The Invisible Girl and Why Women Technologists Are Invisible

Why women technologists are so invisible is a mystery to me. While I can't lay the blame entirely on the comic books of my day, I can say that luckily today's kids have more choices of heroes who are strong female protagonists.
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Around the time that Telenet, the first publicly available proto-Internet, was launched as a commercial service, I discovered the comic book. This event happened long before I understood what a packet switched network was, why it was an techno-cultural earthquake, and how one day I would end up at the epicenter of it all at the Huffington Post.

At that time in my life the humble comic book was so much more important to me. I was a kid and here were heroes and villains battling for the fate of humanity on a monthly basis. I loved the long winded speech balloons, the images that were more of an anatomy lesson than art, and all the glorious fantasy that was, of course, a psychological proxy for growing up and becoming part of the adult world.

My favorite comic book of the era, which the art historians now call Sliver, was the Fantastic Four. These heroes fought the likes of Dr. Doom and the Mole Man, vaguely communist bad guys, with humor and awesome super powers. Oh boy, did I want a super power like the Thing's strength and armored body, or Mr. Fantastic's ability to stretch and flex like a mighty rubber band, or the Human Torch's power over flame and flying. These guys were my role models and told my yet incomplete self that even ordinary kids like me could become mighty heroes (i.e., fully functioning adults) -- especially if they were brave, worked hard and had an opportunity to be mutated by cosmic rays.

Oh, yeah, there was a fourth person in the Fantastic Four: The Invisible Girl. But her powers were strictly defensive -- invisibility and energy shields -- and she seemed to weaken rather quickly during battle. Plus she got into a lot of mushy romantic stuff with Mr. Fantastic.

Fast forward several decades and I find that while the world has changed drastically, there are still plenty of "invisible girls" around. Even though I don't spend much time with comic books and Telenet has blossomed into the Internet, most women who are into geek culture are somewhat invisible. Even the original Invisible Girl, Susan Storm, has grown up to be one of the most powerful and important members of the Fantastic Four and is now entitled the "Invisible Woman." (Not exactly my idea of an empowering name, but it's progress.)

Why women technologists are so invisible is a mystery to me. Women CEOs have high profile careers as do women in politics, finance, journalism, education, literature and some of the sciences. All these fields are still male-dominated in general, but I can easily name women of prominence in each: By going to the list on Forbes. Even though I've been on the tech scene for 20 years, I can't easily name a famous female CTO, CIO or technology entrepreneur. None of the women on the Forbes list are "technologists," even though many run technology businesses. Somehow women technologists don't get on the right lists. Like the Invisible Girl, women technologist are not getting the best lines in the comic book script.

Last week, while I attended the launch party for Huffington, our beautiful new iPad Magazine, I had the pleasure to meet Anna Maria Chávez, the CEO of the Girl Scouts USA. Chávez is no invisible girl: You can tell from a mile away that she is an accomplished leader on a mission to improve the lives of girls in particular, and improve the world in general. During our conversation, Chávez mentioned that she is looking for a CIO to lead the technology side of the GSUSA. We both recognized this is a great opportunity for a senior technologist to make a huge difference for girls and young women in America. We also discussed how hard it is to find women in technology careers.

While I can't lay the blame entirely on comic books and the Fantastic Four's oddly weak female member, I can say that at exactly the right time in my childhood, I found role models that spoke to me in a language that adults at the time could not penetrate. Kids have a way of knowing when messages have been contrived. The comic books of my day were honest expressions of no other message than: there is a world to save and even a geeky kid like me has the potential to do it. As long that kid is a boy.

Today's kids have more choices of heroes who are strong female protagonists like Buffy and Katniss. Girls and boys can discover on their own that gender has nothing to do with being a hero: A powerful and proactive member of our society.

Luckily we don't have to wait long for the generation raised on Buffy and Katniss to drop their invisibility and take their rightful place as technology leaders. Marc Hedlund, VP Engineering at Etsy, is helping them along! Hedlund and Etsy are working with Hacker School, one of my favorite adhocracies, to provide grants to women who want to join the innovative Hacker School program. This kind of direct encouragement goes a long way in showing that women interested in technology are welcome in the bleeding edge tech world where knowledge of comic books and super heroes is a big part of currency that gets you in the door.

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