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Spiegel Online
November 30, 2000

Role Models for Girl Wonders (Girl Prodigies)

By Christian Radler

With millions of unfilled positions worldwide in the IT Sector, women are in an excellent position when hunting for jobs. In the new workplace, they organize themselves with their own Internet portals.

Originally, "Geek" defines a bored person*. "When we started two years ago to build the GirlsGeeks site, everyone thought we were crazy" remembers the business founder Kristine Hanna. "The term Geek at that time was viewed as completely negative. It was thought of as the type with horn glasses and a hygiene problem who would sit in front of a PC all night while eating cardboard pizza. Today, Geek stands for smart and well to-do computer experts. Since women work entirely different in a team environment, we chose the term "girl". The 40-year old, who was a producer at Lucas Films prior to the start-up of GirlGeeks, makes it quite clear: "We are not feminists. Our website is a network of mostly highly specialized women in IT positions who share their experiences and knowledge." So far, 40,000 of them.

One of them is Robyn Navarro who taught herself about computers prior to setting out for a bachelor degree in IT. Like most of the other students, she had a problem finishing her degree. "About half-way through, I had to quit my studies because I received too many offers." For Navarro, GirlGeeks is the best support she can think of. "Thanks to their web site, I have contact with many colleagues in North America and many assignments. "Many women are still afraid of anything that has to do with IT . They are intimidated by all the Boy Geeks and hesitate to ask questions that may make them look stupid. There are no stupid questions among girl geeks. They simply support each other better." That is the opinion of the 22-year old.

The problem for the 28% who are women in the IT world is not as much discrimination but isolation. "You sit in an office with all kinds of people whose humor you don't understand and who do not understand you." Approximately two thirds of the GirlGeeks are old hands at this business - they work as project leaders in large firms or run their own dot.coms. On the advisory board is Esther Dyson, an Internet prominence as well as Icann board member. Those who have not yet quite gotten as far as Dyson, Hanna or Navarro, are being given a sisterly lift by the more experienced GirlGeeks: they provide practical advice and chances at education and jobs.

GirlGeek founder Hanna sees her mission for her website like this: "Back in 1980, when I started working in Hollywood, I did not have a single role model. I wanted to change that - and did, successfully, I think. We bring together just as many mentors with beginners as employers with experts."

Start-ups and existing concerns search the web site for help, often via banner advertising. GirlGeeks' mission is also their income. "We have the cooperation of Microsoft, Dell, Cisco, IBM and Yahoo," says Hanna. Her team has about 29 employees, 6 men among them. "We are still not profitable but due to our slow growth, we have not had to let anyone go." In fact, four positions are still to be filled. Only one of them is the "classic" Geek position of a programmer.

Many of the approximate 400 external jobs currently posted on GirlGeeks come from Internet giants such as Inktomi, the PC Direct Mail order house Dell and the search engine Google. Hanna's opinion is that employers need to adjust to a new type of employee: "Women prefer flexibility in the workplace over stock options." Even though a woman may not search for a job nor has one to offer, she will find many other offers on GirlGeek, among them discussion forums, auctions or short videos with words from successful women in the industry. US astronaut Marsha Ivins talks for 90 seconds about what she plans to do during her next trip to the international space station, or a web designer recounts how she overcame her fear of the Internet and how she helped others to do the same by giving seminars to businesswomen.

Even a prize is given out by the "girl wonders". With self-irony, they call the prize the "Golden Horn glasses for outstanding accomplishments by women in the IT industry". You know the type. The winner is the web designer and author Lynda Weinman. Over and over, she experienced the same discrimination. "When, as a woman, you start a new job, you are assumed to be without a clue until you can prove otherwise." Weinman was honored with this prize in the middle of November during the Fall Comdex in Las Vegas in front of 1600 Girl Geeks.

The path into the international business is a given for Hanna. "We are carefully looking around in Europe, India and Australia. For now, we have a widely recognized brand name." But the field of competition is close behind. In the start position are at least two websites that plan to copy the concept of GirlGeeks. "I believe there is enough room for another portal of this type" is the opinion of net worker Navarro whose project "Binary Girls" plans to go on-line in 2001.

Translator Note: "Langweilerin" is difficult to translate. At first sight, it is not a complimentary term. It means someone who bores you, who is boring, who is "not with the program". I chose to translate it in the sense of the girl in school who was a geek, who was smart but didn't fit in (therefore, among other things, "boring").

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