SAN FRANCISCO--It's still tough going for women in the high-tech industry, but they are thriving, especially in opportunities created by the Internet.
"There are opportunities [now] that were not part of the normal power structure [before]," said New York Times columnist Denise Caruso. "I've watched this happen with women all over the industry.
"Women went into [new media] because it was something new. Women are still not accepted in the larger power structure, but people need your expertise so badly now that they can't say no to you because you're a woman."
It's socialization, not biology, that has led many women to feel less comfortable with computers and technology, panelists noted. A popular misconception that all women are technophobic or uninterested in technology can push girls away from technical fields. "My dad was a mathematician, and I grew up programming and seeing how things worked," said Marleen McDaniel, Marleen McDaniel, president and CEO of Wire Networks. "Maybe that makes me a man."
But if women have been turned off by technology in the past, many now see it as a key to success. According to a May 1997 survey conducted by Avon Products, 80 percent of the more than 400 women polled saw technology as a way to break into traditionally male-dominated fields; 75 percent attributed recent advancement at work to how well they used technology. Seventy-three percent said workplace technology, including the use of computers and the Internet, helped them achieve professional goals they would not have reached otherwise.
"Women thrive online," Caruso said. "Women are able to speak their minds without their gender being attached to what they are saying."
However, with all the increased opportunity, the same issues that exist for women and minorities in all facets of business are still present in the high-tech sector.
"When I walk into a room, people have to get over the fact that I'm a woman before they'll listen to me talk about virtual reality," said Linda Jacobson, virtual reality evangelist at Silicon Graphics.
McDaniel added that she has encountered her share of boys' networks in her efforts as an entrepreneur. "I had 2,000 venture capitalists tell me I had no business plan. Luckily, at least three saw that I did."
Venture capitalists often told McDaniel that women weren't interested in the Internet. "We were told there was no market and there would never be a market. 'Women don't come online,'" she recalled. According to Jupiter Communications, roughly 34 million women are expected to be on the Net by the year 2000, making up more than 46 percent of the online audience.
To help them succeed, panelists encouraged young women to look to mentors. All three panelists said they had male mentors but split on whether gender matters in mentoring. McDaniel was more concerned about young women being too passive in their search for guidance.
She encouraged audience members to "attach" themselves to someone whom they admire. "I'm really interested in seeing how the 'Web girls' of today will use the technology in 10, 20 years," Jacobson said.