But, whether TV or tech, cosmetic diversity too easily stands in for substantive change, with a focus on feel-good differences like food, language, and dress, not on systemic disadvantages associated with employment, education, and policing. Celebrating diversity, in this way, usually avoids sober truth-telling so as not to ruin the party. Who needs to bother with race or sex disparities in the workplace, when companies can capitalize on stereotypical differences between groups?
The company BIC came out with a line of “BICs For Her” pens that were not only pink, small, and bejeweled, but priced higher than the non-gendered ones. Criticism was swift. Even Business Insider, not exactly known as a feminist news outlet, chimed in: “Finally, there’s a lady’s pen that makes it possible for the gentler sex to write on pink, scented paper: Bic for Her. Remember to dot your i’s with hearts or smiley faces, girls!” Online reviewers were equally fierce and funny:
Finally! For years I’ve had to rely on pencils, or at worst, a twig and some drops of my feminine blood to write down recipes (the only thing a lady should be writing ever) … I had despaired of ever being able to write down said recipes in a permanent manner, though my men-folk assured me that I “shouldn’t worry yer pretty little head.” But, AT LAST! Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear of unlady-like callouses and bruises. Thank you, Bic!47
No, thank you, anonymous reviewers! But the last I checked, ladies’ pens are still available for purchase at a friendly online retailer near you, though packaging now includes a nod to “breast cancer awareness,” or what is called pinkwashing – the co-optation of breast cancer to sell products or provide cover for questionable political campaigns.48
Critics launched a similar online campaign against an IBM initiative called Hack a Hair Dryer. In the company’s efforts to encourage girls to enter STEM professions, they relied on tired stereotypes of girls and women as uniquely preoccupied with appearance and grooming:
Sorry i’m too busy working on lipstick chemistry and writing down formula with little hearts over the i s to #HackAHairDryer”
Niche marketing, in other words, has a serious downside when tailoring morphs into targeting and stereotypical containment. Despite decades of scholarship on the social fabrication of group identity, tech developers, like their marketing counterparts, are encoding race, ethnicity, and gender as immutable characteristics that can be measured, bought, and sold. Vows of colorblindness are not necessary to shield coded inequity if we believe that scientifically calculated differences are somehow superior to crude human bias.
Consider this ad for ethnicity recognition software developed by a Russian company, NTech Lab – which beats Google’s Facenet as the world’s best system for recognition, with 73.3 percent accuracy on 1 million faces (Figure 0.1).50 NTech explains that its algorithm has “practical applications in retail, healthcare, entertainment and other industries by delivering accurate and timely demographic data to enhance the quality of service”; this includes targeted marketing campaigns and more.