Not a feminist panel

Five women gather in Perugia’s Centro Servizi G. Alessi to talk world, women and web

Photo: Farah Wael

Wherever she’s worked, she’s been considered a “monster”. Why? She’s a woman writing about tech.

“It’s difficult to make people understand that I can speak of HTML,” said Diana Letizia, editor of Il Secolo XIX. She laughed. “I can both write and use nail polish!”

Women are increasingly infiltrating what has been predominately a male-run world – with the male sex winning the executive positions and higher paying salaries. Females are the rising stars, particularly in the tech scene, and Enrica Fantoni of Yahoo Italy is experiencing this firsthand.

When Yahoo hired Marissa Mayer as CEO, it was huge news in Italy. “She’s a very important example,” Fantoni said. “The company invested and believed in the talent of a person,” and it didn’t matter whether that individual was a woman or a man.

But, she continued, there were many things about this choice that caused a huge uproar in Italy: Mayer was not only a woman, she was 37 years old and pregnant.

Reading this, you may think, so what? In Italy, however, this decision wasn’t “normal”. Fantoni continued, saying that precisely because this hire was considered news, it was out of the ordinary.

“It’s still an issue for me,” Fantoni said, referring to the uproar in Italy caused by Yahoo’s decision to hire Mayer.  To her, concentrating on the talent of a person is the most important change people can make.

This is just one of the many barriers that women are facing.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

“It was a shock when I came back to Italy,” said Barbara Sgarzi, journalist and author. She had previously been working in London as Senior Producer of Europe (Community and Communications)  for Yahoo. The shock was the  “sex-based” approach in which she felt she was supposed to behave “like a woman” in the workplace.

Those who manage content today, explained Sgarzi – the directors and editors, for example – have a strong responsibility to choose what pieces are run. Her repeated experience, she went on, is that they ask for articles that essentially are “technology for dummies.”

These pieces aren’t geared at men, however.  They are specifically targeted at women.

“It is as if when women have to deal with technology, we are all stupid,” she said. “There can’t be any evolution whatsoever if we start from there.”

This mentality is something that even women are experiencing, Sgarzi explained. “Change comes from the head,” she said. But those who choose what is run, “especially when Editors-in-chief are women”, have no confidence at all in the digital world.

The Web has given women new tools, according to Sgarzi. “We are very good at networking,” she said. That culture belongs to women, and it is also the culture of the Web. “We have the tools,” she said, “but sometimes there is self-censorship.”

Disruption for innovation

Mariana Santos works at The Guardian. In a team of 180 developers. With only three other women.

“I didn’t stop dressing like a girl,” she laughed.

When she joined as an intern, Santos had an experience that’s a rarity in the tech world today: her boss devoted his time and energy to training her. In one month, she said, she learned more than in five years of education at university.

When it came time for him to retire, she was next in line – a young, Portuguese woman. “I want to manage this team,” she said.  Within three hours of applying she got an answer: No.

They picked someone who was not a digital native, she said, and everyone left. They did what is the status quo of today by picking an older male.

Shortly thereafter, she wrote a proposal to develop her project, Chicas Poderosas, or “powerful women”.  “It’s about empowering women the same way I felt empowered by my boss,” she explained. Her goal: for women to stop focusing on their own weaknesses.

In order to disrupt anything, whether it be an industry or a mentality, innovation is key.

“I’m never going to feel less than a man just because we have different bodies,” she said. Women can help each other, she went on, much more than men can.

It’s all about cultural fit

“We get a lot of criticism from feminist groups because they say we defend the interests of white men,” said Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.

But it’s quite the opposite, at least within the company itself, explained York. “Single-gender” – or mixed-gender –  bathrooms are just one example of equal rights in the EFF workplace. What is perhaps even more representative of this are the numbers: Out of 11 people with the word “Director” in their title, seven of them are women.

Yet despite these changes, there are still challenges for women, particularly regarding tech.

“I’m finding [Silicon Valley] to be a deeply frustrating place,” she said. When it comes to tech startups, most of those that receive funding are the ones run by men, she explained.

It’s due to “cultural fit”, and according to York, it’s what used to exclude women from tech teams. “I can’t sit around and make dick jokes anymore,” she said, referring to the attitudes of men in tech startups, “because…women will freak out.”

She went on: “Women – if they’re hired – are not promoted or made to feel like they’re part of the team.”

The short skirt of the Internet 

“We need to look at who we have here before us,” said Letizia, concluding the panel discussion.

In a room with not one empty seat, only three or four men were present. “If you bring the women,” she said she was told, “the men will follow, too.”

One question from the audience provided a powerful conclusion to the panel: “Why do we have a need to specify that we’re not against men? Why do we need a separate exchange at all?”

“There are no panels that speak of men’s issues,” Sgarzi said. “They don’t exist because there’s no need.”

“We need to change the fact that we feel inadequate.” Fantoni added.

Because right now, York concluded, quoting Laurie Penny , “a woman’s opinion is the short skirt of the Internet.”

By Gretchen Gatzke