a beautiful-people version of Silicon Valley—a place where software CEOs are sexy ladies, the secretaries are gay best friends, and straight men (surfers, actors, or skateboarders) are the eye candy. Events are sponsored by big brands, often highlighting the triumphs of women in the workplace, which then generate advertisment-articles in which the brand has its name repeated throughout the text, interspersed with photos of beautiful and powerful women and a maybe celebrity or two.

But beneath the gloss and buzzwords, is there really anything going on at Silicon Beach? Is there really anything to celebrate besides the celebration itself? Female CEOs may be sexy, powerful innovators, but there's a risk that highlighting them as such detracts from the equality that their PR people are so keen to publicize.

I went to one such PR event, a "celebration" of female tech CEOs, sponsored by a certain automotive corporation with a female CEO, and Refinery 29, and hosted, inexplicably, by Kelly Osbourne—to find out the answer to a nagging question: Should successful women be celebrated just for being a woman?

I arrived at the event, called Driven by Digital: Leaders in Style + Tech, and realized immediately that I was an impostor. Stoned and carrying an old school film camera, I walked up to the red carpet to find my name on it—a printed paper marking where I was meant to stand and take photos of the glamorous attendees. The other "journalists," professional photographers with high-tech set-ups, snapped shot after shot to sell to tabloids that very evening.

Everyone waited for Kelly Osbourne's royal entrance. "Is she coming? Did you talk to her publicist?" chattered the PR hordes, and when she got there, charm blasting from her eyeballs, a TV host for some obscure channel asked her about her new purple hair.

"I really just believe in doing anything that's against the mainstream," said Kelly. "My hair is in support of that."

Kelly Osbourne, being against the mainstream

I went inside and pounded two Jack-and-cokes from the top-shelf open bar, waiting for my chance to talk to the attendees—female CEOs who were changing the fashion and tech landscape with their successful websites.

Piera Gelardi (left), co-founder and creative director, Refinery 29

Piera Gelardi grew up in rural Maine. Now she runs Refinery29, one of the most powerful fashion blogs on the internet, with more than 600,000 Twitter followers. She's smart and deadpan, by far the most intimidating person I spoke to all evening.

She, like all the other women I interviewed, is a liberal who thinks Sarah Palin is a disgrace to womankind. She gave my questions about politics and Hollywood one-word answers and a staunch "That's all I'll say about that." She wasn't aloof, though, or flamboyantly fashiony, but rather stern and serious, someone who doesn't like to waste time.

She is, however, a strong feminist, and was the most vocal when I asked if there was anything wrong with celebrating women only for their sex, "The men that are killing it in technology are recognized agnostic of sex, and it's true that it would be weird to recognize them as 'the Men of Technology,'" Gelardi said, "but I think that we're all human, and encouragement is a very powerful thing. It's about recognizing that women are the minority of the industry, so it's just celebrating that push forward, women breaking through. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be hosting events like this."

Samantha Haas, CEO, WagAware

Haas is a Harvard Law grad who runs WagAware, a company that makes charity-fundraising charms for dog collars—kind of like a Livestrong for dogs. She's a threateningly perfect person; from beauty to accolades to altruism, she's the image of female achievement. And as such, she's going to absolutely murder me for publishing this photo.

Haas was the most poised and political of the women. Elizabeth Warren was her tax professor at Harvard Law, and she has a bit of Warren's integrity in her eyes, although a bit of fun too. She's the kind of girl who dates people way, way more successful than you could ever be but will be just nice enough that you'll think you have a chance.

Does she think it's annoying to be celebrated for being a woman?

"I understand that it can sort of undermine the whole thing. Like, why does being a woman matter, if we're just the same as men?" Haas, like Gelardi, acknowledges, "But I think that's getting too nitpicky and PC to say we shouldn't celebrate women for that reason. I say celebration is good for anybody, so just enjoy it."

It's PC to highlight female equality, but is it perhaps even more PC to complain about highlighting female inequality? I felt like the Neanderthal man at the party, but perhaps I was the most nitpicky equality-crusader of all.

Erin Falconer (left) and Geri Hirsch, Leaf.tv

Falconer and Hirsch were famous bloggers before starting Leaf.tv, the YouTube of female-focused DIY videos. On Leaf, you can learn how to home-make everything from patriotic cut-off shorts to organic dog treats.

Hirsch came off as the most superficial of the bunch. She talked about her well-connected talent-manager boyfriend, and said she couldn't talk about celebrities because she was "friends with those people."

Falconer, in contrast, was feisty and adversarial, and proud of her status as a female internet pioneer. "WWW stands for World Wide Women," said Falconer about being celebrated for her femalehood. "It's a changing landscape, and that's a very powerful story. We look pretty, but we also have these really stressful jobs. It's a whole new feminism."

I asked if highlighting gender, instead of the achievements themselves, undermined inequality. Hirsch spoke up.

