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Razor Burned: The Beard-less Women of Obama’s Tech Team

The Obama campaign’s technology team was widely credited with playing an integral role in the president’s 2012 reelection.

Among its many accomplishments, the Obama For America (OFA) tech team built Narwhal, a set of services and software that managed campaign data to optimize fundraising and field operations. The team was a media darling, affectionately called the “the nerds” who won the election. But the group’s nerdiness wasn’t its only feature widely cited in the press.

Their beards were nearly as popular.

When asked about the tech team, Jason Kunesh, Director of User Experience, lightheartedly told the Chicago Tribune, "We're the guys with the beards.” Political commentator Andrew Sullivan called them “fat, bearded and dedicated computer nerds.” The prolific facial hair on the tech team became such a consistent meme that the team adopted it as its own inside joke. But the obsession with beards didn’t sit well with OFA technologist Mari Huertas.

You see, she does not have a beard. Or a mustache. Or really any impressive facial hair to speak of. And she’s not alone.

“I am not at all bearded,” Huertas joked on her blog last week, calling attention to all the other facial-hair-challenged women who played important roles on the OFA tech team. “Women were on that Technology team, too,” she explained, “Yet some articles skipped mentioning women almost entirely.” Director of Support Brady Kriss agreed: “The Bearded Men of the Obama Tech Team has become a meme unto itself in the media. It's a great story, but it isn't accurate.”

Huertas’ blog post specifically called out publishers like Rolling Stone and Mother Jones for not adequately recognizing women for their contributions; and she went on to name names, calling attention to the important work of women like Kriss, Director of Integration and Media Targeting Carol Davidsen, Director of Voter Experience Winnie Lam, and Tech4Obama Program Manager Catherine Bracy. None of whom, for the record, have beards.

With all this talk of facial hair, I decided to talk to Chief Technology Officer Harper Reed, the rambunctious man behind the most famous beard on the OFA tech team, about the media’s obsession.

“The whole beards thing is just bullsh*t,” exclaims Reed. “It was more about laziness than anything else, but it turned into such a bullsh*t way of alienating women. I regret that the way that I looked contributed to that.”

That statement struck me, particularly in light of my recent article about how a judgment of their appearance is so often the primary reaction to women in technical fields. Since nearly every article about Reed included some comment on his wild hair and non-traditional piercings, I asked him how it felt to be constantly described by his appearance.

Reed didn’t pretend to understand the plight of minorities—“Unlike gender or ethnicity, my ‘look’ is my choice”—but he did say it gave him new perspective. He described his experience that when you look different, you have to be 10 times better to get approval. “Sadly, lots of women are dealing with that in tech. We have to fix that.”

In Reed’s opinion, the heightened barrier to entry is one of the things keeping women—and non-Asian minorities, he was quick to add—out of the top positions in technical fields. It’s something he said he tried hard to fix, but he’s the first to admit they could have tried harder.

“It’s a little bit of a demon that I think about a lot: How much is enough to try to bring more minorities into the organization?” he admits. “The campaign had the values to try make the team look like America. We didn’t make it.”

Chief Integration and Innovation Officer Michael Slaby had similar reactions: “The lack of women in technology leadership positions was a huge challenge, and I tried desperately to bring women to the senior team but failed.”

As I thought about the paucity of women in the senior ranks of the OFA tech team, I had to wonder if this wasn’t just another example of something we see across almost every organization: The people doing the work are rarely as celebrated as their bosses. When I asked Reed, undoubtedly one of the most credited members of the technology team, he couldn’t have agreed more.

“The press only cares about the people at the top,” he laments. “There were an awful lot of people on the campaign who didn’t get enough credit, and that’s a shame.”

And therein lies the vicious circle that perpetuates the “pipeline problem” for women in tech: Without a large pool of women in leadership positions, fewer women are highlighted to serve as role models for girls who might choose to pursue that path. It’s a classic case of You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.

But if we want to solve the women in tech problem, how we look back is important as how we look forward. “I think it is clear that we didn't have enough women on the team,” explains Kriss, “but that's different from saying that there were no women on the tech team, and that's what I keep hearing in the media.”

Addressing that issue was precisely the point of Huertas’ blog post: “We need to elevate the profiles of successful women so that others will see them and want to work alongside them—so they will know what roles are available and what roles they can make.” Slaby agrees wholeheartedly: “Obviously we need to highlight women succeeding in tech to encourage more women to jump into tech.”

In the wake of the dissolution of what was described as a “disposable startup,” members of the technology team that delivered Obama to the White House for a second term are each thinking about how to encourage more women into technology leadership positions. Huertas shares lists of women who had significant positions in the campaign. Slaby is focused on encouraging women at the lower rungs of technology organizations to stick around in pursuit of leadership roles. Reed says he’s trying to talk about women more. He’s including them in speeches and bringing it up whenever he can. “My goals are simple: Talk about it and try harder.”

Obama Tech Team