The technology women at the Pizzeria Uno Chicago Bar & Grill in Framingham, a Boston suburb, seemed pleased that Marissa Mayer had been named CEO at Yahoo. Brilliant woman. Employee No. 20 at Google, you know. Tough job. She's probably going to have to do some massive restructuring right away. But it would be stretching the point to say Yahoo's new female CEO was the buzz at the Women In Technology International (WITI) gathering, billed as a "fun night out" networking event -- business cards mandatory!
While my motive was to get reaction from this group of tech-savvy women to this big tech news, many of them had other things on their minds: social media, mobile computing, bring your own device (BYOD). They were talking about the pace of technology change: Two years ago, if someone said employees would be bringing their own phones to work, you would have told them to have their head examined, said a woman from AT&T.
When I pressed the issue -- what does it mean that Mayer is not only the new Yahoo CEO, but was also hired when seven months pregnant? -- the response was quick and curt. "Her pregnancy should not have been on the table," said a woman CIO at a large design firm. The news is that she deserves the job, the news is that she brings fresh breath to a troubled company -- not that she is pregnant. Think of a man in that position whose wife was pregnant, she added. There would be no media mention of "a baby on the way."
This is not a gender issue; it's about the difference between the newer and older companies, a former IBM employee told me. At old-guard companies where the old hierarchies are intact, it's a different story. She said I should just ask IBM President and CEO Ginni Rommety about her relationship with the all-male Masters golf club. The woman sitting next to me also confided that gender remains an issue at traditional tech companies. She told me she was passed over for a promotion at a venerable technology consultancy because she was pregnant. "I guess I could have sued," she said. Instead, she went to work for a startup.
WITI is a professional trade association for technology women, started 23 years ago by Carolyn Leighton. In a 2004 video on the WITI site, Leighton explains that her interest in forming a support organization for tech women grew out of her work as a consultant in the aerospace and defense industry in the 1980s. Many of the brilliant women she met -- people with the goods to really change how things get done -- were being held back by work cultures that were "toxic" to females. The skills and personalities of these women were diverse enough to suggest this was a complex issue, she recalls. Thus, WITI was formed to help tech women help themselves.
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WITI's Boston Regional Director Deborah Stark told the group at Uno's one of Leighton's mantras is: "No woman should be left standing alone in a room" at a WITI event. If WITI members see a fellow technologist standing alone they should make it their business to join her. Stark brought up another mantra: Speakers at a WITI event are asked not to talk just about their company or about themselves, but about the "bumps and bruises they've gotten along the way," and to impart advice based on that experience. "We look for storytellers," she said.
If there is a newsflash on the fact that Mayer is both a woman and pregnant, the women at Uno's told me, it's that it just doesn't matter at these younger technology companies -- it's all about hiring the best person for the job. Listening to these women, I gather that's true for more women than just the Stanford Engineering-educated, first-female-Google-engineer and now fabulously wealthy Marissa Mayer.
As it turns out, Mayer was the keynote speaker at a WITI annual conference in San Jose last year. In the part I watched online, she talked a lot about Google and voiced what has become a signature statement: "I am not a woman at Google; I am a geek at Google." Yup. Tech-savvy women are engineers first and women second, just as men engineers are engineers first and men second. So, Mayer's pregnancy should not be news. Still, a group whose mantra is "leave no woman standing alone," and prefers sincere advice over sales pitches from experienced technologists, can't hurt.