At any press conference plugging sci-tech, it's an all-balls affair. Fat chance you'll find many women in the male-dominated world of inventing and reporting on new technology. But beneath the surface, gender equality in this area is quietly gaining ground.
Apparent to insiders in the industry, female geeks are finding a home in their various pursuits, from blogging to engineering to tech journalism. Press conferences today might not reflect that upswing; it takes some digging to find the women who are bringing technology to the masses.
ABC News predicted an instant page-view spike for its online home when it lured vidcaster Amanda Congdon from her online show, Rocketboom, to report on Web happenings for ABCNews.com. Bringing a humorous perspective to tech news, Congdon is one of the first female crossover stars from the Web-video era.
But she's not the only one. Closer to home, Toronto's Amber MacArthur is doing triple duty in the tech arena: she's Citytv's new media specialist, she hosts the weekly vidcast CommandN, and she also co-hosts net@nite, a podcast on all things geekified. She hopes her 24/7 work in the digital world will inspire other women to do the same.
"Sometimes people think that a woman doesn't know her tech stuff," she says. "But as soon as you show them that you do, you should just hold your head high and support other women who do the same."
She regularly receives e-mail from other women who respect that a female journalist is covering Internet trends on a major network. But luckily for e-feminism, MacArthur is one of many Web-passionate women storming into conferences full of male-pattern boldness.
Xeni Jardin is widely admired for her editorship at the popular blog BoingBoing.net. San Franciscan Rebecca Blood is known as one of the foremost authorities on blogging and citizen journalism. In the UK, the slickly produced ShinyShiny.tv caters to female gadget geeks hungry to learn how new inventions will complement their lifestyles.
"If you look at the stats, women are clearly pursuing jobs in high tech," says Annalee Newitz, co-editor of She's Such A Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology And Other Nerdy Stuff (Seal Press). She cites some encouraging numbers: U.S. women with PhDs in computer science accounted for 18 per cent of the graduates in 2004 compared to 16.5 per cent a year earlier, according to the Computer Research Association.
And in 2001, the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 56 per cent of graduates in engineering and science were women. But strangely, only a quarter of jobs in science and engineering were held by women.
Newitz can't explain the disparity, but she points to several barriers. "Women in sci-tech fields might feel discouraged because there are so few women to support them," she says. "And a subtle kind of sexism still exists; companies still won't acknowledge the technical skills of a woman."
It's hard out there for a geekess graduate. A 1997 study by the Swedish Medical Research Council found that women in the sciences had to be 2.2 times more productive than their male counterparts to be as successful in securing grants or financial support, Newitz says.
A group of female contributors to Wikipedia, the WikiChix, banded together to make sure the online encyclopedia wasn't too guy-centric. The Entertainment Software Association reports that 38 per cent of all gamers are female, leading to women-only crews of PC gamers that are fragging guys to shreds. And women account for half the total time spent on Second Life, an immersive virtual world.
So there's hope for the geek-minded girl?
"Software development companies are hiring more women, which they never did before," Newitz says.
"Women are getting involved in tech at a faster pace," MacArthur notices, "and I've seen how the number of female bloggers keeps growing all the time."
Don't buy the party streamers yet. If the sci-tech industries are ever going to pay women - and respect them - as much as men, there need to be more than incremental improvements. A wholesale change must thunder across the techscape in order for the female geek to finally feel at home in the world of bits, bytes and blogs.