Earlier this week, Fast Company magazine asked its readers to help select the most influential women in technology as part of an annual feature aimed at giving women the recognition they deserve.
The news comes just a week after Wired Magazine was criticized for featuring a woman’s cleavage on its cover for a story about breast tissue regeneration. The image, some said, was the latest example of Wired covers failing to feature women who have made significant contributions to the tech world.
The reality is, there aren’t nearly as many women in the tech world as there are men. But that shouldn’t be an excuse not to feature them, says Fast Company Editor Robert Safian. Instead, it should give the media even more of an incentive to highlight women and their accomplishments.
“Silicon Valley and the tech community are not as diverse as they should be,” Safian said, “and not enough attention has been paid to people who are diverse and worthy of attention.”
Negative responses to “women in tech” lists
When Fast Company first listed the most influential women in Web 2.0 two years ago, some readers said the women were not worthy of recognition. They argued that women and men are already on equal footing and that the time had passed for gender-specific lists. Others, particularly in the Digg community, made lewd comments about the women’s looks.
The responses served as a reminder of the struggles that many women face, and it proved to Fast Company that more work needed to be done. So the magazine decided to create an even more comprehensive list of women in tech.
The magazine doesn’t recognize women because of their gender; it’s recognizes them because they deserve to be praised for their accomplishments just as much as their male counterparts do, Safian said.
“I don’t think you want to recognize any group just because they’re that group, but in terms of whether we have a gender agnostic society, that’s just not the case yet. If you spend time in the Valley, it’s mostly male and mostly white,” Safian said. “At Fast Company, we don’t believe that’s the way business is going to look in the future, so we work very hard to represent where the globalized world is moving.”
Arguments for, against putting women on covers
Some editors say highlighting women in tech is not as easy as it sounds. Wired Editor Chris Anderson argued that there are “not enough high-profile women in the tech industry who are recognizable to sell a cover. This problem goes beyond women: we have trouble putting ‘people’ on the cover.”
His comment, which was in response to a blog post that Texas State University’s Cindy Royal wrote about the lack of women on Wired’s covers, drew mixed reactions from those who participated in a related Poynter Online chat.
One chat participant responded: “People on the cover of Wired have to have a name or face people recognize? Why? Nobody recognized Sergey Brin & Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg when they were first put on covers. Putting them on covers MADE them become recognizable.”
Fast Company has featured several cover stories about notable women in technology, including Gina Bianchini, former CEO of Ning; Deborah Conrad, vice president and chief marketing officer at Intel; and Soraya Darabi, digital strategist and cofounder of Foodspotting.
While these women may not be well-known to the general public, Safian said the issues they were featured in did “very well” on newsstands. Next month’s issue features a cover story about Twitter’s Chloe Sladden.
Choosing a cover is always a challenge, Safian said, in part because of the weight of the stories and image you choose.
“You always have a choice about what story you’re going to put on the cover and the way you represent that story,” Safian said. “We try to think about all the constituencies and what messages we’re sending with the covers we choose. We affirmatively say we want to have women represented on our covers. We have to have them represented, otherwise we’re presenting a representation of business and technology as being only populated by men.”
Featuring women on the cover can also help the magazine’s female readers identify more with the magazine’s content, Safian said. He pointed out that Fast Company’s readership is 65 percent male — a lower percentage than some other magazines that cover technology. Wired’s readership, for example, is 80 percent male.
These percentages aren’t all that surprising given the gender gap in the business and technology sectors. As reported in The New York Times, a recent National Center for Women and Information Technology study [PDF] found that “women account for just 6 percent of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies, and 22 percent of the software engineers at tech companies over all.” The study also found that more than 95 percent of the chief technical officers at the top Fortune 500 IT companies are men.
Women in tech starting to get more respect
For all the improvements that still need to be made, Lynne d Johnson sees glimmers of hope. Johnson, a former senior editor/community director at Fast Company who helped come up with the idea to feature the most influential women in tech, said readers’ responses have been much more positive since the initial list was published.
“I think that overall, the industry’s perception is changing because there are more lists, because there are more startups by women, and because there are more women speaking at conferences,” Johnson said by phone.
She pointed out that in recent years, women such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer; Marissa Mayer, vice president of geographic and local services at Google; and Caterina Fake, cofounder of Flickr and Hunch, have made a name for themselves in the tech industry.
But the majority of women — especially minorities — have yet to be recognized, Johnson said. In hopes of finding some lesser known women for the 2011 list, Johnson has reached out to Women Who Tech, Girls in Tech, Women in Technology International and the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. Both men and women have given her suggestions, which she and a team of Fast Company editors will look through when compiling the final list.
The lists has never been a main cover story, Safian said, but they’re an important step toward helping women gain more prominence.
“There are a tremendous amount of very talented women in technology who we feel deserve attention,” Safian said. “We’re human, so I’m not saying we’re going to be gender agnostic, but we want to make it easier for everyone to compete in the business and technology world.”