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A Level Field At Last? Women and the Internet

By Amy Marcott

Once trapped by glass ceilings, women are showcasing their natural talents and finding a natural fit in the dot-com arena. In fact, many executives say that women possess a distinct advantage over men in the Internet industry.

"The dot-com world is one where you create your own opportunities versus waiting for others to create them for you."

Women have struggled to achieve their rightful place in corporate America, but gender discrimination has often left them shut out of old-boys' networks or trapped by a glass ceiling. Enter the Internet: a business architecture devoid of ceilings, walls, or doors, where the only impediment to success seems to be one's tenacity. Even more encouraging, industry insiders say that women are particularly qualified for dot-com jobs.

Different worlds
Think of the business approaches of traditional and dot-com companies as long road trips. Large corporations have an itinerary, motel and restaurant reservations, and one of those big road atlases. Internet companies, on the other hand, know their ultimate destination and the general direction they need to travel, but they rely on instinct and the advice of locals to find their way.

In large corporate settings, the challenges women face arise from within the work environment itself. Denise Brosseau, president and co-founder of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE), says that women often feel stifled and frustrated by traditional hierarchies and politics that continually squelch their natural creativity and innovation.

Brosseau worked at Motorola for two and a half years as the director of business development and product planning for the Lexicus division (wireless information devices) and often found herself the only woman in the boardroom with senior executives: "If you weren't introduced with your title, people assumed you were an attorney, secretary, or from human resources," she says.

At dot-coms, the need to simply establish the company creates an atmosphere of meritocracy, where women and men fight the same battle: finding enough space, hiring good people, and raising funding to grow the business. "The dot-com world is gender blind," says Gayle Crowell, president of software company "There is so much pressure on execution and being the first and the clear winner that no one has time to worry about whether you are female or male."

Crowell and other female executives praise the communal and innovative atmosphere at Internet companies. "At the end of the day, most dot-coms are ego-less environments where everyone rolls up their sleeves and pulls together to win the end game," Crowell says.

Women skills
Glass ceiling or not, women thrive in the Internet arena for other reasons, namely the attributes they bring to their jobs. In fact, many executives say that women possess a distinct advantage over men in the dot-com arena. The natural talents of most women - sales and marketing, relationship and consensus building, focus on the customer, excellent communication skills, and branding are highly valued in the dot-com world," says Crowell. The "anonymity" of the Internet requires employees-male or female - who can attract and maintain consumer attention. And Brosseau points out that women are more finely attuned to the needs of customers

The vitality of the Internet business environment provides plenty of opportunities for lateral and vertical career moves. "There are more job opportunities than great people right now," says Ann Winblad, co-founder and partner of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and technology industry veteran. She acknowledges that some Internet companies may construct barriers prohibiting women's advancement, but these are not the norm. "If women hit the glass ceiling, they can feel comfortable to move on to other companies where these barriers do not exist," Winblad says.

Building networks
While a variety of dot-com job titles await deserving employees, some women may find the upper ranks - the senior management and fund raising positions-somewhat elusive given the persistence of old networks that prefer to fund and mentor other men. Brosseau says that these networks are not extinct, but they are not as "entrenched" as before. "Everybody needs help," says Brosseau, referring to financial assistance, as well as to coaching and mentoring relationships. "This is not a women-only problem, but it's complicated by the fact that there are fewer women [in positions to help other women]."'s Crowell spends 10 to 15 percent of her time mentoring aspiring women leaders who often suffer from a lack of experience when it comes to capturing capital. "Women need more role models and coaching on how to present and be 'fundable'," she says.

Brosseau's company, the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, does not encourage "new girls' networks;" rather, it seeks to bring any investors into recently established networks of women. Indeed, the connected women of Silicon Valley who are able to help newcomers were themselves mentored mostly by men. But with more women entering the senior management pipeline, up-and-coming businesswomen will have more help, and may achieve their success faster than their female predecessors who had to break through male-dominated networks.

"I think younger women believe that they will be successful whereas some of us who are older knew we would have to fight for our success," says Crowell. The women who have blazed a trail in the business world encourage young women to act on their initiative. Says Winblad: "The dot-com world is one where you create your own opportunities versus waiting for others to create them for you."

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