My open conversation with marketers

The other day I got myself all worked up thinking about the Mom 2.0 Summit, “An Open Conversation Between Moms and Marketers” that’s currently happening in New Orleans. The gist of my rage: why not organize mom bloggers to exert their influence on real change for things like decent paid maternity/paternity leave, affordable child care, flex time, equal pay for equal work, etc.? But my anger has cooled a bit, and I’m thinking that if I were having an open mom conversation with marketers, I’d start with a few points:

1. Please stop trying to sell me something I don’t need. A newborn baby needs: someplace to sleep, limited amount of clothes, some diapers, and lots of love. Maybe a bottle and formula if breast feeding isn’t an option. That’s it. Enough will all the other crap to buy for babies. Big kids need even less.

2. Really please stop using fear and guilt as a tactic to sell me something I don’t need, like eight zillion kinds of baby-proofing items and cages to corral kids and leashes so they don’t run away, etc.

3. Do something about all the cross-promotional commercial crap that’s being produced and invest in original content and ideas. Keep your Disney Princess off my lunch box. If you can’t come up with something original, I’d take Cleopatra instead, or Queen Elizabeth I.

4. Enough with the gender-specific junk, can we have a season of bright colors for all kids? Market orange as the new pink, and red or green as the new blue.

5. Help moms do more with less, whether that’s less time, less money, less space.

Ok, so that’s more than a few. But that’s where I’d start. You?

Out of the Loop in New York City

A pretty long article in today’s New York Times, Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley, looks at the dearth of women in tech, both in leadership roles at large companies and as entrepreneurs with their own start-ups. There’s no new information about why women aren’t present in any significant amounts, or about why less women study comp sci or engineering in college. And after various interviews and mentions of “women like jobs with more interaction with people”, it closes on this optimistic note:

Silicon Valley shows signs of changing, albeit slowly. New organizations are sprouting up for young women in tech, like Girls in Tech and Women 2.0. One-quarter of the partners at Kleiner Perkins, the venture capital firm, are women, and some of the hottest start-ups — including Gilt, Hunch, Ning, Eventbrite and Meebo — were founded or co-founded by women.

They could change things for the next generation of girls aspiring to engineering careers and women already entering the field, Ms. Fleming hopes. “If their success becomes visible, so girls can identify with it, they will think, ‘Oh yeah, anyone can do this,'” she says.

But why would this be true? Three of the most successful start-ups from Web 1.0, Blogger, Flickr, and Six Apart (and I define successful as millions of users, transformed how people do things on the Web, two acquired for large sums of money by the biggest companies in the Valley) were co-founded by women. Not one of these companies or women was mentioned in the article, though all companies have existed for nearly a decade or more.

If an article asks “In the wide-open world of tech, why so few women?” and can’t even acknowledge some of the early female leaders, how can we expect anyone else to know that there are women entrepreneurs. In the quote above, a woman says “if their success becomes visible.” Key word here apparently is if.

Sexism in the kitchen

Today Eater posts a letter from New York restaurateur Keith McNally claiming Times dining critic Frank Bruni has an unremittingly sexist slant. The proof? His failure to issue anything more than one star to a restaurant helmed by a woman chef. The issue of women chefs in the kitchen, both their number and their comparative fame to their male counterparts, is important to me. Ed and I have discussed this issue a lot, especially the number of female chefs in New York City versus San Francisco. But I’m not sure McNally is correct here.

First you need to look at the types of places that get three and four stars in New York: they’re high-end gastronomic temples, not cozy small restaurants like Prune and The Spotted Pig. The New York four stars are all French (Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean George), Frenchish (Per Se), or Japanese (Masa). Neither French nor Japanese kitchens are known for their, um, let’s call it open-mindedness. That’s not to say a woman can’t be head chef at any of these places, but if you look at the places women do run, they tend to be more in the school of Alice Waters California/New American places. And as long as four stars at the Times goes to places in the traditional fine-dining model, it’s unlikely women will start getting four stars in New York anytime soon. After all, how many women were awarded four stars when Ruth Reichl was reviewing for the Times?

Of course, that doesn’t address the question of whether the Times should be more open to what three and four star dining experiences should be. And it doesn’t explain why San Francisco has women running large, fine dining establishments (Boulevard, Jardiniere) in greater numbers than New York, places that would garner two stars at least from Bruni if they were in New York. (Though to be fair, all the San Francisco four stars also have men as head chefs.)

