The Politics of Tech T-Shirts

I was in San Jose during WWDC, and it was pretty much me and 10,000 white men.

Alright, that’s an unfair characterization. Not because there weren’t an overwhelming number of white men there, because there definitely were, but because there were also many spectacular women and people of color doing amazing work. I don’t want to diminish the presence and accomplishments of those developers and designers, some of whom I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with. Still, purely because of numbers, it felt very weird to be a young woman here.

My experience here is vastly different from a lot of other non-white-straight-men around WWDC, as I am not a developer (or even work in tech at all, really), and was not attending the actual conference. The experiences of people who are different than me, in those two ways but also in terms of race, gender identity, disability, and other variations influence the way they perceive and are perceived in a space that is dominated by one particular kind of person.

With that important clarification out of the way, I want to talk about my personal experiences here, especially as someone adjacent to a lot of people who are both part of that dominant demographic and command an amount of power in this space.

More specifically, I want to talk about tech t-shirts.

There’s a way to look like you belong a tech conference. Step one: be white. (That one I’ve got.) Step two: be male. (Not so much.)

If you’ve got steps one and two down, congratulations! If you’re also able-bodied, you will fit in 99% of the time at tech conferences without any additional effort.

I can’t speak on behalf of people of color and people with disabilities, but I do have a lot of thoughts about what makes a woman look like they “belong” at WWDC. Bold makeup is definitely a risk--winged eyeliner or bright lipstick would stick out like a well-decorated thumb. As far as shirts go, you can’t go wrong with a clearly branded t-shirt from a tech company or podcast. If you don’t have a tech t-shirt, best to stick to muted colors and basic t-shirt or collared styles--tank tops, dresses, and off-the-shoulder shirts aren’t going to fit in.

It isn’t hard to see the pattern here--femininity is out. Femininity isn’t banned, but it is “other.”

While I was at the conference, I started wearing more feminine outfits, and gradually transitioned to shirts that fit in better with the WWDC crowd. It wasn’t necessarily a choice to blend in--the implicit style rules honestly made me want to wear tech shirts less, but overall I was conscientious about not letting them influence my clothes choices one way or another.

Wearing a red plaid dress at WWDC made me feel like I was undercover. No one would guess I was there for the tech conference by looking at me, and as I walked by scores of people in WWDC jackets, I knew they had no idea I knew exactly who they were.

When I was spending time with other WWDC attendees, I got far fewer sideways looks from strangers when I was in a t-shirt than when I was in a dress. I even got some smiles from other women in tech clothes, like we were in a secret club together. On the other hand, when I was in feminine clothes, I felt more like I didn’t belong there. I had to remind myself that my clothing didn’t mean anything besides the fact that it was hot and I was more comfortable in a dress.

When I spoke to other women at the conference about this feeling, they emphatically agreed with me. They also felt the implicit dress code, and the give-and-take between feeling comfortable in one’s clothes and feeling comfortable in the group.

There’s nothing wrong with wearing tech t-shirts. I don’t think there was anyone there who felt forced to wear them to fit in, I think it was a gathering of thousands of nerds who were happy and excited to show off their coding jokes and technology companies. But why do women have to feel pressure to express themselves through their clothes, whether by conforming or rebelling against the dress standards? Why can’t femininity belong in this space just as much as a unisex t-shirt? Who decides who gets to look like they belong?

I do think this balance is shifting, and I’m glad. My hope is not that people will stop wearing tech t-shirts, but that they can also wear dresses without feeling like they don’t belong.