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From Princess to Goddess: Female Success in IT

by Molly Holzschlag
09/18/2007

Molly Holzschlag works to educate designers and developers on using web technologies in practical ways to create highly sustainable, maintainable, accessible, interactive and beautiful web sites for the global community.

Ridiculous as it may sound, my experiences as an emotional, sometimes hysterical, highly paid, and astonishingly well-liked female in IT are perhaps somewhat unique. Now, don't get me wrong, I've met my fair share of gender (and other) bias, but I am certain that strong, authentic voices that steer clear of power plays and agenda-wars can actually skyrocket a woman's career rather than harm it.

It's common knowledge that the IT workforce has been male-dominated for most of its life. However, this is clearly beginning to change as more women start careers in some aspect of either computer science or in the larger, more integrated world of the Web. The Web itself is a nascent industry, and many of the people working within it are extremely young, which may well be part of the reason it seems a friendlier and more democratic place. Nevertheless, women—particularly those working on the Web—make up for a growing and significant portion of the IT workforce. As such, the male-domination (in numbers, at least) will naturally have to shift and change over time.

But what do we as women, and an industry in general, do in the interim? The beauty of the Web is that its techno-social infrastructure has been built not on those who hold MBAs or PhDs but, rather, it lives on the merit that any individual who enters its realm brings. In a meritocracy, the idea is that the harder a person works, the more an individual participates and shares, the more merit the individual achieves and can use to his—or her—empowerment.

Common Situations, Uncommon Individuals

Pretend with me for a moment that the world is suddenly egalitarian. Yes, I know, it's a stretch, but if any environment has begun to reach toward that, it has to be the Web. After all, we're worldwide; we encompass every language, race, color, gender, creed, sexual orientation, and gender preference known to the world. This native democracy in the spirit of the Web may well be part of the fact that working in the Web field is a good place for all people, especially women, to be.

Does this mean it's all a bed of wine and roses? Oh, no. There are at least two highly dangerous positions for women to be in wherein (perhaps cliché but unfortunately) very real biases exist:

The first of these common situations is as part of an ingrained corporate or organizational hierarchy still built and based in the old-boy mentality. Working for companies of this nature inevitably puts creative people in the direct way of hard-line thinkers. In some cases, working for biased individuals who long for the lost good-old-boy's world of two-martini lunches and power plays. While I have my tongue in my cheek (as usual), this is an unfortunate reality for many, where women, in particular, have to play the same old game to get ahead. For a woman, this often means not aggressing or challenging a wrong where she might see one. The great irony here is that often it is exactly that behavior that can instigate change. But too much is on the line for most people economically, socially, and within their family life. As such, women tend to be highly protective of their positions and do not reach their full potential in an effort to protect those positions.

The second of these common situations is when a woman gets involved in the academic and scientific branches of the Web's technologies. When you examine the W3C, for instance, and count how many women are actually involved, it might come as something as a shock. (At a glance, there are currently 491 active members on the W3C HTML Working Group's mailing list. Of these, less than 15 are women. If anything, this is an unusual case; many working groups have no women involved at all. We do see more women on the administrative side of things; the W3C staff is approximately 25 percent female.) But how on earth can this democratic, worldwide vision be run by so many men? As one of the few women working with the W3C, I can tell you, there's always the risk of being run right over by the testosterone truck. I mean, how many women do you see running toward working with groups such as the W3C? The Microformats community? Or the WHAT WG? Not too many, as it's intimidating and the rewards are purely contributory and merit-oriented as no one gets paid for their participation (except staff) in any of these organizations.

Fortunately, there is something called self-esteem and courage, which are required to challenge your real or perceived fears about what "could" happen when a person goes against authority. Benjamin Disraeli said, "Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for truth." I remind myself of that regularly in order to help my esteem and reinforce my personal courage.

While this might make for worse battles in the instance of the good ole boys' club, in the latter case, my own self-esteem actually helped me become more involved, better respected, and very well connected even as I remain an emotionally-expressive female at every turn.

Be Yourself and the Rest Will Follow

There's a popular word that has been going around these past few years: Transparency. I hate that word in the context of business and humans. Just because you can see through something doesn't mean that what you're looking at is real. I prefer the term "Authenticity" because I think it better describes the way people are.

Have I mentioned that I'm often hysterical? Dramatic? Emotional? I've even had two bouts of public suicidal ideations. People outside my field have wondered how on earth I have not only managed to keep my work but also to excel at it. In the years prior to the Web, this might have been a more reasonable question. But, in the environment of meritocracy, what happened instead was that people came to my aid, and saw that my struggles and frustrations were very real and often matched their own unspoken feelings. What may have been career suicide for others was career-altering for me. Today, my clients know exactly who I am and what they're getting; the experience of being authentic has actually filtered out those who cannot cope with me, the way that I am. As a result, the way I'm able to interact with my clients remains open and authentic; this makes for lasting relationships, which, in turn, helps build better web sites and encourage excellence for all.

On the standards front, I've run into my fair share of what I like to call the pedantic semantics. These are the folks who are brilliant, who look at the world in a very linear, very set way. When I interact with them, they are sometimes shocked at my outspoken ways and "dramatic" approach to dealing with what they see as academic problems. But at the end of the day, the merit of my work and the honesty of my passions actually have helped soothe some of the frayed ends of the male-dominated world and helped solve real problems.

But What if I Can't?

I am of the very strong belief that right now women in IT have more opportunities to get ahead than ever. The challenges facing us come from deeply ingrained social concerns as well as practical concerns of raising families, and so on. I've been in a very fortunate situation in that regard, where I've been able to roar across the world because I have no family ties to keep me at a specific job. I've used that to my advantage. However, as the male roles within the workplace change and adapt, so must our roles as women.

Certainly if you're trying to keep a job to feed your family and having to play politics within a less-merit-more-old-school environment, what I'm encouraging here is probably not the way to go. However, if you, as a woman, want to make your way to the podium, there's now a lot of opportunity for you. All you need is a Can-Do attitude and to be willing to grow your skin a bit thicker. You have to take risks. Problems of better working conditions do not solve themselves. But an authentic, motivated voice can.

From Here to There

I've made so many public blunders (seemingly), shown my innermost vulnerabilities, and shared my challenges as a full human with all the joy and suffering that includes. I've been fortunate as to "get away" with such blatant, professionally taboo behavior, which originally came as a shock to me. I began asking my colleagues—most of whom are male—why they thought I did.

Their responses have always been the same. That the merit of my work and the heart of the soul I bring to the table are the clear agenda. The passion, drama, and emotional nature of my being has in fact not made men mock me, because the heart and goal is clear. The work I do is not about me, personally, and it never has been. Rather, it is the concern for the technology as it grows and changes, along with the concern for humanity as it, too, grows and changes, that drives me in my work.

And perhaps that's the most important lesson of all: if you want to succeed, do it for the greater good, not for your own advancement. No matter your gender, your race, your nationality, your language, and beliefs, your authentic passion and voice combined with honest discussion and plain old hard work will advance not only IT, but the very world in which we live.


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