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Technology’s Glass Ceiling

Julia C. Lipman

These are some intense times for women in technology. Women make up 44 percent of the students admitted to MIT’s entering freshman class. Eileen Collins was recently the first woman to command the crew of a space shuttle. And Carly Fiorina became the president and CEO of Hewlett Packard last week.

Way to break through the glass ceiling! Except, according to Fiorina, the glass ceiling doesn’t exist. “I hope that we are at a point that everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling,” she remarked, in response to questions about her gender.

It’s understandable that Fiorina wants to avoid gender-based questions from reporters. It’s not her fault that she’s the only woman CEO of a Fortune 50 company, and one of three woman CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Male business executives aren’t usually expected to field questions about thorny social issues that are unrelated to their industries; does anyone know, or care, how Bill Gates balances work and family? So why should her responses to these kinds of questions matter, when she’s been a trailblazer for women in technology? Actions speak louder than words, right?

They matter because people are listening. If HP’s top executive and a woman says that there’s no longer a glass ceiling, well, there must not be. She would know. What are all these feminists complaining about? By downplaying sex discrimination, Fiorina establishes herself as an argument to be used against anyone who would fight it.

Fiorina isn’t the only successful woman to downplay or deny sex discrimination. Singer Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders wrote a short piece entitled “Chrissie Hynde’s Advice to Chick Rockers” which airily dismissed the idea that women should try to fight discrimination in the music industry. “Don’t moan about being a chick, refer to feminism, or complain about sexist discrimination,” she admonishes. Also a no-no: trying to “compete with the guys.” Hynde’s enduring success as a musician despite her refusal to conform to traditional standards of how women musicians should dress and look has made her a feminist icon in many ways.

But it only seems to have convinced her that the current state of women in the music industry is the fault of “whiny females.” Other successful, unconventional women artists, such as BjÖrk, have also made antifeminist noises, rather than reaching out to women who might admire or emulate their nonconformist success.

Carly Fiorina may have slipped through a crack in the glass ceiling, but it’s still up there; how else to explain the three-out-of-500 figure for women executives of Fortune 500 companies? Recent studies show that the wage gap may actually be widening. And MIT’s recent report on women in the School of Science provides evidence of a glass ceiling in academia.

For evidence that women in technological fields may not be taken as seriously as their male counterparts, one needs only to read recent technology journalism. Janelle Brown of Salon wrote an article last week pointing out two instances of blatant sexism in the recent technology press. First, PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak gave Apple’s iBook a negative review -- because it looks, to him, “girly” and “effeminate,” obviously two of the worst insults one can use when describing masculine electronic equipment. “No male in his right mind will be seen in public with this notebook,” he sniffs.

Then, there’s Red Herring’s treatment of eBay CEO Meg Whitman. A cover photo shows Whitman’s head pasted on the body of a Barbie doll, while the accompanying text describes her, or perhaps her company, as “the Internet’s sexiest new business model.” Yes, “sexy” can refer to cutting-edge technology. No, that doesn’t make the caption any less sexist. And you may remember the controversy surrounding Marimba CEO Kim Polese, who was fawned over by technology magazines who couldn’t get over the fact that she was a young, attractive woman, then accused her of overhyping herself at the expense of her company.

The kinds of questions which Fiorina was asked often seem calculated to elicit exactly the kind of dismissive response she gave, which is then trumpeted as the opinion of all successful women. Again, the music industry provides good examples of this tendency. Rolling Stone recently came out with a “Women in Rock” issue. Women artists were asked questions about feminism, and the antifeminist responses they got were featured prominently at the beginning of the interview section. There are actually many similarities between the music and technology industries. They’re both fast-paced, competitive, “sexy”, if you will. And they both appear to be the kind of progressive and nontraditional environments in which women should thrive. But equality has eluded women in both industries, even as women catch up more quickly in other fields.

As Chrissie Hynde herself was known for saying, don’t get me wrong. I was excited to hear that HP has a woman CEO, and I still am. But it’s a setback for equality when successful women extrapolate from their own experiences to decide that there’s nothing holding other women back from being as successful.

Maybe Fiorina could try to emulate astronauts like Sally Ride, Shannon Lucid, and Eileen Collins, who have been adept at answering both intelligent and preposterous gender-based questions from the media. Ride was queried about whether she cried when things weren’t going well, whether she wanted to have children, even whether she planned to wear a bra while on the shuttle. Her famous reply to the last question: “There is no sag in zero G.”