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Feature - Opinion

Have Women Websters Achieved Equality On the Internet?

Article by Bonnie Bucqueroux
Illustration by Dan Wilbanks

A woman's worst fear - the image of men holding women down

Many questions - no easy answers

I hesitate to invoke Sigmund Freud's overworked query, "What do women want?" But it reminds us of the challenge in finding suitable yardsticks to measure whether the brave, new world of the Internet provides equality for women web designers, developers and programmers.

What are your benchmarks? Money? Respect? Opportunity? Overall quality of worklife? Freedom from sexual harassment? An end to the glass ceiling? No more inequalities in access to capital?

Do your answers differ depending on whether you work for (or own) a traditional company or institution or for a dotcom? Are they different for web designers, developers and programmers? What about if you live in San Francisco, Dubuque, Vancouver, London, Berne, Hyderabad, Tokyo, Peking or Nairobi?

Of course, the simple answer is that we women want it all. Equal pay for equal work. Equal opportunity for advancement, with no limits on reaching the top slots. We also want respect for ourselves as women and adjustments for our unique role in birthing future generations. (Accommodations for breastfeeding quickly come to mind as something few men routinely fight for.)

At issue as well is whether the web offers a glimpse of a world of work better than anything ever seen before, a place where gender doesn't matter and women will be accepted as webchefs, not just as webcooks.

Will cyberspace fulfill our dreams of creating a new work environment where not only women but men can choose to work remotely at home, rocking babies with one hand while pushing pixels with the other?

Where do we really stand?

I have been scribbling notes about this topic for weeks, with the goal of writing the final story on the long flights from Michigan to Oregon and back for a conference. I climbed on the plane last Friday smiling at the thought of leading off this article with statistics and anecdotes about how far women have come.

"Hello," said the chirpy chorus of frozen-smiley-faced female flight attendants. "Welcome aboard," boomed the exclusively male voices of the pilots over the intercom. My smile faded. On every single flight, the pilots were all male, while all but one flight attendant were female. Have we really come all that far, baby?

While there is much good news, let's first address some of the bad. One unfortunate fact of work life is that lousy companies and organizations, which by definition are awful toward both sexes, often reserve their worst abuse for women. And even working on the web won't save you from suffering if you toil for a company with an unhealthy work culture.

As one woman Wise-Women listmate said, "Gender issues seem to be more closely related to the organization's attitude as a whole, rather than you work you do." In a repressive work environment, it may be possible to lose yourself for a few hours at the screen every day being creative, but a company that treats it employees badly will no doubt find a way to squelch your joy.

One continuing problem are the digital dinosaurs, the irredeemable male chauvinist pigs left over from previous eras. A woman who creates websites for a university says that anytime her boss says to her, "I am not a sexist but . . .," his succeeding remarks always prove that he is. "Because I am in my 30s and am confident of my abilities, not a newbie in my 20s who might be influenced by his opinion, I've been able to be successful here," she says.

A cog in the mega-machine

A man who works for a major U.S. corporation says that doing web work for a Big Company proves anew that bureaucracies are "not a meritocracy" no matter whether you are male or female. But he also notes an overall improvement in the attitude toward women in tech fields over the years.

Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.
Luckily, this is not difficult.

--Charlotte Wilton, Mayor of Ottawa, 1963

But is better the same as equal? Our corporate guy has a co-worker with perhaps the best handle on whether gender still makes a difference. This tech person has had a sex change operation and became a woman. "They treat me like I had a lobotomy at the same time," she says. (She has so far been too polite to tell them that all the surgery was done on the other end.)

Male privilege?

The flip side of that coin, of course, is not that women are treated particularly badly but that men seem to get all the breaks. Many of us in the United States remember a comedy skit on "Saturday Night Live" years ago, where African American comedian Eddie Murphy applied whiteface and then discovered that Caucasians do indeed take care of their own. The sketch showed him entering a bank, where the president winked conspiratorially before inviting him into his private office where he handed him a huge sack of money. Murphy then applied for a job and was immediately made vice president.

Women have always worried that when male executives get together, they find creative ways to pick other males for the promotions, if only because working with other men makes them feel more comfortable.

When we look at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, we see that nine out of 10 are white males. Women still only make 75 cents compared to each dollar a man makes, and much of the recent rise is because men's wages have been declining, not that women's wages have been going up.

A recent article on the CNN website notes that the number of women pursuing careers in computer science has been dropping steadily for 17 years. According to the American Association of University women, 40% of degrees in computer science and engineering were earned by women in the early 1980s, down to 28% today.

