Women still face slow climb

When Liz Ryan left her job as vice-president of human resources at U.S. Robotics Corp., she needed to expand her contact list fast. So, in July 1999, just as she was co-founding Ucentric Systems, an Internet content provider, Ryan started Chicago Women In Technology (ChicWIT), a listserv for women in her area.

Today, Ryan is the executive director of WorldWIT (www.worldWIT.org), a global network of 29 mailing lists from Taiwan to Sydney, with a total membership of about 6,000 women.

In a recent interview with Melissa Solomon of Computerworld U.S., Ryan spoke about WIT and the role of women in technology.

Solomon: What does WIT provide that a co-ed organization can’t?

Ryan: That is the $64,000 question. I don’t know if it’s that comrades-in-adverse-conditions thing, but they really seem to appreciate that women-centric conversation. And there are men on the list. It’s a women-focused list; we’re probably not going to go into any discussions about male-pattern baldness, but men are welcome.

Solomon: How far have women come in technology?

Ryan: They’ve made headway, but it’s still that slow, uphill climb. I think some of the frustration, if you would, at this slowness is that a lot of women hoped – I hoped – that this Digital Economy thing was going to be the last great push for women.

Wrong. Did not happen that way. In some cases, I think, especially in the start-up realm, there was some major backsliding – you know, very young guys running companies, frat-boy mentality. We have tons of women in the group who have left start-ups saying ‘You know what? I was feeling like I was in a more progressive work position back in Oracle, or Microsoft.'”

Solomon: What do you think will be the big push for women?

Ryan: Frankly, economic factors have probably really been the biggest drivers so far. When there’s just not a lot of talented people, you learn about diversity fast. Unfortunately, now you begin to read that that tide is going to turn in five or six years, and 10 years from now, [for] young people entering the workforce, it’s going to be like when I was coming out of school, like, ‘Be an accountant; it’s safe.’ They’ll be fighting for jobs.

Apart from the economic stuff, I would say women in policy-making positions are going to have an impact. More women CEOs like HP’s Carly Fiorina would be awesome. And then that leads to women being mentors and helping other women.

Solomon: What advice do you have for women in technology?

Ryan: I would say, as much as you possibly can, force yourself to do [it], say what you think. Don’t be reticent; don’t be deferential. We’re kind of trained to be, as girls. If you really think it’s the right thing for the company or the organization or the client or whatever, just say it. If they fire you, you shouldn’t want to be there in the first place.

And then call me, and I’ll help you find another job.”