Who Says Women and Technology Don't Mix?

More and more women are making Net gains on their own terms, says Annie Turner

Corporations are failing to attract women to IT roles and in some quarters this serves to reinforce the stereotypical view that women and technology do not mix. But further investigation reveals that a growing number of women are embracing the Internet with a vengeance, albeit on their own terms.

The HighTech Women’s Group was founded by entrepreneur Lucy Marcus in London in March this year. Its website (www.hightech-women.com) had more than 1,000 hits on its first day and Ms Marcus signed up more than 200 members from a single exploratory e-mail. She says: “I was surprised by the number of MDs, CFOs and COOs among them and by the breadth of their interests – everything from retail to the law, PR, accounting and marketing to human resources. An IT headhunting firm recently told me it had placed only two or three women in senior roles in the past couple of years, which perhaps explains why so many prefer to set up their own businesses.”

Ms Marcus’s experience contrasts sharply with research published by Rebecca George of IBM Global Services. She wrote that the number of women in IT jobs decreased from 50 per cent in the 1960s to 25 per cent in 1998. In a concerted effort to boost the number of women in key positions, IBM is emphasising the fact that IT involves consultancy, communication, design, marketing and creative skills too, not just programming skills.

Many women have worked this out for themselves. Judith Clegg is in her late twenties and has an impressive CV, including a stint at Arthur Andersen and as operational development manager at Prêt à Manger. In her spare time she founded and leads The Glasshouse, a support group of entrepreneurs across all sectors that meets monthly in London.

She was excited by an idea dreamt up by her friend and former colleague, Wendy Tan, and jumped at the invitation to join her as chief technology officer. They called the company Moonfruit (www.moonfruit.com). Last September there were three employees; now there are about 50. Moonfruit’s mission is to make the Web accessible to as many people as possible and the company has developed technology that enables people with no previous experience to set up their own websites easily and free of charge. They host everything from local drama groups to football fan sites.

How will it make money? “Our technology can be transferred to commercial uses, plus we sell carefully targeted advertising on the free, community sites,” says Ms Clegg. “I love IT because it is exciting new territory – there is so much that has never been done before. It’s not a case of having to have X years experience before you get promoted.”

She acknowledges that it is tough to find enough good people, but adds: “Everyone is encouraged to ride their own tiger, to do what they are good at and what they enjoy. If we find someone we want, we try to create a role for them based on their strengths. We don’t pay huge salaries but we find people really buy into the culture and our goals.” They all get share options, too.

Women without specific IT backgrounds see the potential, too. Jane Karwoski is just about to become CEO of all-hotels.com, leaving her position as financial director at life sciences company Axis Shield. She says: “Technology companies grow very fast and that’s what I’ve got experience in. In the two years I’ve been at Axis Shield, the company has quadrupled its market capitalisation and raised £40 million. Of the 60,000 bookable hotels around the world, the founder of all-hotels.com has a deal with 58,000 to take bookings on the Web, plus we’re providing business-to-business service via the Web for small and independent hotel chains to buy stuff like china, linen and glass at the same kind of discounts the big guys get. Business-to-business is where the money is.”

Likewise, three friends, all of whom are successful chartered accountants and had been involved in training for many years, formed worldoftraining.com last September. Anita Monteith, Linda Flynn and Yvonne Hardy were shocked by the difficulty many companies had, even large, well resourced ones, in finding appropriate training courses. The company has signed up 56 training houses and another 20 or so deals are in the pipeline with courses on most things you could think of down to wasteland reclamation.

Ms Monteith says: “I know it’s not very fashionable for a dot-com company, but being accountants, we do tend to go on about profit. I probably sound like Martha Lane Fox’s mother. I’m addicted to the Internet. I even get my shopping from Sainsbury’s on it now so I don’t have to lug fruit juice and dog food – it’s revolutionised my life all round.”

So much for women and IT being like oil and water.


6 April 2000


The Times

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