Women Who Tech

As new media continues to be an amplifying platform for previously under-recognized constituencies and agendas, women are looking to claim their piece of the pie. On May 12,
the "Women Who Tech" Telesummit took place. There was a full day of panels and plenty to listen to. Holly Ross, Executive Director of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), put the cards on the table with her opening comment, "The tech world does not belong to the guys."

Joan Blades, moveon.org co-founder and the
mobilizing force behind momsrising.org, spoke clearly about what the Net has to offer women. She stated, "The virtual world is good in breaking down barriers, and has unarticulated advantages for those who don't fit the mold." Blades believes that Cyberspace makes it safe for women to work differently, and creates a new reality where people can fulfill their responsibilities outside of work. In addition to her position that social media has helped women find their voice, she sees the virtual world as dovetailing with mothering. Blades has been working on both a culture and a policy change, with an eye to underscoring the importance of parenting. She said, "When we create flexibility, it is better for all."

The need for women to embrace their expertise was put forth by Tracy Viselli, known to her Twitter followers as Myrna the Minx. Qualifying how men and women approach the issue differently she said, "Men call themselves experts if they have something to contribute." Women, regardless of their knowledge, tend to minimize the importance of their input. Leslie Hawthorn, Program Manager for Google's Open Source Team, mentioned the devaluation of what are considered "soft skills," such as nurturing and communications. She suggested they were not respected since they are not a "quantifiable or measurable" expertise.

The question of who was building a "digital ceiling" -- and if it in fact existed -- was addressed by
Lynne D. Johnson, Senior Editor at FastCompany.com. She noted that in the tech world the majority of the players were white males, but that women limited themselves. "Women need to put themselves out there," she said, emphasizing the need to have enough courage to speak for oneself. Susan Mernit underscored the importance of "not allowing yourself to be silenced," adding "women ask permission too much." A common concern in the discussion was, "What do you do when colleagues take male opinions more seriously?"

A topic that continues to dog the feminist community is "lack of diversity." In a panel
entitled "Social Networks and Diversity Barriers," Shireen Mitchell (socialmediawoc.com) spoke about why diversity has been missing and what we can do about it. Mitchell reflected, "If we were inclusive to begin with, we wouldn't have to go back and fix it." Mitchell said that to retrieve missing voices, "we need to be more intentional and create a structure where no one person is more important than someone else." The conversation included a concern for "transparency," "propelling power to the edges," and making sure that a "core of people don't become like the cool kids clique in high school." Mitchell summed up, "We've got to get past the token members...and keep the gene pool mixed in." When it comes to lining up tech experts for symposiums and conferences, Connie Reece suggested that women should not wait to be asked, but instead step up and propose potential speakers.

Tools for online communications were examined. (Taking place before the Iranian news
story, nobody knew how central to driving the information flow Twitter would be.) A link went up for "Twitter basics" from the site of tech guru Deanna Zandt. Rebecca Moore, Manager of Google Earth Outreach, talked about a new generation of mapping tools that can help clarify a public issue concern. Her example was how the crisis in Darfur was given visceral visualization through satellite imagery that showed "the actual destruction of villages." Natalie Foster, Director of New Media at the DNC, commented on the viability of translating "activity in technology to real world activism."

"Launching Your Own Start-Up" featured a group of women with different philosophies, who all agreed that "you do it when it is the only thing you can do." Lisa Stone, co-founder of BlogHer, went to her users and asked the community what they wanted. A written mission, building, and "trying things" was the strategy for two years before they went for outside money. They were constantly soliciting feedback. Stone sensed a "fear of failure among women," that prevented them from leaping into an opportunity. Mary Hodder offered, "Who cares if you fail? Just go flying off the cliff!"

When it came to the question of funding, Stone related her conviction that "community was the bedrock of the project," and investors need to care about the product. Amy Muller, Chief Community Officer of Get Satisfaction, recommended going as long as possible "boot-strapping," thereby holding off on the venture capitalist route. Getting advisors, giving them stock, and asking other women how they were funded was offered as options. Hodder was emphatic about "building for revenue from Day One, even if it's $1,000 per month for Ad Sense. The general mantra was, "Start building it and get it out there!"

Three weeks later, at the MediaBistro Circus in Manhattan, I was able to interview several of the women who were on-site the first day. Eileen Gittins, Founder and CEO of Blurb, sees the situation for women as "better than ever...because when markets are difficult it's all about talent." Her staff is 50 per cent women. She said, "Women in Silicon Valley are about meritocracy; in start-ups, there are no glass ceilings." Gittins told me, "The Internet is gender blind. It's more of a level playing field." Valeria Maltoni, of ConversationAgent.com, echoed some of the same sentiments I had heard during the "Women Who Tech" panels. "I don't like to be self-promotional, and tech is an amplifier of who we are." As an after thought she observed, "Women are afraid of controversy."

The founder of MediaBistro, Laurel Touby, was on hand, and sat down to give me some feedback on women in technology and new media. She said, "I think we're really behind, still. We need more women in engineering. I think we are starting to browse more in the tech world, but we need to browse more on the Internet [not just use it to accomplish a task]. We need to be more gatherers on the web, not just surgical browsers." Tackling the subject of women raising funds for their endeavors she said, "Women still cave in to their desire to help, without helping themselves. [They] don't have confidence to raise capital; they don't have enough role models. There is a different way that men seem to approach the problem." Touby admitted that although she didn't have the know-how to do financial projections on her own, she realized she could leverage her abilities to find people "out there" to do what she didn't have experience with.

Shortly afterwards, I talked with Deborah Siegel and Kamy Wicoff about their new site, SheWrites. An online destination for literary women, both readers and writers, it is an example of women reaching out to others to form a supportive community. Wicoff said, "Women want to create their own networking systems." When I last checked, the site had over 1,000 subscribers, which proved the theory --"Go granular" -- I had heard proffered at MediaBistro Circus 2008.

With technology making it possible to connect with others that share common interests and beliefs, women can no longer sit on the sidelines and be intimidated. There's too much to accomplish and too much at stake.

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