Women in Technology

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Women Who Risk: Making Women in Technology Visible

by Tara Hunt
09/17/2007

Tara Hunt has spent most of her adult life online, either participating in or building communities.

In the tech community, the questions about females abound: Where are the women in the industry? What about female speakers? Founders? Tech bloggers? And if they aren't present, why not? Are women really not interested in technology? Do we discourage our daughters from pursuing careers in technology? Does the nerdy stereotype discourage young women from becoming geeks themselves? Are women just built differently? Is it nature or nurture? I believe that part of the answer to the question "Why aren't women in technology?" lies in our mistaking the answer to the former question, "Where are the women?".

Women are present and in droves. On a trip out to an internal Yahoo! Hack Day about a year ago, I was surprised to enter the final presentation room and find that over one third of the presenters were female. Not only were there a surprising number of females presenting, the winning team also happened to be made up of two females. The winning hack was the ability to transfer your Yahoo! Travel data to your iPod for easy portability. A geeky answer to a very human problem. About two weeks later, my partner and I went out to the SuperHappyDevHouse all-night hacker fest to find a houseful of males with a smattering of females cycling through, most of them not developers and mainly there to socialize. There isn't anything wrong with coming to a hacker fest to socialize—many of the attendees do this—but I had to wonder, "Where are all of those awesome hacker women I witnessed at Yahoo! Hack Day?"

Those grassroots hackers who come up with their brilliant new startup ideas at the all-night hacker fests are celebrated highly; they grace the covers of BusinessWeek Magazine, headline the Web 2.0 conferences, and are elevated to folk hero status for other developers in the industry. But very rarely do we hear about an individual engineer within Google or Yahoo! who has come up with a something new. In a culture that celebrates the individual (even though none of us works in a bubble), the female geeks are being absorbed into teams. So, it seems that I've located the women: they are mostly at the big companies doing all sorts of cool and innovative things. They are in excellent, prestigious positions. But that isn't the entire picture either. There are quite a few, individual women who are risk takers. These are women who leave the comforts of salaried, benefited work at the big companies to go and lead startups.

My favorite example to use for this is Sandra Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems. Yes, THE Cisco systems. Sandra, known as Sandy to her friends, holds a master's degree in Computer Science from Stanford and co-founded Cisco with her then-husband in 1984. Interestingly, as her next venture in the 1990s, she went on to co-found Urban Decay Cosmetics, a popular and subversive makeup brand. Sandra Lerner is a woman in technology (she has now returned to the tech industry as an investor) who has taken risks for years in a big way. Yet, when I talk about her, it is very rare that anyone has heard of her.

If you look around, you'll see that there are many Sandras. Some of the hottest companies of early Web 2.0 (and before) have been co-founded by women: Flickr (Caterina Fake), Blogger (Meg Hourihan), SixApart (Mena Trott), Mozilla (Mitchell Baker), Guidewire Group (Chris Shipley), and Adaptive Path (Janice Fraser). An overview of current startups shows a seemingly endless list of women founders (and co-founders) including:

  • Mary Hodder: Dabble
  • Gina Bianchi: Ning
  • Ann Crady: Maya's Mom
  • Sandy Jen and Elaine Wherry: Meebo
  • Emily Chang: eHub/IdeaCodes
  • Xochi Birch: Bebo
  • Joyce Park: Renkoo
  • Jessica Hardwick: SwapThing
  • Margarita Irizarry and Monica Heitlauf: Scrapblog
  • Yael Elish: eSnips
  • Halley Suitt: Top Ten Sources
  • Elisa Camahort, Lisa Stone, and Jory DesJardins: Blogher
  • Ryanne Hodson: Node101
  • Ariel Kleckner Ford: CareSquare
  • Carla Morton and Cathleen Wang: BrandHabit
  • Sharra Chan: OrangeDoor
  • Erica Douglass: Simpli.biz
  • Lisa Sugar: PopSugar
  • Louise Wannier: MyShape
  • Beatrice Tarka: Mobissimo
  • Emily Boyd: Remember the Milk
  • Andra Davidson: Mothersclick
  • Eileen Gittins: Blurb
  • Rashmi Sinha: SlideShare
  • Julie Davidson: 30Boxes
  • Laura Scott and Katherine Lawrence: pingVision
  • Kathy Sierra: Head First Books
  • Gillian Carson: Carson Systems
  • Alex Vikati: CastTV
  • Vanessa Williams and Leigh Himel: Oponia
  • Dina Kaplan: Blip.tv
  • Rachel Cook: Minti
  • Amy Muller: Ruby Red Labs
  • D Millack: Zazzle
  • Ellen Miller: Sunlight Foundation
  • Linda Furrier: Podtech
  • Elizabeth Souther Tarbell: VivaPop
  • Maggie Fox: Social Media Group
  • Maggie Tsai: Diigo
  • Susan DeFife: Backfence
  • DiAnn Eisnor: Platial
  • Kim Polese: Spikesource
  • Angela Beesley: Wikia
  • Arianna Huffington: Huffington Post
  • Kelly Goto: Gotomedia
  • Merci Hammon: PMOG

