A drone enthusiast who goes by Anders came across something he found to be offensively sexist on Team BlackSheep’s online shop.
Anders stood up to this perceived sexism by emailing Pirker, explaining why he viewed the shop text as a gender stereotype and suggested considering changing it.
“It assumes the FPS-enthusiast browsing your store is male and sends a signal that women are not welcome,” he wrote in a private email to Pirker, that was later posted to the TBS Facebook page. “No wonder there are so few women flying FPV if this is the attitude they have to put up with everywhere. Please consider re-phrasing the text to remove any sexist jokes.”
Pirker wrote back saying, “The text isn’t sexist, and according to our statistics, our audience is 99.8% male. With the exception of a few females…some of them opening tickets complaining about sexist remarks :)”
It’s been hotly debated both on the Team BlackSheep Facebook page, where Anders originally posted this, and on various other forums such as Amelia Droneharts, a closed Facebook group for women interested in drones, where this email exchange was first brought to my attention.
Given the prominence of people involved (Raphael Pirker is widely noted as one of the most influential people in drones for contesting a $10,000 fine for flying his drone to shoot commercial video), I realized I can’t passively ignored what was said on this post.
I reached out to Pirker for comment. Here is his email statement:
“My email response to Anders was written on pupose (sic) to be as offensive and as sexist as possible, because he is an overly-sensitive idiot and this is how we were brought up to deal with them. Sure we could have explained to Anders why he is an idiot, that his point is moot and that he should learn to identify a joke instead of calling us all kinds of names. But that would have been as much a waste of time as discussing this further is. If anyone else was offended by my email, I apologize, I can understand how it can be misinterpreted but it was also not intended and worded to be read by a third party.”
Anders is not “an overly-sensitive idiot.” He is someone making an effort to include women. Anders is an example of being proactive about breaking barriers and welcoming women, no matter how insignificant it seems.
The similarities between today’s drones and personal computers in the 1980s
Women are interested in technology. In 2013, Code.org launched its “Hour of Code” campaign to advocate for more computer science education. 15 million students participated the first week, and more than half of the participants were girls.
The RC industry historically has many similarities to personal computers.
“A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women,” according to a piece in NPR. “And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers.”
This follows a trend similar to the RC field. People like Leisa Adkins have been building and flying model aircraft for decades. Recently, the emergence of DJI Phantoms and the greater accessibility to FPV and DIY drones or other RC copters have brought this technology to the general public and to more U.S. homes.
“These early personal computers weren’t much more than toys,” according to NPR. “You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys.”
Drones are at a similar stage now that PCs were in the 1980s.
Take Patricia Ordóñez, a math whiz in school, who grew up without a computer. When she got to John Hopkins University in the ‘80s, she took a computer science class. Her male peers were already ahead of her because they had grown up playing computers.
“I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, ‘You should know that by now,’ ” she told NPR. “And I thought ‘I am never going to excel.’ ”
She got the first C of her life in that class and ended up dropping the program.
With high drop-out rates come very few female leaders in the industry. 100% of the executive leadership at venture-backed companies 3D Robotics and Skycatch is male, I wrote in an earlier Drone Girl piece.
The number of drone operators is expected to climb at an annualized 4.0% rate over the next five years through 2020, according to an IBISWorld study.
The good news is that we are at the early stage of an industry that is rapidly growing. We are currently transitioning from the pioneering period to the mainstream consumer market.
“We’re in the really early days of drones,” said Faine Greenwood, a field analyst at the New America Foundation where she works on a drones for an international development project. “It’s our responsibility as women to care about this, to be vocal and work hard to ensure that from the beginning it isn’t sexist.”
‘This isn’t an issue for women. It’s an issue for humanity.’
Pirker has a right to write what he wants, and Anders doesn’t have to shop at TBS. But Anders absolutely did the right thing here for all women by pointing out that Pirker may want to consider re-phrasing the text on his shop to be inclusive to all.
Pirker has made massive strides for this community. When he went to federal court to fight the $10,000 fine he was slapped with for commercial drone use, he wasn’t fighting for himself — it was for all of us entrepreneurs looking to further the drone industry. He has taken aerial video to a completely new level and inspired thousands of people to be creative with aerial video. He’s easily one of the most important people in drones.
That’s why it’s disheartening to see someone so influential and inspirational in the drone world brushing this off.
“If you are already the dominant group in an industry, it’s easy to act like a comment doesn’t mean anything,” Greenwood said. “And on the whole, I’ve been impressed with the drone community and the guys in it. I felt welcomed and acknowledged. That doesn’t mean we can ignore the idiots.”
The slightly-less-than-PC joke on Pirker’s shop description was not the worst thing in the world. What’s wrong here is the disregard for failing to acknowledge how we can make this community more inclusive. It’s a man putting down another man for trying to take an important step in achieving equality for women.
What we’ve accomplished so far
Anders is an example of positive ways men can have a huge impact in changing the landscape of sexism in technology.
Anders is not alone in making huge strides to be more inclusive. DJI declared February as Female Pilots Awareness month, with a focus on featuring female photographers in their Instagram, hosting flight lessons geared toward women, creating videos profiling women who fly drones and hosting Q&As with female drone users. They aren’t exclusively marketing their drones to men, even if the overwhelming majority of their current customers are male. A group called Amelia Droneharts has sprung up as a place for female pilots to virtually convene.
Whether you identify as a man or a woman, it is our responsibility to be welcoming of all people into the community.
It is not enough for us to passively behave as we usually would. It is not enough to accept the status quo. We need to actively be conscious of how what we say and do is perceived, so that we create a community that everyone, women and men, want to be a part of.