Heartbreakingly, we lost Victoria Wood earlier this year, but she lives on in our memories because her work remains as funny and pertinent as it was when she first wrote it. There’s a sketch from As Seen On TV in which Wood and Julie Walters play two women catching up over lunch, and Walters’ character talks about what her daughter is doing. “Susan’s still assistant catering manager at Wilkinsons, she says in a couple of years, if she plays her cards right, she could become catering manager’s girlfriend!” Nothing ruins a joke like explaining why it’s funny, but it makes me sad and makes me laugh because it’s such an incisive capturing of the way society is so keen to limit the ambitions of women, and the way women make peace with those limitations.
This sketch is almost as old as I am – As Seen On TV was on air between 1985 and 1987. If aspiring to be a professional girlfriend was laughable 30 years ago, you’d hope that it would be howlingly absurd now. Yet, just a decade ago we were nurturing an obsession with WAGs – the wives and girlfriends of famous, highly paid sports stars. Becoming the partner of a footballer was seen as a legitimate career goal, and while there was much hand-wringing about what this was doing to the ambitions of young women, we didn’t stop lauding the WAGs for their choice of husbands, handbags and haircuts.
The phenomenon has developed and mutated again, as the most recent edition of the Sunday Times introduced me to the concept of TWAGs – tech WAGs, or, chillingly, “founder hounders”. Model Miranda Kerr has recently become engaged to Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, Lily Cole dated Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and according to the article, Amber Heard is now seeing Paypal co-founder and tech billionaire Elon Musk – and Musk has been married to actress Tallulah Riley. Twice.
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Why would anyone want to become a TWAG? Well, these men are living proof that the geek shall inherit the earth. Tech is a white-hot industry, and when we’re all smartphone-clutching, app-obsessed consumers of the new, these founders are working at the centre of the universe. Also, they’re staggeringly wealthy. Aspiring to marry into the Snapchat dynasty might not sound like much of an ambition, but in the UK the gender pay gap for full time workers is 13.9 per cent, and will take 117 years to close, according to the World Economic Forum. Why fight for change when we could just follow the money? The TWAG world is hugely heteronormative, because that’s what happens when only men are permitted to have power.
There’s a very important quotation attributed to Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edleman – “You can’t be what you can’t see.” How can we know what’s possible and what’s permitted when we have no examples or points of reference from those who have gone before us? If an industry is dominated by white men, it’s difficult to see how there might be a space for us to get involved, make changes and take power for ourselves. Tech is exciting and compelling, and we want a piece of the pie. There’s no real reason why women can’t get involved, experiment, go forth and be founders.
Elon Musk and Tallulah Riley (Photo: Getty Images)
Yet women are badly represented in the industry, if we’re represented at all. Whitney Wolfe, the founder of revolutionary dating app Bumble, sued her Tinder co-founders for sexual harassment after they called her a “whore” and a “golddigger” and sought to take away her founder title because she was a woman.
We’re being told, over and over, that it’s much easier for women to marry tech money than make tech money
Time magazine profiled Wolfe, arguably one of the most exciting talents in the tech industry, and referred to her “golden” hair in the very first line of the piece. Regardless of what women achieve, there’s always someone around who will make sure it’s only discussed after they talk about the way we look. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. We’re being told, over and over, that it’s much easier for women to marry tech money than make tech money. We can laugh about the TWAG phenomenon, but it’s the tip of an iceberg that ends in shipwrecks like Gamergate, and the hideous abuse that Leslie Jones endured on Twitter. It’s all part of a culture which promotes and celebrates male entitlement, in which men “earn” women, and women are prevented from earning anything.
However, Jones, and Ghostbusters, might hold the key to understanding the problem, or at least equip us to pick the lock that currently keeps us out. The remake is the story of an entitled nerd turned super-villain who nurtures his feelings of resentment and powerlessness until he’s in a position to attempt to take full, destructive control. He’s thwarted by a group of women who are also treated like outsiders, but instead of lashing out at those around them, they use their energies and passion to work together and save the world. Ask any little girl if they’d rather be a stay-at-home trophy wife, or Kate McKinnon welding a proton pack. Ask me. It’s always going to be the latter. It’s also worth pointing out that the most prominent TWAGS are very successful women with incredible careers of their own. Cole is an Cambridge graduate and a tech entrepreneur in her own right, founding gift themed social network impossible.com.
As women, we’re not socialised to take risks or break doors down. From an early age, we’re rewarded for being “good”, fitting the mould and doing what is expected of us. But in the tech industry, success comes when the rules are broken. If we want to make way for women, something has to alter the way that we talk about ourselves, and what we achieve. We can’t be defined by our bodies and our relationships any longer. If we want to see changes, our brains need to be front and centre. Otherwise we’ll end up living in a world where some brilliant woman invents a real proton pack and people will still be more interested in what her boyfriend does.