Newsweek designer defends his controversial tech sexism cover

The relaunched version of Newsweek is no stranger to controversy. Almost a year ago, it brought the ire of the internet upon it with its launch story on Bitcoin creator Satashi Nakamoto, to the point where the company had to hire private security for the reporter who wrote it.

This week, the venerable old magazine is seeing another wave of conflict. This time, the backlash concerns cover art used to illustrate the story of sexism in the tech industry. Instead, some believed the image was an act of sexism itself: It features a cartoon graphic of an eyeless women molested by a giant computer cursor. Full disclosure, I’m one of them.

Others disagree, saying the image is “provocative” but that’s the whole point. It brings more attention to the issue. The debate raged yesterday and into today, on Twitter, Facebook, and even The Today Show.

Newsweek larger

As Alexia Tsotsis pointed out, the picture fails a checklist of objectification. The eyeless face makes the woman incomplete; she could be interchangeable for any woman. She is literally being clicked on, as thought she’s an object.

Newsweek editor-in-chief Jim Impoco tweeted that if people read the story they’d understand the picture was a perfect fit for it. Author Nina Burleigh penned a generic, albeit very thorough 5,000 word look at tech’s sexism problem.

All the discussion got me wondering about what really happened and what the artist who designed the woman thinks of the controversy.

So I reached out to Edel Rodriguez, the illustrator who drew the woman. He worked in conjunction with the art directors for the piece, an independent design firm called Priest+Grace which has designed many of the new Newsweek’s cover art. The firm declined to answer my questions, but they confirmed that Rodriguez pitched the idea and drew the woman.

Rodriguez answered my questions over email, and we covered everything from the process of choosing the cover to whether he’d do it again if he could go back in time (an emphatic yes). We only did one round of questions, so we didn’t get to have a back and forth. If you want to hear more of his thoughts, check out the discussion he’s taking part in on Facebook.

How did you come up with the idea/design for the Newsweek cover? Were women consulted in the decision? Was there debate over whether to run it?

I received the assignment from the art director for Newsweek covers, a very talented and smart woman. She sent me the article, which I read, and then proceeded to brainstorm and come up with sketches based on the article. I sent her my ideas and she picked this idea for the cover. I then went ahead and did the final artwork.  The staff at Newsweek received it and designed the cover. Women were involved all throughout the process. I am not sure about their discussions because I was not present at their meetings.

What was it supposed to convey or represent?

The subject of the article is how women are treated in Silicon Valley. It details the sexual harassment, jokes and treatment that women put up with in the industry. The image represents this harassment. A woman should have the right to dress however she pleases without this happening to them. These men have grown up around technology and video games their entire lives. They see women as objects that they can mistreat. The image conveys the exact moment when the harassment is symbolically taking place.

Did you suspect some people would react negatively to the cover or were you surprised?

I assumed some people would have negative reactions to the image, it’s the case whenever one does an image about sexism, racism, or other social topics. Some people will agree with your point of view, others will see it another way. Many women have had good reactions to the cover as well, they see it as showing the problem, which it is. The purpose of a magazine cover is to bring attention to the story and to start a conversation about the topic. I feel it has done that.

What would you say to people who think the cover objectifies women and marginalizes the sexism issue in Silicon Valley?

I would tell them that it’s not my intention and that if they read the story they will understand that the image is illustrating a very real and persistent problem in the tech industry, and that my intent is to bring attention to the behavior of these men.

If you could do the cover over again would you still take this approach?

Yes, absolutely.

What did people not understand about the cover?

That my job is not to be an advocate of what things should be, my job is to illustrate the story. The topic is “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women”, and, unfortunately, according to the story, this is how many men treat women in that industry.

MIT researcher on internet misogyny and programming for privacy

Jean Yang is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and the creator of a language called Jeeves that automatically manages privacy policy in software programs. In 2013, she presented on Jeeves at Gigaom’s Structure conference, as one of 10 young trailblazers in cloud computing. In December, she and two other female Ph.D. students at MIT did an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit that was supposed to be about computer science but quickly devolved into a litany of misogynistic comments (the three subsequently published an opinion piece on Wired about the experience).