"Yes, it's about women, but that's because we're all driving businesses that are geared toward women. We're not like an online car dealership or something."

Falconer agreed. "Yeah, we focus on stuff like lifestyle and cooking and home decor. All in the scope of a female demographic. So that's why we're being celebrated."

It makes sense to celebrate women for starting successful female-focused companies in a traditionally male arena, but at the same time, doesn't feminism reject being celebrated for "cooking and home décor"?

Anna Griffin (left), publisher and editor-in-chief, Coco Eco

Anna Griffin is a former model from London. After quitting modeling and wanting to do something more substantial, she started Coco Eco, an eco-friendly version of Vogue. She followed the advice of her father, who told her that in order to be successful in a man's world, she should embrace her womanly charm. Like Falconer, feminism to Griffin means rising to the level of men without becoming them.

"I can get away with things in a room that a man never could," Griffin says, "and some of that's to do with being gentler than a man, and some of it's to do with, y'know, my hair and my eyes." Since she's someone with large fake breasts, I couldn't tell whether she was being sarcastic.

"Let's be honest—we're still in a man's world," Griffin said. "Whether it's our paychecks or forgiveness for indiscretions, we'll never get what men get. I like to see an emphasis on women, because we have been behind the guys, your lot. I bust my ass to do what I do, and a man couldn't do what I do. So I say celebrate for all us women, and let's go to Chippendales afterwards."

Stephanie Mark (right), co-founder, the Coveteur

The Coveteur, true to its name, allows users to see inside the closets of their favorite "influencers." It has 400,000 Instagram followers who eagerly consume photos of the items owned by famous people. Co-founder Stephanie Mark has a wry, perverted sense of humor that makes her instantly likable.

With all the women I avoided questions about sex, because I didn't want to be accused of sexualizing them, but Mark sexualized herself. When I asked her if she preferred Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, she responded, "Threesome."

When I asked her if it was annoying to be celebrated for being a female, she responded with a vulgar eloquence that only a down-to-earth woman can pull off.

"It's a double-sided question. I think that bringing to light that women are doing really amazing things needs to happen, but in the same respect it's fucking annoying, because it's like, we're fucking humans and we're going to do the same shit as everyone else," said Mark, a thoughtful, curious glint in her eye. "I think the most important thing is that all women know that other women are glam, women like other strong women, and it's really about making it known to men that there should not be a difference."

Cheryl Han (left) and Elenor Mak, founders, Keaton Row

Cheryl Han and Elenor Mack graduated together from Harvard Business School, then started Keaton Row, a website that matches shoppers with personal stylists. They view themselves as double-minority CEOs (female and Asian) who have struggled hard to break barriers. They have a negative attitude toward so-called entrepreneurs who do it because they think it's sexy.

"We live in a time when startups are really trendy and popular, and people start them so they can say that they're an entrepreneur, and we think that's bullshit," Han said. "You should only start a business to service someone who's not serviced."

Han believes women, however, should be encouraged to start businesses, and that celebrations of female achievement help fuel that fire. Furthermore, she shares the others' belief that females cannot hope to eclipse men by imitating them, but that they must create new rules for themselves.

"I think it's important to call out the fact that we are women, because we're not men. We're not. I think this is a world that's honestly dominated by men, and I don't think that we're going to be able to break into the space by acting and playing by the rules that have been put in place by men," Han said. "We see a lot of women who are trying to fit into this man's world by kind of playing by those rules. We want to change those rules."

Chonda Chatterjee, senior vice president, Lyst

Chatterjee rose up the ranks at Rent the Runway before being hired as SVP of US operations at the user-curated shopping site Lyst. Lyst sells $1 million of merchandise a month.

Chatterjee is very funny. She's got a ray-of-sunshine smile and loves Channing Tatum: "I mean, let's put it this way. Just based on his performance in Step Up 1 alone, I have seen Step Up 2, 3, and 4 and am eagerly anticipating 5."

She also came off as the smartest of the women I interviewed, with a slightly rebellious edge. "I saw Edward Snowden at SXSW this year. Technologists tend to be revolutionaries a little bit, and there was so much support for him in the room. I was kind of feeling that."

As for being celebrated for being a woman, she thinks it's all about relationship building, saying, "I think a big part of the experience of being a woman is being able to band together with other women and support each other. A really special part of the female experience is the support network that women naturally create. So these kinds of events feel like a natural extension of that."

What Chatterjee means is that it's all about power. Women are using the weapons they have to raise their subgroup (which makes up 51 percent of the population) not just to an equal footing with men but above them.

Is it fair to recognize them for being women alone? That's not the point. Despite the PR lingo, the event wasn't a "celebration"; it was a meeting of an old girls' club. The women of Silicon Beach are using their femininity, and one another, to fight the battle of the sexes to win. Taking women seriously doesn't mean being proud of women and giving them a gold star; it means being intimidated enough by them to resent them. It's envy, not pity, that indicates true equality.

Follow Isaac Simpson on Twitter.