...and the list goes on. This is only representative of a small number of women who, right now, are out on their own; some of them are up all night coding and many of them are knocking on venture capitalists' doors. So, why is it that—if we clearly already exist—the question of where we are is still being asked? I have a few theories on this, too:

I must choose family first. For as far as we've come, women are still the main caretakers of our families. I recently rode the elevator with a couple of super-smart businesswomen at BlogHer. One woman was telling the other one that she just got off of the phone with her husband who had spent the weekend with the kids. Through this experience, her husband apparently realized that all of his own business travel must have had an effect on his wife's work. "He promised to cut back on his own travel, so I could get my own work done," she proclaimed. The other woman mused that she looks forward to the day her husband has the same revelation, as her consultancy suffers because it has to take a backseat to childcare.

I'd like to think that we can have our babies and our careers, too. If this is what we want, though, we need to train those around us early on to share the workload (or we need to hire help) and stop taking all the burden on ourselves. I have a teenage son and I have always leaned heavily on other family members to make both being a mother and having a career possible for me. Sure, there are times when I've let balls drop, but I'm happier and further ahead for it. It is important for us to value our own careers and leisure time as highly as we do those of our partners.

I am invisible. There is a perpetual cycle of assumptions that lead to women becoming invisible. In the media. At conferences. In general discussion. There have been multiple occasions in which both my partner and I have been interviewed for an article on a project we are working on together, but my name has disappeared from reference upon printing. My partner and I have been tracking business and technology reporting and have created our own game wherein we collect the articles written about hotshot women starting cool new companies. So far we have one (Gina Bianchini of Ning in Business 2.0). We understand that this doesn't happen in malice, but it is damaging nonetheless. For every new magazine on the newsstands filled with young, white males talking about their latest startup, the invisibility of women becomes even more deeply ingrained.

The situation of the lack of women as conference speakers has become so dire that BlogHer put together a Women in Technology list that, among other things, watches for new conferences being announced, then swoops in with a long list of very qualified speakers to offer the conference organizers. Lucky for us, our efforts are being recognized by many conference organizers and they are beginning to come to this list for suggestions before the conference has even been announced.

The lack of role models in public view also makes it incredibly difficult for a young woman who is asking herself if she wants to enter the Computer Science field. I get several emails per week from young women who want advice on how to make themselves more visible and see me (and I'm not a developer) as a role model.

I am not successful. We need to re-examine the way we measure success in this industry. We tend to celebrate "masculine" successes, represented by the more logical, linear, quantitative statistics (such as raw numbers and dollars), rather than feminine measurements that are more anecdotal, relational, and qualitative. Of course, we need a balance of the two, but many of the magazine articles, conference brochures and the way we even blog about companies point to their prowess on numbers of users, money in the bank, size of acquisition rather than the depth of the relationships and connections. We appear to care more about size than substance when we report this way.

There is also a very aggressive attitude in venture capital. We have specific expectations set on how to conduct business and interact with that world. I've worked with several startups, some with venture capital and some without. Those without are much easier to work with as there is no pressure to grow raw numbers for the sake of pleasing the investors. The self-funded or the angel funded companies grow smart, not just grow large as they have less pressure. This matters to the barriers to entry for those with different approaches to growing a company, and, quite often, it is women who find this barrier antithetical to their goals. Many of the female entrepreneurs I've worked with have a much more personal approach to growth.

Online communities for women are growing in positive directions because of the personal interaction they have with each of their customers. For one such online community, Maya's Mom, it is essential that its community of mothers has trust among its members. With the wrong investor, Founder Ann Crady would get pressure to become more efficient and aggressively increase numbers (to look more attractive to potential advertisers) and that trust ecosystem would be compromised. Ann is lucky because she has good investors who understand her need for slow, positive growth, but those types of investors are a rare breed in the Valley. The pressure on growth for the sake of growth is extreme. This is also the most ingrained cultural practice and will take generations to unravel.

Of course, these are only my observations. Personally, I have chosen to ignore all of the standard measurements to create my own path. I've found what I consider to be great success by finding my own way. If there is anything that the grassroots, collaborative modeling of Web 2.0 has taught me it is that for anything that was once thought to be a best practice, you can find better alternatives just by looking deeper. More and more people are doing this and realizing that the old ways of doing business inherited from Web 1.0 are just not cutting it in the more community-based, connected world of social networks. The more feminine values, such as relationship building, openness, and cooperation, are growing in popularity for everyone, not just the female entrepreneurs. Many of these values come from the egalitarian outlook of open source, but I also believe they are highly influenced by the diversity of customers.

Now when someone around me asks, "Where are the women in technology?" I have a ready-made list to rattle off. Then I take the second part of that question and start to unravel the reason why we've been rendered so invisible. I hope this article gives more people the tools to do the same.


Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: a visit to the Women Founders Collective, which is a global movement of women founders of nonprofit organizations. For more resources for women internet entrepreneurs, go to: http://www.dotcomdivas.net.


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