Wired Women: The Good, Bad and Ugly for 2000

I taped the e-mail to my computer: “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a jealous shrew, with a penchant for low-insight whining?” it demanded. “Do not reply to this e-mail. The last thing I want after reading your article is more uninspired complaining.”

His name was Steve Story and he was responding to a column I wrote about Claudia Schiffer’s Palm Pilot.

I get lots of e-mail — I drive my male readers crazy — but this one was a keeper. His message is a constant reminder that if I’m going to complain, I had better be inspired about it.

As we close out Y2K, I’ve taken Mr. Story’s advice to heart. With a minimum of whining, here’s a look at the good, bad and ugly with respect to women in high technology at the turn of the millennium:

It’s been 18 months since Carly Fiorina was named president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, making her the first woman to head a Dow Jones 30 company. She was an instantaneous icon for women’s progress, despite her protests to the contrary: “I hope that we are at a point that everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling,” she said. “My gender is interesting, but really not the subject of the story here.” Unfortunately, Fiorina also became a target in November when HP shocked the markets by missing its projected quarterly earnings by nearly 15 percent.

Fiorina’s $69.4 million compensation package made her the first woman to crack the annual list of the Top 10 Silicon Valley moneymakers. But take her out of the mix, and Silicon Valley executive women earned 12 percent less this year than their male counterparts.

A University of Michigan study reported this month that high-tech companies with women executives earned more and performed better than those run by men. For rapidly growing IPO companies, the initial stock price, stock price growth, and growth in earnings over three years were higher when there were women executives on the management team. Even so, of the 767 best-paid executives in Silicon Valley this year, only 45 were women, a ratio of 16 men for every woman. And only four women held the posts of chairman or CEO compared with 175 men.

Women in high tech make 72 cents on the dollar as compared to their male counterparts. About 9 percent of engineers, 27 percent of computer scientists, and 28 percent of computer programmers are women.

This was the year the computer trade show Comdex got female-friendly by partnering with GirlGeeks, a woman-oriented Web company, to make the conference more welcoming to women. It was also a year in which only 20 percent of the 440,000 techno-nerds who showed up in Las Vegas were women — a number that lags behind the meager 28 percent of the information technology work force that is female.

It was the year that incubators like Springboard 2000 and the partnership between Women in Technology International and Smith College provided opportunities for women to grow their high-tech businesses and acquire funding. But it was also a year in which women got only 2.3 percent of the venture capital investment dollars.

This was the year women became the majority online. But it was also the year in which Oxygen, the Web-cable company, exhaled, cutting staff as it struggled to find a place in the cable market; iVillage stumbled, losing its CEO, CFO and COO, as well as much of its stock value; and Women.com stooped to new lows in the character of Lacey Brazeer, a cartoon figure fixated on breasts.

The PC gaming industry this year discovered girls, identifying them as the great untapped niche market; PCData reported this month that women have become the majority of gamers online. But the advocacy group Children Now warned last week that half of the top-selling video games present negative messages about girls. “Those negative messages include violence, promoting unrealistic body images and stereotypical female characteristics, such as provocative sexuality, high-pitched voices and fainting,” the group reported. Simon & Schuster’s “Panty Raiders,” is a case in point: Teenage sex fanatics stalk nearly nude fashion models in a quest to save Earth. “And may the thong be with you,” intones the company’s press release. All in all, 2000 has been the best and worst of times for women in high tech. We’ve made progress in some areas and lost ground in others. We’ve made it into the discussion even if we’re not yet the decision makers. And if we’ve got reason to celebrate, there’s still plenty of work — and yes, Mr. Story, even some inspired whining and complaining — to be done.

A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of Virtual Ethics. Wired Women appears on alternate Wednesdays.