In the early '90s, as one of the first women editors of a technology magazine, my female employees would plop themselves down in my office to recount the humiliations, the come-ons, and the frustrations over the lack of a clear promotion path relative to their male office mates. With a young family at home waiting for me to get dinner on the stove, I probably lacked the patience and diplomacy to tackle the war for equal rights.
I did the best I could. For each roadblock they posed, my MO was to fire back a humorous salvo on the perks of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Look at the bright side, I'd say. Bill Gates remembers you in the crowd. The lines at the bathroom are really short. You don't have to wear that silly khaki pants uniform. It's a lot easier for you to talk your way into the "no-press" area.
Today, I find my comments cringe-worthy and slightly tone deaf. The only comfort I take is that I made these women smile in the face of very real obstacles. Though ineloquent, I was telling them to get out there and mark their turf in their own way.
Watching the Ellen Pao case brought the old struggle into a new focus. Only, in the world of Silicon Valley ventures, there is less humor, and more self-aggrandizement. By the end of the court case that pit her against Kleiner Perkins, Pao took on a larger-than-life role as the voice of all women who've ever been wronged on the job. Though she lost the case, the discussions continue.
I have no doubt that Pao worked with singular focus to get where she did. Not many get a JD, an MBA and an EE degree from Ivy League schools without having the right stuff. I have no doubt that the cowboy culture of a VC company is tough on a woman.
What I do doubt is that, with a few exceptions, women will beat men at their own game. They should be hell-bent on changing the playground, not worried about competing on the same over-trodden ground. The best woman VCs and entrepreneurs are listeners, collaborators and puzzle solvers. They bring an aesthetic and authenticity to their work. And now that the digital world is inextricably intertwined with the worlds of art, fashion, medicine, athletics, retail and more, they'll bring a holistic sensibility and a new discourse.
I'm sighing as I watch history repeating itself. Despite me joining leaning-in circles, writing for publications about women in technology, being a member of Women in CE, and taking on the personae of the woman's voice in a high tech world, not much has changed since I ran a male-dominated magazine in a male-dominated world. Men still swagger to the top; women fill the ranks of marketing and PR. It's the 2015 version of Mad Men. As digital projects become more collaborative and interdisciplinary with less of the "guy in the garage" mentality, women will bring their own stamp to technology.
I had a smart boss (also a man) early in my career. He told me I should join women's networking groups because it would be good for my career. I grumbled and asked: what about you? Why don't you have join networking groups? "I do," he answered. "I play golf."
Sexist? Separate but equal? Definitely. But the guy saw a chance for me to be a leader on my own terms, not by playing with the boys.
Robin Raskin was the editor of PC Magazine and went on to found FamilyPC, a magazine for families entering the digital world. Today she runs a conferences and events company, Living in Digital Times.