Conference offers insight for women geeks

Conference offers insight for women geeks

TWO-DAY SUMMIT IS ABOUT BUSINESS NETWORKING, BRAINSTORMING
By Mike Swift / San Jose Mercury News
10/23/2007 01:35:27 AM PDT

A venture capitalist who rejected Mary Hodder’s start-up for funding later told her he did so in part because Hodder had no male co-founder, and he thought she would quit because she’s a woman.

Hodder didn’t quit. Her video search and social-networking Web site, dabble.com, is doubling its registered users every 2 1/2 months.

Gender stereotypes like those, what they say about the male-skewed culture of Silicon Valley and its effect on the growing number of women in tech, were at the heart of the She’s Geeky conference that convened Monday.

For some women in tech, "there’s a loss of confidence," said Hodder, the CEO of dabble.com and one of the She’s Geeky conference organizers. "When you fall into a business that is so male-dominated, as a woman you think somehow there’s something that everybody else knows that you don’t know."

She’s Geeky was a chance for these women to discuss the things they know that perhaps everybody doesn’t. The two-day conference may turn out to be a first step toward a permanent forum for women who are more than happy to identify as geeks.

The conference, which attracted about 200 women to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on Monday and today, is about business networking, hard-edged technical brainstorming and polishing individual business skills such as public speaking.

It’s an all-woman conference – the first of its kind in Silicon Valley, organizers said – notable for its wide-ranging focus on the challenges women face in the high-tech workplace, its desire to let participants set the agenda, and its intent.

"It’s not all-women to leave out men; it’s all-women so we can focus" on those issues, said Mary Trigiani, who works at a San Francisco start-up, foldier.

Some said the conference was a chance to step out of the valley’s culture and critique it, to make visible the issues of working in an industry dominated by one gender. The energy level took a jump in one break-out session on "Owning Your Power" as women talked about struggling to be assertive yet still be liked by co-workers, which touched on the emotional baggage that goes with the word, "bitch."

"I think you have to decide what being a bitch means," said Susan Mernit, senior product developer with Yahoo. If a manager has a tough project and needs to push people to make a deadline, she may need to recognize that "if you’re not a bitch in some way, maybe you’re not doing your job."

But you might not feel good about it. Observed Heather Gold, a comic who has an online talk show, women are taught early in life how important it is "to make sure everybody else feels OK."

The number of women receiving doctorates in computer science and math is on the rise, according to research from the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

Many of those newly minted engineers and scientists are finding their way into Silicon Valley companies. But conference organizers said that doesn’t mean the valley’s business culture is keeping pace.

"Things are shifting from where they were five or 10 years ago," Mernit told the conference in opening remarks. "Maybe you’re not the one woman in a room with 15 men – maybe there are two of you. But many of us are functioning in what we consider very unbalanced environments."

She recalled some workplace gender horror stories that elicited knowing groans from her audience:

• The tech worker who said to one woman: "You are so talented, you better put your name on that because nobody would believe that you actually did that work."

• The co-worker who, intending a compliment for a woman’s technical acumen, said: "You are not one of those tight-sweater girls in PR or marketing."

One thing that united many women at She’s Geeky was that they entered tech through non-traditional paths.

"I’d guess a large portion of the women here have liberal arts degrees," perhaps as many as half, said Kaliya Hamlin, an organizer and the conference producer.

A recent study by the University of California-Davis suggests that Silicon Valley is much less cutting edge in terms of equality than it is with technology – only 9 percent of Santa Clara County companies have elevated a woman to a top executive post, a lower share than any other county in the state.

A few of the women at She’s Geeky, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s, were CEOs, although the valley’s top women executives, such as eBay’s Meg Whitman and Yahoo’s Susan Decker, did not attend. More common were mid-level engineers, scientists and communications people, including women from Google, Yahoo, ask.com, the Walt Disney Internet Group and Microsoft.

Monday’s agenda included sessions on the accelerating pace of technology creation, how to deal with analysts, the non-profit technology field, how to approach a venture capitalist for funding, and a session on improving public-speaking skills.

Today, the session becomes an "unconference," with participants deciding the agenda, and how the dialogue and networking should continue.

"I’m sort of a wannabe geek," said Elisa Camahort, co-founder and chief operating officer for BlogHer Inc., a community of women bloggers. "I just want to connect to all these great women geeks."

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