This week, Yang came on the Structure Show podcast to talk about her work, her future, Jeeves’ future and the unfortunate realties of sexism. Her are some highlights from a very interesting interview.

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Why Jeeves matters

Essentially, Yang explained, projects like Jeeves matter because privacy policies are becoming an integral part of applications, but managing them is still a task most programmers would like to do without.

“Right now, if you change the policy or if you change the code, you have to go through and update this spaghetti of policy and code and cross your fingers and hope that everything’s happening right,” she said. “. . . If someone else wrote that code and you’re just maintaining it, well, good luck.”

She continued: “The idea is, with our model … if we’re starting from scratch, we want to be able to specify the policies here, the stuff that uses the policies over there. So if programmers want to make a change to the policies, they can just go update the policies and rely on the enforcement do do everything else, and if they want to change the code they don’t have to touch the policies.”

Speakers: Jean Yang - Ph.D. Candidate, MIT CSAIL

Jean Yang

Is it ready for primetime?

Right now, Jeeves is a fine research project and even has a Python library that rewrites code into Jeeves on the fly. There’s also an extension for the Django web framework works with both the application and database code. But it’s probably a few years from being ready, hopefully, to be pushed into industry and readied for production workloads, Yang said.

“Right now, we’ve run a small conference management system using our web framework,” she explained. “But, you know, it’s a small conference management system — we’re not building Facebook with it. I think in order to build a more realistic system using it, we’d have to really look at the scaling issues, and there are some good research issues there. … It turns out that carrying the policies around with the data is pretty expensive.”

Confronting the trolls on Reddit

Yang said she was warned about the risk of sexist comments when she told people she’d and her peers would be doing the AMA, but she wasn’t about to let fear — or the trolls — win. And beside, she still wanted to interact with the kinder community members and answer legitimate questions about computer science education.

“I think it’s kind of bogus that women are kept out of certain physical and online spaces because of the threat of harm,” Yang said. “And I think that there’s this perception that if a woman goes out into the internet she’s going to be harassed or something like that, and I really wanted to test it for myself and show people that it’s not that big of a deal.”

Jean Yang

Jean Yang

When misogyny hits home

While some warned Yang and her cohorts about sexism and against doing the AMA, however, others didn’t seem to think it would be a problem. She said they seemed surprised, after reading the piece on Wired, that people would act that way.

Certainly they had heard about “Gamergate,” she said, but “maybe they think, ‘Oh, gamers, that’s not part of our culture’ or something like that — ‘That’s a subculture.’ But to see it affect people who they didn’t see as part of some niche subculture maybe hit them differently.”

Karina’s Capsule: Harriet Christian

Hooray, it’s the Weekend of Women! As of this writing on Sunday afternoon, it looks like the Sex and the City movie is going to make at least $55 million in its opening weekend, thus establishing a new record for the best debut of a R-rated comedy in history. Bloggers and studio execs alike have already started declaring that girl power has fundamentally changed Hollywood in a single weekend. Yay!

It’s a good thing feminists who are willing to put on blinders have *some* kind of symbolic victory for all of womankind to hold on to, because the results of an arguably more important contest this weekend went very badly for both the woman involved and, by extension, the image of women in power as a whole. Whilst millions of my fellow American women were waiting on line for their dose of the latest adventures of Carrie and company, I was glued to the TV, watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting, held to determine whether or not all delegates from both Florida and Michigan will be allowed to vote at the Democratic Convention.

Hillary Clinton wasn’t present at the meeting, but she nonetheless haunted the proceedings (she’s the one who would have gained most from a full seating of these delegates, which the committee ultimately denied), and her supporters were out in full force, shouting, cheering, booing, and getting themselves ejected from the hall. Far more fascinating than the all-day debate are the YouTube clips of angry Clinton supporters exiting the RBC meeting — and reactions to those clips.

Read More about Karina’s Capsule: Harriet Christian