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The iPad and women’s rights

Within seconds of the unveiling of the iPad by Steve Jobs, Twitter lit up with women complaining and/or joking that the name immediately made them think of a certain feminine hygiene product. #iTampon was the #1 trending topic on Twitter yesterday and remains so this morning.

Could this be one of those unintentionally revealing moments that women’s rights in the US has not come as far as we thought? That women did not have enough voice or power within a major US corporation for it to anticipate this  marketing blunder?  That this wouldn’t have happened if the head of Apple were named Stephanie Jobs?

That maybe along with dumping all over those evil Third World men that keep women down, awareness that there is a wee shortfall in women’s equality in the First World?

Another lesson from this episode is the democratizing power of Twitter. None of the major newspapers (defined as the 3 that I get every morning: NYT, WSJ, and FT) mentioned the controversy in print today. Maybe women don’t have enough voice or power at newspapers either.  (The WSJ does have an online article on it, although it is mostly just describing what happened on Twitter.) But Twitter is a more democratic medium that allowed women (and their male friends) to voice bemusement, anger, and ridicule. One small step for women, maybe some day a giant leap for womankind.

UPDATE: Dennis Whittle points out that sanitary pads actually ARE a development issue.

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  1. Word_Bandit wrote:

    As I tweeted to you last night, “exactly.”

    I’ve leave it at that for today. Thank you.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  2. Or maybe the marketing department was well aware of this implication and saw it is a marketing plus. It generates conversation. Think of the ubiquitous “Snuggie” ads. In many parts of the country a snuggie is where someone grabs your underwear from behind and yanks upward … a common prank with teenage boys. (aka wedgie) What image does Snuggie call to mind for many who watch the ad? Yet it helps people remember the product. Was the iTampon connection actually seen as a plus?

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  3. RJS wrote:

    Sorry Bill, but this is moronic. You’ve been reading too many batshitcrazy feminist blogs. It certainly sounds like you’ve drunk the purple Kool-Aid.

    Perhaps the reason “First World” women are complaining about it is that they have so little else to truly complain about. Or perhaps they’re spoiled.

    If only the women’s groups I work with in Iraq had it so good. I’m sure they would love to whine about the inconsequential name of a new technological gadget. But they have more important things to worry about, like not getting doused with gasoline and set on fire by some family member with a distorted notion of what honor is, or trying to secure equal rights that are nowhere near the level of Western women.

    Note to American & European women: It’s time to get over yourselves.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  4. I’m not sure this is an issue of womens’ rights per se. I took it more as an indicator of the relatively low number of women working in the tech field. That’s a related issue for sure and has much to do with girls’ role in math classes in school, but I don’t feel discrinated against just because Apple didn’t use enough focus groups. They’re tech geeks in a culture of secrecy. Of course they missed something so obvious.

    And for what it’s worth, I stll can’t figure outcwhy I’m supposed to want one.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  5. Matt wrote:

    I thought this was an aid blog. Why is it talking about the mass perversion of a product name? I didn’t hear people talking about the iPod Touch being some oversexualized poduct simply because it contained the world “touch” in it. When/If I use the word “pad” in everday parlance I’m not immediately assualted by the nearest female and labeled a sexist. How politically correct do companies have to be in naming a product, especially with a name this harmless? This is not news; it’s tabloid fodder.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  6. Diane Bennett wrote:

    It is my personal experience that women are well-represented in the technology sector’s marketing departments, having worked closely with Microsoft, HP, Compaq (RIP), Toshiba and others. I can only conclude that Apple considered this interpretation and thought it minor. In a free market, we all get to vote with our feet – no one is forcing anyone (male or female) to buy it. For some of us, it confirmed our commitment to Amazon’s Kindle. I think the reputation of the AT&T network is a bigger detraction, given connectivity and bandwidth issues, whether you are male or female!

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  7. “ipad” is returning 7 million hits on google one day after it was launched. “haiti earthquake” returns 17 million after three weeks.

    what about “tampon”? – well i tried to count but my firewall blocked the search, i must have a word with our IT officer.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  8. oraclenude wrote:

    First, how are women hurt or damaged in any way by Twitter chatter about tampons?

    Second, who cares what Twitter chatter says about anything?

    Merit is being inappropriately to a meaningless source.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  9. oraclenude wrote:

    …inappropriately applied to a meaningless source.


