Field Notes: Why Women Should Love Technology

Field Notes: Why Women Should Love Technology

For decades, women have failed to thrive as much as men in the workforce.  They’ve struggled to rise to management levels in top corporations, to have  their voices heard in the boardroom and their efforts fairly compensated. Today,  many women believe there’s another way. Perhaps women don’t have to follow  traditional rules of business success—perhaps for the first time in history, they  can bypass them altogether. How? Technology.

At the highest level of business management, women continue to find themselves boxed out. I had to laugh when I read about the ‘gains’ women are experiencing as CEO’s among Fortune 500 companies in 2011. There were exactly twelve women in CEO positions in 2011—that’s up from ten in 2006—anddown by two from 2010! That, to me, sounds like a regression, not a gain. People explain this in a lot of ways; the most common reason offered is that women don’t stick to their career paths like men—they opt out—to raise kids, take care of parents, or any number of similar reasons. But then there is that pesky 2007 Catalyst report that found an enduring perception among very senior business executives in both the U.S. and Europe that women just can’t cut it. The spin? “Men take charge—women take care.” That’s a tough cultural perception for women to break, but maybe they don’t have to. Can women tackle business ventures in ways that allow them to circumvent this subordinate stereotype? I believe so.  I think it’s possible for women to climb that corporate ladder their own way; using their own management styles and succeeding on their own terms.

We already know that women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men, but women tend to start companies in industries that are difficult to scale. As a result, most women-owned business start-ups are very small. Why do women do this? Because these difficult-to-scale industries are familiar: healthcare, education, retail and other familial services like daycare, housekeeping and tutoring are dominated by women.   Couple that with the well-documented challenges women face in raising capital (both startup and expansion) and it becomes clear both how and why women struggle to grow their companies past the micro-enterprise stage. Technology, however, has changed the playing field.

Francine Rabinovich of New York is one such example of a woman owned business in a traditional industry. Before she started her business Denim Therapy, she graduated Cum Laud from Tufts University with a degree in Economics and International Trade. She started her career down the corporate path, working for a major New York ad agency serving Revlon, Palmolive and Speed Stick. Fast-forward to an afternoon in her New York apartment, when she bemoaned throwing away her favorite pair of jeans that were ripped. “I knew I could have a patch sewn in, but that changed the look and feel of my jeans, so I decided to find the solution that would make the jeans look almost as good as new,” she told an interviewer. Francine created a genuine reconstruction of the original denim material—not a patch, but a new cotton thread and stitch applied to the broken denim area. Before the Internet, that would have been the end of the story. Francine would have fixed her jeans and probably impressed her friends, yet it is hardly likely that a scalable business would have emerged from this mending innovation. But it did—thanks to the Internet. Denim Therapy is a global online service that mends blue jeans, converts favorite jeans into maternity jeans (and back) all for about $7 an inch. Francine is now hiring her own employees and experiencing great success in the cyber realm. She jumped off the corporate ladder and hasn’t looked back since.

The truth is, women don’t have to change the industries they pursue, or even adopt new management styles to mirror those of men in order to succeed in business today. They simply need the web. Check out Second Porch, a Facebook-based house-sharing-among-friends business; Wool and the Gang an online business selling complete knitting kits (yarn, needles, instructions and patterns); or BlessUs, a zippered outfit that can be ‘unzipped’ to make different clothes. These are just a few businesses that would never have scaled before the Internet but are global and growing because of it. Ten years from now, these businesses (and thousands of others like them) will have corporate nameplates. Their founders, CEO’s and CFO’s? Women. And it’s about time.

Maureen Collins-Williams is Director of Entrepreneurship Outreach at University
of Northern Iowa

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