Feature - Opinion
Have Women Websters Achieved Equality On the Internet?
Article by Bonnie Bucqueroux
Illustration by Dan Wilbanks
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
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
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
"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,"
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.)
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
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
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%
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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