    Posted January 28, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  10. Frances wrote:

    The iTampon meme doesn’t seem like anything more than a feminine version of a Beavis and Butthead joke. “He he. You said hole. He he he.” I’m with Matt on the idea that “pad” is not a gender insensitive word, and I rarely get offended if a man mentions a pad of paper (or even mentions my pad).

    If there is anything about the iPad that would suggest “feminine sanitary pad” beyond the name “iPad”, then I don’t see it. This seems like fourth grade humor that reached it’s natural peak of attention on Twitter. A print article would be a bit much.

    That said, if it were up to me I would have stuck with iTablet. If there’s a real concern about the name of this new device, I think it’s the similarity between “iPod” and “iPad”. This is going to lead to innumerable miscommunications.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  11. You may also want to check out the Mad TV skit from 2006 about an iPad.

    I find it hard to believe that Apple didn’t do name searchers and uncover some of these uses and I also suspect they did focus groups. I suspect they knew full well that this response would be out there.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  12. Claudia McGeary wrote:

    What has this got to do with AidWatch and your customers/mission/message JUST ASKING THAT AID BENEFIT THE POOR? Totally inappropriate and unfortunately not surprising. Please stop with the sexist women’s categories. It’s demeaning to your organization, and the larger one — New York University.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  13. Ronan L wrote:

    I would suspect that they knew all about potential sniggering over the name but – just like Nintendo and its Wii (remember how funny that sounded first time around) – they carried on regardless, in true Apple style.

    In two months time, we’ll have forgotten our initial reactios, I’m sure.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  14. Dennis wrote:

    iPad or iAid?

    I *do* think this related to development, after all – and there may be a silver lining. See:

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  15. Maureen wrote:

    50% of the US population is not surprised that women’s rights continue to be an issue here. I’m surprised that you would think that it would be surprising.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  16. Allison wrote:

    More evidence for Bill’s point that Apple products could benefit from input by women: the iPod Shuffle has a clip that allows it to attach to a person’s clothing. In the ads, it’s often shown attached to a dress shirt in between the buttons. On a men’s dress shirt, wearing it this way places the headphone jack facing up, which means headphones cords run directly up out of the iPod into the ears. On a women’s dress shirt, the headphone jack faces down, the cord gets all convoluted, and it looks stupid. Surely there must be an engineering fix here that would make the clip work in either direction…but no one thought of this as a problem that needed fixing I guess.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Permalink
  17. Angry Sam wrote:
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink
  18. avam wrote:

    Agree with most of the posters here: what has this to do with anything? (except to advertise twitter – enough please!). As a woman I find it demeaning to even read a post that implies that because some people (clearly with little else to do) have any sort of juvenile issue with the name Ipad it is in some way reflective of a lack of voice etc etc.

    “Maybe women don’t have enough voice or power at newspapers either.” ? Or, sorry to be harsh, but maybe you spend too much time on twitter and not enough time reading articles by well regarded women writers/journalists? (this smacks a bit of an earlier post that implied because those working in development economics had not done rigorous work into the concept/issues etc of failed states no one had).

    “But Twitter is a more democratic medium that allowed women (and their male friends) to voice bemusement, anger, and ridicule.” This is probably true to an extent, but I think the caveat must be to add that most of these women are likely to be young/relatively unencumbered (one to no kids etc)/tech savvy etc.

    I think you will find those using Twitter (and facebook etc) are not necessarily the broad, all encompassing range of people that you imply it is. Of all the people/friends/colleagues I know that work in aid/dev etc – only very (!) few use twitter Most are either overseas with poor/limited reception or have too much work to do. Those that do use it I find are – either 1) male, 2) young with no dependents, or 3) if they are in academia/f-time work – have kids in childcare. There are exceptions to this of course, but I’ve yet to find other women working in development with more than one child, not in f-time childcare, that are able to find the time or inclination to post daily on Twitter. By assuming they are represented – “the democratizing power of Twitter” – you lessen Their voice even further.

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 6:54 am | Permalink
  19. avam wrote:

    Btw – Agree with Dennis Whittle (re Uganda/global giving/sanitary pads) that there seemed to be some good to come out of controversy, but point about over-selling “the democratizing power of Twitter” still stands.

