G4’s “The Daily Nut” and “Formula D” host, Olivia Munn, may be the quintessential new Geek Girl (with the appropriate scandal or two up her sleeve to keep geek boys salivating), but the concept of hot Fem Tech isn’t new.
Before Olivia Munn, how could we ignore the Princess of Geek Chic, Princess Leia, and her formidable spirit (and equally formidable outfit)? In fact, following up on the popularity and presence of women at Comic Con, Seattle will play host to GeekGirlCon from August 11th and 12th where panelists will discuss “counterbalancing heroines in Star Wars to consider if – and how – Sith witches and other villainesses have moved beyond stereotypical caricatures found in fairy tales to reveal powerful, determined women.”
But have they?
There is little doubt that female geeks and superheroes are on the rise and this shows a positive impact on culture and gender. However, from Olivia Munn’s half-nude spreads in Maxim to Kate Beckinsale’s tight leather pants in Underworld, there’s no shortage of skin on our super heroes and geeks, which makes us wonder, “Why do men – and women – still feel the need to objectify the bodies of women working in tech?” You certainly never saw Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or, better yet… Pete Cashmore, in a half-nude spread. It doesn’t exactly allow women to be seen for their brains when their bodies are the primary things on display. This continuous sexualization of women – no matter what role they seem to be in – may not be answered overnight or in my brief blog post, but it does allow us to reflect upon the current climate and question.
How are women today represented in tech and what’s the future of Fem Tech?
Women Studying Tech
The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that the percentage of undergraduate computing and information sciences degrees earned by women actually dropped from 37% in 1985 to 18% in 2009. If women control more than 83% of all consumer purchases, including 66% of home computers, and they outpace men when it comes to buying consumer electronics, but only hold 27% of computer-related jobs, it begs the question… are we really getting what we need? The answer, of course, is no. If we’re not on the developing room floor or sitting at the boardroom table where key decisions are made, there’s little way our needs and aspirations can ever truly be met. Instead, we will get and purchase what we’re, more or less, given.
According to Astia, a group that supports women-led companies, women still make up less than 10% of venture-backed tech start-ups, but the tides are slowing turning.
Today, women earn more bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees than men. In 2009, women earned a full 57% of bachelor’s degrees. In 2009, women also earned more master’s degrees (60%) and doctoral degrees (52%) than men. However, women earned just under a quarter (23%) of all bachelor’s degrees conferred within the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Thus, there’s still a substantial disparity when it comes to women studying for advanced degrees in tech, along with the lack of focus teachers and parents are putting on young girls and women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields.
How many times did we all hear that “Girls just aren’t as good as boys in math” when we were growing up? I know I did. Embarrassingly enough, when I attended Xavier College Preparatory, an all girls school, in the late 90s, I had to take my Advanced Placement Physics class at Brophy, the all boys school next door, because it wasn’t “offered” at the girls school. I never got a solid answer as to why.
Success of Women Led Businesses
With this lack of social support in mind, it’s interesting to still note that, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research, women own about 40% of the private businesses in the United States, a pretty decent number given the stats above. Additionally, a report released by the National Women’s Business Council stated that as of 2007, there were 7.8 million nonfarm women-owned businesses in the United States. This represents a stunning 20.1% increase since 2002 and a growth rate from 1997 to 2007 (44%) that has been twice as fast as that of male-owned businesses.
The survival rate of women-owned firms is also a whopping 78.2%.
Women in Tech Today
Today, it’s clear that women are seeing signs of a fem tech evolution. It may be slow in the academic world and the social world, but it’s brewing. This is particularly true when examining the statistics around social media. Women actively use Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, more than their male counterparts; making up 64% of Facebook users, 58% of Twitter users and 82% of Pinterest users.
In addition, companies at the forefront of innovation are seeing more and more female entrepreneurs, like Vivian Rosenthal of Goldrun, an augmented reality platform that transforms traditional digital media placements into immersive and immediately shareable brand-consumer engagements. Another tech start up founded by Clara Shih, Hearsay Labs, is a social media marketing and sales software startup based in Silicon Valley. The company helps businesses manage and measure their online presence across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Clara was earlier product line director of the AppExchange at salesforce.com and worked in corporate strategy at Google.
Where Geek is Chic and Tech is Fem
One can certainly see how women have embraced the geek culture from the proliferation of geeky fashion (bowties and large spectacles) to their frequent usage of the latest technological appliances and applications. It’s ‘in’ for women to be geeky and perceived as such and a geek is easily distinguishable from a techie, in that she skirts the border between intellectuality and sociability. Tech, however, implies a deeper exploration and scientific understanding of the technological processes shaping one’s life and, in this sense, it’s on another level that many girls and women steer clear of in a bid to stick to the norms that society has beat them over the head with. Whether it’s social conditioning around gender behavior (girl geeks must also look and display themselves as hot indie geeks) or the fact that teachers and parents are still not properly supporting science and math when it comes to rearing strong girls, one thing is certain…
Women are on the rise and there will be little to stop them if they take the reins and re-define, for themselves, what femininity and technology truly mean to them.
Fem Tech Advice
1. Find other bright women – and men – interested in, or working in, technology. Form your own band of sisters. You’ll be pleased to see that statistics defy stereotypes. As CEO of Care.com, Sheila Marcelo explains in Women 2.0: The Seat Next to Me is Open in the Huffington Post, “Collaboration is the hallmark of women’s leadership style. It’s the oft-heralded value add that estrogen brings to the workplace. How often have you heard that? So much so that it has become conventional wisdom. However, women need to come to terms with the evil twin of this quality: Competition with each other.” Her advice? Work on getting over your insecurities, realize that there’s room for everyone and a different path for all of us, and learn to vocalize your ambitions. Remember: if you’ve lived your career feeling too jealous or insecure, you will find yourself alone at the top. Or, worse yet, at the top with people who make you feel even more miserable because they feed into the same negative crap too.
2. Check out Tech Meet Ups in your area. It’s a great way to form those bonds and relationships. After attending the Augmented Reality Meet Up in NYC, I was asked to speak on a panel for IBM and their Smarter Commerce program. There are great opportunities at your fingertips on Meet Up and LinkedIn. The NY Tech Meet Up is now hugely popular so give these offline opportunities a spin. Social Media Week, SXSW, and WOMMA also have useful calendars of events.
3. Let me first say this: I’m not against dressing the way you want to dress to feel beautiful. I’m all for it. However, in the work place and at work events, leave the mini-skirt and crop top for the club (scratch that… crop tops are goofy). Jokes aside, the simple truth that we all know is that no one – not even other women – can properly focus on the content of your character when the contents of your blouse are spilling out. Trust me, I have first hand experience on this one.
Now go forth and create killer tech start-ups or climb that corporate ladder to strategic brilliance. Just make sure you help other women along the way. As Madeline Albright once said, “There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.”
With that in mind, our battle is not yet won until I see 50% of us as corporate CEOs and entrepreneurs. Period.
I know you got it in you, girl.