Tania Katan on It Was Never a Dress, Keeping Things STEAM-y, and What Arizona Is Doing to Support Women

"It's important to realize it's not about a dress. It's not about a cape," Katan says. "It's about feeling comfortable in your own skin, regardless of what you put on top of it."
"It's important to realize it's not about a dress. It's not about a cape," Katan says. "It's about feeling comfortable in your own skin, regardless of what you put on top of it."

Tania Katan's life has gotten a lot busier over the past few days. As she puts it, "Trending is exhausting!" Just three months ago Katan joined the Scottsdale-based software company Axosoft after working as curator of performing art at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Last week, one of her first projects for the company, an initiative called It Was Never A Dress, went viral.

The campaign's image is a monochrome bathroom-sign woman symbol standing next to a colorized version where (what many presume to be) her skirt has instead been replaced with a superhero cape. The image has drawn the attention of the national and international media. Axosoft, a sponsor of the Girls In Tech Conference, debuted the image at the conference in Phoenix last week in an effort to spark a conversation about women's underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) fields.

We caught up with Katan at the end of a bustling week to talk about the future of the project and how she hopes to see it impact Arizona.

See also: Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference Brings Innovation Leaders to Phoenix

You're an artist by trade -- how did you wind up working for a software company? Prior to being at Axosoft I was working at a contemporary art museum curating performance art and literary art. A throughline for my life and career has been creative writing and performing, mixed in with a little bit of activism. I come from a fine arts background -- I have a degree in theatre from ASU. Prior to Axosoft is what I've been doing my entire life -- creative writing, performing, and activism, in different forms.

Maybe two years ago I was asked to give a talk at Axosoft about creativity in the workplace. I came in and gave a TED-like talk and had a great time -- the people and the energy there was really supportive and fun, and they were really receptive to the ideas I was talking about. And that was it, we parted ways! I know nothing about software, I didn't think I'd ever cross paths with them again. About 7 months ago I was emcee-ing an event where Hamid Shojaee (who invented axosoft) was there as a judge. We had a really nice rapport, and that was that. Five months ago I got a phone call from Axosoft saying we'd love to talk with you about software. I said, "I don't even know what that means," but I wanted to come in and see what that was about. I knew they were cool people, creative thinkers and doers -- but that was all I knew. I went in for -- not an interview, a conversation.

We had this weird and amazing exchange where they were like, "We really like your energy, but we don't know how you fit here," and I said, "I don't know if I fit here, what does this mean?" At the end of it they invited me to come to their strategic meeting, which was like a locked down two-day meeting with an outside strategist. They said we want to show you who we are and what we're planning to do. I said, "Worst case scenario I'll learn about strategic planning." I sat in for two days. They are trying to create an agile Project Development software for Project Developers -- this "agile" methodology is bigger than just software, it's really a way of functioning in the world that I understand as a creative. That piqued my interest. I had a great time, and at the end of the two days they made me an offer. They said, "We'll give you the space, time, support, and team to figure out how you fit, and how you as a creative thinker, artist, activist, can make connections to the larger audience." I started working there three months ago and then came up with this project.

So it's safe to say you kind of blew their expectations out of the water with the success of It Was Never A Dress? [Laughs] We didn't have time for my three-month review because we've reached 7 million people on social media -- Time picked it up, Mashable, ReadWrite. It's on every major media outlet. The India Times posted about it. It's amazing. It's big.

I think the coolest thing about all of this is that this was never addressed is international. The symbol of these two women side by side -- our perception, and then the reality (or another perceived reality) -- all people are connecting to it, having conversations, challenging it. And it all stems from teeny, tiny little Arizona, and more specifically this software company that's been around since 2002 that's been all about creating a tech ecosystem in Arizona.

The first thing people ask [in interviews] is "Are you in New York? Are you based in L.A.?" I say "No, there are actually wildly talented people who live right here in Arizona."

The point is, we've been a part of -- and we want to be part of -- growing this ecosystem, by saying you don't need to leave Arizona. If you are pursuing informal or formal education in any of the STEAM fields, you can do it here, and stay here, and we will provide opportunities.