    I have a request if possible – How about a post on the issue of adoption/Haiti? (and indeed overseas adoption in general). ‘Good intentions are not enough’ made some good points, but as Aid Watch is so widely read, and seems to cover a variety of issues facing aid/development, it might be worth bringing it up in more depth to get a wider discussion going…

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:17 am | Permalink
  20. Andy wrote:

    What does this post have to do with development?

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink
  21. Zeynep wrote:

    Don’t worry, according to an NYT article, the name iPad is already patented both in the US and in Europe. This is therefore likely to evolve into another case of Steve Jobs fury unleashed on Fujitsu and another company (recall iPhone/Cisco?). I will go ahead and stake out others just to push Jobs’s buttons: iThink, iDesk, iWink, iSpendMoneyonUselessGadgets…

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  22. GW Grad Student wrote:

    Wow, I’m surprised at how few people commenting on this post really understand the links that Bill is making. The point is not that naming the product iPad was in any way in itself damaging to women’s rights, but that it shows how little women have been incorporated into this process in a country where so many people are ready to claim that we live in a post-feminist era (or in other words, women and men have equal opportunities and are equally heard in all fields). The relation to international development should also be clear in considering how patronizing numerous Western development efforts have been and the irony in this. As for “RJS,” your comments are the most ridiculous of all, and in fact, I think they are a disservice to the women you work with as well (assuming you do work with them rather than deciding what their problems are yourself). Making the word “feminist” seem like some crazy thing is all the more patronizing. And do you really think making a joke about how stupid it was to name the product “iPad” is akin to disrespecting all the horrible atrocities that so many women in Iraq have undergone? What about the women living in poverty in developing countries that are not in the limelight/ of major interest to the U.S.? Who helps them? A number of them get help from organizations such as CARE (headed by an American woman) but mostly they have to (and do) help themselves–and there are a lot of successful grassroots organizations that do this (without the help of the almighty “charity” of Western countries). I suggest you read “Half the Sky” before making any more comments about women on this blog. Also, look up the word “feminism.” Oh, and on a side note, did any of the people commenting consider that maybe some of the people posting “iTampon” on twitter are not Western women? That women in other countries may be capable of voicing opinions of the ridiculous name on the internet as well? And to think, MAD TV saw it coming 4 years ago:

    Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  23. You have a splendid post. I deem it. Thanks for keep me update. I have the benefit of stay.

    Posted January 30, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink
  24. William Easterly wrote:

    GW Grad Student — you got my point perfectly. Thank you.

    Posted January 30, 2010 at 7:17 am | Permalink
  25. avam wrote:

    Re Grad student, regardless of the post by easterly (not much of a surprise) I feel that someone needs to respond. Certainly I cannot speak for anyone but myself, and yet – going by most responses I think that far from the majority of other posters being, as you imply, clueless/oblivious/disrespectful (delete as appropriate), there is clearly a theme here that neither Bill or you got.

    Apologies in advance for very, very long post….

    1) “The point is not that naming the product iPad was in any way in itself damaging to women’s rights, but that it shows how little women have been incorporated into this process in a country where so many people are ready to claim that we live in a post-feminist era” – well they are one and the same surely? If you claim women weren’t incorporated into the discussion you are making a statement about their rights (lack of voice etc). But, as a women I cannot believe, and am increasingly offended by, the idea that Anyone would take offence in any way with the name Ipad, and – asking other women their opinion on this, all I have asked (yes, I know, clearly biases will exist re who I asked etc) think it is absurd. Indeed, if anything the idea that ipad is in anyway seen as offensive, is offensive in itself – are women supposed to be so simple minded that a ordinary term like pad is now akin to talking about women’s periods.(“snigger – a term not unlike sanitary pad!”). As another poster said – what about ‘touch’ then? Seriously, do you really think most (any?) women are so simple minded that they would care???

    2) I think this is most likely why the majority of posters said or implied it was irrelevant.

    3) Pad is a western word, and an english shorthand term for – among Other things – sanitary pads. So, since when has this English word ‘pad’ been linked suddenly and absolutely, worldwide to the idea of sanitary pads with the same cultural associations (that it might by slightly unseemly or not etc)?