We see the success stories, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. How many more times can we honor the head of Calypso and Dr. Anita Borg? Trotting out the same handful of women on the web affirms that we are the digital equivalent of the opera-singing dog -- it isn't that we sing well that makes us notable but the fact we can sing at all.

"I am of the mind that we should give up on the guys," says a noted woman designer and author. "We have spent 40 years telling them what we want and asking them to share. Let's face it - they are not going to do so willingly." She says that it is time for us women to take what we want.

"If the best women cannot get jobs as programmers because 'everyone knows that women are not good at that detail stuff,' then we will start our own programming businesses and hire all that top-notch talent for ourselves."

Geek culture

Yet is equality only about ensuring that women gobble up at least half the total pie?

Some of us firsties who grew up in the era when job listings in the newspaper were divided into Help Wanted-Male and Help Wanted-Female remember arguing that women and men were identical and that progress should be defined in terms of numerical equity - half the top slots, half the business owners, identical incomes.

As the women's movement matured, it became clear that women and men are different and that women bring special strengths and skills to the world of work. Yes, there are still more differences within a sex than between them. Yet the more we learn about brain chemistry, the more we see that gender influences how we think, and that women typically exhibit superior communication and collaboration skills.

Many of us have also wrestled with issues of the so-called Mommy track. Studies showed that when women have children, they not only take time off to have their babies, but they often want to scale back long hours at work to spend more time with their kids. And doing so often derails them from the fast track for promotions.

Is this a logical accommodation on the part of both the woman and the company? Or should companies offer more flexibility to both sexes so that more kids could dash straight home from school to tell either Mom or Dad about their day?

Does that answer change if the issue is not having children but self-fulfillment? Should our career trajectory accommodate taking that dance or yoga class or trekking to Nepal (or just sitting under a tree)?

What about the image of web work echoed in the TV commercial where co-workers slip the pizza under the door to the colleague that they haven't seen in days. If we must outgeek the geeks to get ahead, living and sleeping the job, fueled by caffein and greasy fast food, then how much have we really gained? (And please don't say, "About 20 pounds.")

Equity, equality and choice

The good news about web work is that it is still a field where the ability to produce quality output is the primary marker for success. So those of us who are privileged to be part of this new field have a remarkable chance to shape the future of this new industry.

At its simplest, this means women must never sell themselves short, not just in terms of wages and fees, but also in demanding respect. Designer Wendy Peck reminds us that it is our job to create the work world we want to inhabit. "If we could accept that it is OUR job to create equality, maybe we could get back to enjoying the differences between men and women," she says.

We should also harness those differences to help each other succeed and to create a world of work where everyone can blossom. Our ability to collaborate can serve the entire web community well if it means we lead the way in developing models for working together in virtual teams. Our communication skills should also be put to use helping those who are not web savvy learn what the web can do. Clearly our talents have helped us create web communities for women, including Wise Women, Webgrrls, Digital Eve and Digital Divas.

As anyone who has spent time on the Wise-Women mailing list can attest, women bring a warmth to online communities that brightens even the grayest day. We clearly enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Perhaps the best measurement of success is whether we are working to create a web workplace that we would be happy to see our kids of both sexes inherit. Yes, we can work as hard as men and we deserve income and opportunity equity. But professional achievement, advancement and money do not ultimately mean enough unless we also contribute our time and talents to creating a healthy, equitable and respectful workplace where everyone's unique contributions are recognized.

The challenge is to work for fairness, to avoid paranoia and to force ourselves to achieve balance in our own lives. (I'd write more but I am going to follow my own good advice -- time to take that long-promised walk around the block to see if I can smell the still-frozen roses.)

Photo of Bonnie Bucqueroux

Bonnie Bucqueroux consults on online training initiatives through her company Digital-training.net , and she assists her husband with his web design business Newslink Associates. Bonnie co-hosts the Mid-Michigan Chapter of Webgrrls at Michigan State University and is a frequent presenter at the WEBCities series produced by CMP Media. She also continues to work for progressive police reform and victim advocacy.

Dan Wilbanks has been working wonders on the web since 1996. He cut his chops on the premiere job board, performing amazing feats of creativity with limited color palettes and small file sizes. He is also a published comic book artist, illustrator, cartoonist and animator. Dan spends most of his downtime with his lovely wife and their two sons, who happen to be two of the cutest boys this side of the universe. View Dan's portfolio.

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