Google recently rolled out a new structure for Gmail inboxes. And before it was released they posted this helpful video showing how a young lady could use the new inbox tabs to overcome her "overwhelming" inbox:
Let's do a quick inventory of what the female Gmail user does in the advert:
1) Passes on her regular knitting club.
2) Clicks on a promotion for 50 percent off a manipedi.
3) Reviews a receipt for shoes.
4) Confirms a date.
Taken individually, the pieces here may appear innocuous. But in the framing of the video they seem to paint an awkwardly stereotypical picture of women's interests and their technological capabilities. As an anecdotal data point, a flash poll about this video in a newsroom I previously worked in resulted in most women who viewed the video thinking it was at the very least awkwardly gendered, if not sexist. (Interestingly, the men of the newsroom didn't have much to say about the debate.)
The problem is that opening a video with "inboxes can be overwhelming" then having a woman navigate the space using stereotypical female interests feeds into a larger narrative thread pervasive in tech advertising: That women need some sort of special hand holding or gender specific enticement to use technology. Remember when Sony tried to sell ladies phones inspired by jewel cuts that could double as mirrors? Or the Samsung Galaxy S4's bizarrely sexist launch event that suggested women had trouble using other smartphones because their nail polish might be wet?
This is particularly frustrating because women aren't some special subset of consumers. They are half of the market. And they know how to use the Internet. In fact, as far back as 2006 women aged 18-29 were more likely to be online than their male counterparts (86 percent vs. 80 percent). On the specific subject of e-mail, research from the Pew Internet & American Life project concluded women "use email in a more robust way."
So why are women still treated like digital novices who need to be lured into using technology by the prospect of making their shoe buying experience easier?
It might have something to do with the breakdown of people working in the tech space. Between 2000 and 2011 the number of women working in professional computing jobs dropped 8 percent while the number of men climbed 16 percent. Last year, The New York Times reported Google was implementing a number of programs to help with its own gender deficit. Women lost ground among their senior leadership in recent years after an executive reshuffle and the departure of Marissa Mayer for Yahoo, and the company noticed a number of negative trends about their hiring and retention of female employees.
It's also worth noting that while the Times report says a third of Google employees are women, Google aggressively fought a 2010 Mercury News Freedom of Information (FOIA) request seeking U.S. Department of Labor statistics on the gender and racial breakdown of their workforce, saying such information was a trade secret -- and won.
But back on the subject of the inbox video. Sure, there are some women who will use Gmail's new inbox tabs in the way shown in the video. And there's nothing wrong with that. But it would have been nice if Google could have found a way to market to women as a consumer class than reducing them to caricature and feeding the (unfounded) narrative that women are digitally illiterate.