What Keith McNally is calling the disease is really a symptom of a much larger problem. Frank Bruni may or may not be sexist, but when you look at what he’s reviewing, it’s hard to find a large number of restaurants chefed by women that he’s overlooking, or failing to properly credit. The real problem here is the real problem in the rest of the working world: women, for all their education and talent, don’t rise as high as men. Whether you want to blame the glass ceiling, sexism, life choices like taking time off for children, the government for not providing maternity leave and child care, or plain old female “opting out,” it’s everywhere you look. Number of women partners in top law firms. Number of women deans at universities. Number of women CEOs of Fortune 500s. Or number of women chefs running nice restaurants. Frank Bruni hardly seems like the problem, but I admire Keith McNally for raising the issue because I think it’s an important one. And I’ll be interested to see if/how the Times and Mr. Bruni respond.

Women and technology, the final post

My mom sent me her thoughts via email (though I told her to post it as an essay on her blog). Since receiving her MSIS degree in 1986, she has worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation, CompuServe, and (for ten years) Sybase.

I took a look at the new postings you noted on megnut yesterday and feel that my experience is quite different. Maybe it’s not being in the ‘dot com’ area, but I just don’t see such a lack of women in the various places I’ve worked over the last 15 years. The workplaces I’m talking about are database and application companies, companies like Sybase, Peoplesoft and Lawson Software where I’ve worked with, and for, a balance of men and women, and where women have been equally well-versed in programming skills and respected for their technical capabilities.

Of course I did get my start in a special Master’s program at Northeastern University called Women in Information Systems. At that time in the mid 80’s it didn’t seem unusual for such a program to be designed specifically for people with non-technical degrees who wanted to move into a technical area, and to have the program in its title, assume those non-technical people would be women. However even in those first years, it was not strictly limited to women, and there was one male student in my class. In fact the program still exists, and with the same name, though it now specifically includes men in its introductory statements.

When I think specifically about technical women I’ve worked with, I think of the woman who co-managed the development of row-level locking at Sybase, as well as coding a major piece of it herself, the woman who was the mainstay of technical support for years and relied on by everyone in engineering to solve the most technically difficult problems, and all sorts of other women who did, and do, development programming and who know their way around performance and tuning issues on just about any operating system. Perhaps these sorts of women just haven’t jumped onto the web/blog bandwagon as yet, but should they choose to do so, there’s no question that they could hold their own technically. And, though I’ve singled out a couple of exceptional women, they were part of an overall balanced male/female workforce.

Of course, I’ve read the statistics on how fewer women are going into the field, but I wonder if that isn’t just in the US. Many of the technical women I was remembering were green-card holders, mainly from India, and fairly recent recruiting that I’ve done uncovered many female, primarily foreign, candidates as well. When I recruited at Northeastern I found this to be true of the WIS program, though when I went through, I can’t remember being classmates with any foreign students. Actually, in the last year or two at Sybase, I’ve noticed a dearth of native-born Americans in engineering in general, both male and female, with the preponderance of programmers being from India or China.

I don’t know what conclusions can or should be drawn from any of this, but you’re right that this area of attracting more (US) women into computing is fascinating.

More links and resources:

The Mismeasure of Woman by Carol Tavris was recommended to me by a reader. Kirku Reviews writes:

Social psychologist Tavris (Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, 1983) unveils society’s systemic and often unconscious definition of the male as the norm against which women must measure up or be found deficient–a provocative and thought-provoking look at how sexism persists today.

It’s received good ratings over at Amazon, I’m going to check it out.

Girlstart in Austin, TX is a non-profit which, “encourages and empowers girls in mathematics, science, technology, and engineering.”

Her Domain of Austin (a very cool resource which is great if you live in that area) has a list of women’s sites.

Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists? by Ellen Spertus from the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “A theme of the report is that women’s underrepresentation is not primarily due to direct discrimination but to subconscious behavior that tends to perpetuate the status quo.” Highly recommended read.

And how could I have forgotten to mention the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing? Though the conference won’t occur until October 2002, I’m already looking forward to attending since I couldn’t make it last year.

And finally, WITI – Women in Technology International a women in technology portal of sorts.

Thanks again to folks who sent in links and recommendations.