    4) Many (indeed one of the top positions, including at Google) in the US in tech are in fact women – so no, I don’t think the word pad was an oversight because women weren’t part of the conversation. I believe it was quite the opposite – that women working on this item hadn’t even made such a stupid, juvenile link Because they are equals and Because they are clearly not in junior high and Because they saw the word as reflective of what it was meant to be – notepad (if you take the view it was misguided approach – why stop there? while we’re at it lets agree never to use the word facetious again….that sounds close to faeces after all, it may confuse or offend people!!) I think this was RJS’s point – and I agree with him. I think anyone who thinks women are or should be offended, or that this represents a misrepresentation of women is the sexist/clueless one.

    5) Feminism is about supporting/encouraging the equality of women, and god forbid it is co-opted by people who think feminism is about ‘protecting’ or shielding women from supposedly ‘offensive’ or ill thought out words’ like ipad, or that such words are reflective of a “lack of women being part of the process”.

    6) Seriously? You seriously, genuinely think that women on twitter represent a wide range of women worldwide of all ages and backgrounds? You don’t think it’s More likely that women online from/in LDC’s are likely to be elites (given the myriad of constraints such as cultural/resource (tech)/norms/poverty etc) and therefore more likely to associate with western ideals than representative of many women in their own country? Further, those online from outside the US will more likely not be viewing the same issues with the same media focus, will not have the same (as mentioned before) use of words/slang – how westerncentric can you be to assume otherwise? – and will – if they are of a certain age (with kids) probably not online much/if at all. You can argue this point if you want, but if this is a very real issue in the US/UK (see MamaPhD, Higher Education etc) then obviously (the reason most of us work In development) a country with less focus on online networking, less wealth, less connectivity and as often the case, less gender equality than it is highly likely they will not be on Twitter as much as you assume (in your last paragraph, or in Easterly’s original post). To assume all women are represented is therefore a fallacy.

    7) What’s “Half the sky” got to do with anything? Nicholas Kristof is a great supporter of women, on the other hand as ‘Tales from the hood’ pointed out a while back in a recent article where N was interviewed (marketing ‘half the sky’) he is not immune to ill thought out comments and ideas (e.g. his idea of viewing the “process” of helping young girls out of poverty as you would drinking a pepsi was not his best moment). I respect N K – and obviously it’s important to support women’s equality worldwide, but I thought his comment in the interview was 100x more insensitive to women/girls/families/people in general than ‘Ipad’.

    8) I got that the original post was slightly tongue in cheek….except that it wasn’t – I think Bill was trying to make a light point by assuming that women (“all joking aside!”) did in fact ‘kind of find it insensitive’, and that those on twitter Did/do, in fact, represent a wide range of ages and nationalities, background and wealth….I disagree with both.

    9) Most likely women who posted responses on twitter did so because they Weren’t offended, but found it funny to varying degrees. Generally the more awkward and difficult an issue the Less jokes it generates – in this case if twitter ‘lit up’ is that most likely because a) women – worldwide, of all ages, backgrounds – found it an insensitive term and felt compelled, as a priority no less (!), because god knows the importance of semantics when you have a family to feed, or work to do, to go on twitter (!?) right away to state their anger at not being “incorporated into this process” particularly given Ipad was invented “in a country where so many people are ready to claim that we live in a post-feminist era” OR b) young college, tech savvy women, largely in the West, or elites in their own country, found it funny and inconsequential – and posted it as a quick joke because they Do in fact feel included and represented and Equal enough to do so.

    10) I’m Pretty sure most readers get that big orgs like Care work with women, from what I can gather most posters work in dev in some form already. Just fyi.

    So I can see Bill thought you “got it exactly” except to say, did you, or Bill, really ‘Get’ what all the criticisms were about?

    Apologies again for insanely long post, but as a women I wanted to respond as I feel that those that genuinely feel women have been ‘left out of a process’ due to a juvenile name association are the ones setting back women’s equality. What hope do important issues for women outside the west have if western women are so easily reduced – by dev critics no less – to simple minded ‘voiceless’ victims?

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  26. @murmur55 twitter wrote:

    Women are not subjected to the same rights as men in the USA. Men, especially those with personality disorders and histories of violence, are allowed to control the dialog and project all kinds of pathology onto women. I am shocked at how much criminal activity occurs against women as a regular feature of life here and how little support there is for justice. Follow my twitter feed #umassmed #violentdoctors #police #rape for the news the media and law enforcement ignores. Note also that almost all of the perpetrators are funded by state and federal taxpayers, or were educated by #harvard

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] is from a half tongue-in-cheek post by Bill Easterly at Aid Watch.  The comments section has a lot of back and forth about the […]

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