Tania Katan in the outfit that excites her the most.
Tania Katan in the outfit that excites her the most.
Photo by Blythe Vrindavana Rymer; Courtesy of Tania Katan

Are there particular experiences that you've had as a woman that lead you to IWNAD? I've been thinking, making, doing, writing, performing, and activist-ing about this issue for 25 years. It's a focus. I remember about 10 years ago living in L.A. and receiving a brochure for a performing arts center. I was looking through it and I was like, "Oh. This is weird. There's one woman performing, it's all men the entire season." I don't imagine someone saw this and said, "This is okay!"

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I got on the phone with the center and said, "I noticed there's only one woman [in the brochure], when there are so many women who are actors and singers and rock-and-rollers." It's something I've been engaged with.

I gave a TedX talk about five years ago. In the talk, the organizer asked me, "Would you like to do this talk?" I asked who else was speaking. He was like, "This guy and that guy and this guy and that guy," and then he said, "What would you like to talk about?" I said, "I'll be talking about how I'm the only woman here." And he said, "No seriously," and I said, "No, you just decided for me."

[I've also done some] activism in terms of breast cancer. I have no breasts as a result of breast cancer. I'm constantly aware of being a woman body in spaces where I think I belong, but I'm sometimes overlooked or sometimes shunned. It's important to realize it's not about a dress. It's not about a cape. It's about feeling comfortable in your own skin, regardless of what you put on top of it.

What issues specific to Arizona do you hope to shed light on through this campaign? [Phoenix] Mayor Greg Stanton has been really vocal and active about holding local government accountable for salary inequalities, as they relate to women. That's happening right now, in Arizona. He spoke at the Girls In Tech conference where we launched the invitation or campaign.

Obviously this conversation is about inequality, for women in tech spaces - and in every space right now. We have the Ellen Pao trial. We have Sabine Mahmoud, who was a peace activist in Pakistan who facilitated the first ever hackathon in Pakistan. She was gunned down in front of the Second Floor, which was a place where she hosted space for people to make music, hold hackathons, have a conversation. She was gunned down as an activist who supported women in tech and the arts.

It's a really strong time for women to talk about inequality -- as it relates to salaries, as it relates to civil rights for everyone. There are other conversations occuring as a result.

People that are really offended are saying "Why can't it be a dress? I'm a woman and I like wearing dresses." It shows this rigid way of looking at gender. Of course you can wear a dress! This is a superhero. As far as I'm concerned, superheroes transcend gender. On some level, you become something bigger than a dress or a cape.

I don't see gender as being relegated to specific body parts or specific wardrobe choices. We get to make choices based on what excites us on any given day. There's real power in what that means on an emotional level, I think.

You call IWNAD an "invitation" to shift perceptions and assumptions... who do you most want to invite? The invitation is clear: first, it's to engage. We wanted to make it for the Girls In Tech conference. We were thinking specifically about women in tech spaces, and young women and girls who are not invited into these spaces at all, who in some cases are the only girls in their class that are pursuing Science and Tech and Math. If they can't be themselves, how can they see themselves in those arenas?

It started as a way to share stories about how people perceive them, what their truths are. But it will be an open forum for men and women to participate in a conversation about how it feels to belong in spaces that we don't feel we belong in. It will grow in the way it needs to grow based on how people want to play with it. I see it more as half of a dialogue -- we created a visual entry into the conversation, and we want other people to respond with their half of the dialogue.

What can people expect from IWNAD? What will the tangible outcomes of the campaign look like? It'll be online for now. People are e-mailing like crazy and asking us to partner in some way, or to utilize this symbol to help with real-life events and promotion, and for this symbol to provide an entre into women in technology. We're going to form these symbiotic or synergistic relationships.

It'll be an online community. In terms of tangibility, people are going crazy asking for stickers and T-shirts. We'll be providing stickers for free -- they'll just have to enter their e-mail. When people buy the T-shirts, part of the proceeds will go to a scholarship we're going to start at ASU. Instead of commodifying this conversation, we're [creating a scholarship for students] to go into the STEAM fields. That feels like the most radical thing a company can do.

Editor's note: This post has been edited from its original version.

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