Where’s MY damn role model, she whined

May 14, 2005

The problem with role models is that you never know how close they have to be to your own situation before you can cathect on them. For a long time I’ve sort of looked for someone who is female, an engineer but preferably lacking formal CS training, Internet-focused, a minority, and entrepreneurial. It’s been a tall order to fill, and I’ve recently had a bunch of interactions that make me realize I should broaden my horizons… that women who don’t fill this complete shopping list can still be comrades and inspirations.

For instance, I was having a problem a few months ago that I thought might be a gender issue. Through a friend I was introduced to a woman who isn’t an engineer but has a wealth of experience in the industry. She ended up assuring me that the issue is unlikely to be as gendered as I thought, and is probably based on another variable. To be honest I still don’t know if I agree with her — but I did realize with vast relief that just talking to her about it, and hearing her point of view, made me feel better. Sometimes it really is who says something, not just what they say.

I also recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Telle Whitney, head of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She has a PhD in CS, and 20 years of experience in semiconductors and VOIP — and now she runs the major nonprofit associated with women in our industry. And she is kind! I did nothing but whine at her about how I couldn’t find any role models, and she listened with every appearance of not wanting to smack me on my whinging snout. She told me something fascinating: apparently CTO is the rarest position in the industry for women. That surprised me, because there are so many young and barely-qualified (male, needless to say) CTOs — it’s not like being a VP of eng, which is a position that takes years of responsibility and usually quite a bit of political dexterity to work your way up to. If you can get other people to call you a CTO without laughing in your face, you can be a CTO!

So I’m still dubious about female-techie networking groups and all, but I’m definitely starting to feel that there are individual women out there who I can learn a lot from and talk to about our shared experiences. It’s a good feeling.

4 Responses to “Where’s MY damn role model, she whined”

  1. Sarah Allen Says:

    I’ve done my share of whining about not having role models. I’ve come to terms with it by finding role models who are men or women who are peers or women who can inspire me from afar. Sometimes I just look for someone who is doing part of what I want to be doing or doing something else with the kind of attitude that I would like to adopt. Like you say, a woman doesn’t have to be a CTO for her to be a role model. Sometimes it helps to talk to people who share part of your experience.

    It is weird though, isn’t it? I’ve heard that 20% of technical folks are women, but that’s just not my experience. Even though the majority of small business are started by women, it does seem hard in the tech fields to find other women with entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe it is just that my sample size is so small 🙂

    In any case, if you ever feel like talking to an entrepreneurial woman, who does have formal CS training, and is only a minority in terms of gender at the office, feel free to drop me line.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I had to look up cathect, so I was surprised that you didn’t think of Selina Lo.

  3. Angie Says:

    Have you tried joining the Society of Women Engineers?

  4. Sarah Lipman Says:

    “Female-techie networking groups”? Where do I join?!

    I recently had the honor of speaking at the graduation of a women’s technical college. I was stunned by the invitation until I realized how few women there actually are… [1] in the upper management… [2] of hi-tech startups… [3] in Israel. Add in the school’s preference for [4] a religious role model, and the pool is EXTREMELY small!

    Anyone else out there? How about 3 out of 4 categories?

    It’s a good thing I enjoy my job!

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