Can We Stop Making Sexual Identities a Condition for Participation in a New Technology?

By Gail Orenstein, Global drone journalist and documentary photographer

It’s around 6am. I start the day as usual, searching through my morning emails and Twitter account reading my DM’s and messages.

As I sift through my messages, something catches my eye. It’s a response I sent to a drone TV link from one of my Twitter followers about done journalism. There’s nothing too extraordinary about this, given that I’m a UAV pilot and drone journal.  I am thrilled to see what their response is. I see it’s their advert from their drone YouTube “TV” site inviting me to watch their show.

I was pretty shocked to see the way the female subject in this ad is depicted: she’s operating a drone in Daisy Duke style outfit which leaves me feeling slightly perturbed. I really examined this ad and tried to think of myself piloting this way.

But that ad from the drone TV show stuck with me, and as the day and the week went on, my incense grew.

A few things ran through my head that week:

  1. I’d be in some serious trouble from a safety perspective piloting a drone near naked.
  2. We’re better than this, aren’t we? (I’m looking at you, tech industry)
  3. Would this ad have been approved if there was a higher proportion of females working in tech’s top UAV positions seeing things like this?
  4. How on earth would I skilfully pilot a drone and use my remote control like this; it has never been synonymous with getting myself into a sexually suggestive pose.
  5. Is this how women are thought of while professionally piloting a UAV?

I’m a female professional drone journalist. In fact, I was the first female civilian pilot to drone in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Mosul offensive in 2017 with my hobbyist Parrot Bebop 2.

I have worked in a male-dominated photojournalism industry for the best part of 23 years.

I’m a member of the NUJ and The International Press Association, and I am a licensed UAV pilot in two countries with the FAA and CAA. My life’s work has focused on documenting conflict zones and humanitarian crises and the last three years I have been using UAV technology as part of my gear – and let me tell you, I’ve been privy to the wretched squalor of humanity, the emotion and the fear.

But I’ve also seen rawness, sentimentality, and the beautiful moments of interconnectedness. Operating a UAV against these types of backdrops, namely conflict and humanitarian crises, requires not just a significant amount of professional technical skill but experience, patience and both hard and soft skills, too.

On the contrary, the simplicity of drones is deceptive, and to that end, many people have unreasonable expectations about what it takes to become a fully-fledged pilot. Simply put it is very hard work, expensive and very demanding.

So really, is a female dressed in skin-tight Daisy Dukes with her bum up on a tractor really depicting the realities of droning at all?  What about the real-looking women – not the fantasy of a sexed-up female UAV pilot?  What about the reality of this and not the fantasy?

As I teach young men and women from around the world, we discuss safety. Nothing comes up about advice on midriffs and daisy dukes or short shorts while droning.

For example, the real fleet of technology we as pilots carry around, the rubber-necking we deal with, the blown-out hair from the wind and rain, the dozens of batteries we haul around, the firmware updates, the new airspace we have to adjust to.

As a drone journalist, I have also had those added extras like dysentery in remote places, police and military checkpoints examining my drones, and sadly, groping.

With this in mind, adverts that contain lazy and unhelpful stereotypes are quite frankly disingenuous and unfair to say the least – it’s just another way to exploit titillation to drive sales and easy click bait to drive traffic.

Yes, I have already seen aerial porn, you can Google that yourself, no links here!

Objectification and the sexualisation of women has emerged as a concerning and unwelcome trend in advertising imagery and texts for a long time, this is nothing new I know. But I ask myself, can we in the UAV industry do better? There are no two ways about it, sexism and objectification in the tech industry is has always been mightily rampant.

Let’s hope we can have a better start in the UAV industry in 2019; but I already have my reservations about it.

Can we move forward?

I’ve seen a discursive turn towards a concern about the way women are represented in the UAV industry lately and it bothers me a great deal that in its infancy, females already have to deal with this as a community. This is not feminist statement this is a statement about power.

The ad’s discussed above were not the first example of sexism I’d encountered being a drone pilot, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. You only have to do a quick search on YouTube to find bikini-clad girls being used as models used to test out the latest drone aerial footage shot by males.

So here we go again, I saw it for years in IT and years as a photojournalist: the sexing up of ads for profit, the lower wages for females taking the same assignment, the funding going to men who have all the power and the final say on where the funds for the budgets are allocated.  Budgets that have a direct impact on deciding which areas of the industry will develop and grow. Budgets that set the agenda for the future of the UAV industry, the decision making, the software, the hardware, the UAV evangelists, the ones who get the Ted talks, the grants.  The criticism of the tech sector is mainly due to the lack of gender diversity and equality, and is the reason movements like Women and Drones, Amelia Drone-hearts, Code like a Girl, DevelopHER, and Code First: Girls, exist.

And, although the industry is starting to take note, there is still plenty of work we as a community can do. We must unite and nurture a strong network and community of professional female pilots, like Amelia Earhart did with the Nighty-nines.

One of the ways forward is through fostering a gender balance in terms of appointments in the industry’s top positions and afford women the equally paying jobs and acces to funding that men usually have.

Yes, drones are purveyors of commercial operational efficiency, but with more women placed in higher positions, with the power to make financial and funding decisions, other critical jobs in the UAV industry like teaching and training, drone journalism, and filmmaking will survive and thrive for generations.

Ultimately, sexism must be called out, without shaming those responsible. That does not work and intact I was in conflict about even showing the advert from drone TV in this article but I chose to so that can review and share their thoughts.

We must use our voices and intellect as pilots to cultivate the notion that we can do the same jobs as our male counterparts without having to don the shortest of short shorts while droning.  For those who might say that this is not important I would argue that these kinds of mapping of sexual desires onto a technology define the kind of person who desire for a new technology is appropriate vs perverted.

For example, we simply assume heterosexual men have an obsession with sports cars and not women, but why? These things don’t come from nature.  By mapping the use of technology onto a kind of sexual identity, these ads define the kind of people for whom droning should be seen as normal.

You would not see these adverts containing a lesbian, a gay man, a bondage bi-sexual or any of the other diverse desires of our community, and certainly not Chippendale dancers.  It seems that it is already becoming normal for straight men to want drones.

Together we can make small step’s to changes which bring us closer to an ideology that treats all genders respectfully as equals. When that happens, truly amazing things will be achieved in all industries.

Gail Orenstein
Global photojournalist and documentary photographer

Her work has taken her to over 71 countries in 25 years including some the most conflicted regions in the world including Syria, Iraq, Eastern Ukraine, Central Africa and Central America.

 

“Expert Insight” is the independent views and opinions of the submitting named author of this article.

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