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Cleopatra eyes and a power suit

Should powerful women in tech be judged solely on their achievements, or within the context of their 'femaleness'? It's a confusing issue and I'm still not sure...
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Written by Ella Morton on

On Wednesday I attended a great luncheon organised by the Females in Information Technology & Telecommunications association (FITT) celebrating "the success, leadership and influence achieved by women in the Australian ICT industry".

Several hundred people attended to hear IT Minister Senator Helen Coonan, NAB CIO Michelle Tredenick and Caroline Heinze -- Nortel's National Manager, Enterprise Channels and Marketing for Australia & New Zealand -- offer their insights and experiences.

While having so many women in the room gave me a feeling of sisterly solidarity, the talk at my table also made me think about the perception of females in tech, both in terms of how women deliberately change their image in response to the workplace environment, and why we tend to overcompensate to subvert expectations.

Being female and a techy can be a strange combination sometimes. During my days selling resistors and capacitors as a Dick Smith chick, I became accustomed to people walking into the store, seeing me, and either furtively scanning the place for the nearest male retail monkey or blatantly asking "Is there a guy I can speak to?" Others would smugly plonk a 110 volt American appliance on the counter and ask for a way to "convert the power". When I questioned them as to the amperage required and told them that the cost of the required step-down transformer would most likely be prohibitive, they tended to become either sheepish or annoyed and trundle off home.

At the time I rather enjoyed the fact that people tended to underestimate my knowledge or competence, because it allowed me to triumph in the end by spouting a torrent of tech information back at them. Now though, the idea of accepting people's low expectations doesn't sit so well with me.

Carly Fiorina, who was famously ousted as Hewlett-Packard CEO after pushing a merger with Compaq that failed to live up to her promises, said this in her commencement address to students at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University on May 7, 2005:

I'll never forget the first time my boss at the time introduced me to a client. With a straight face, he said "this is Carly Fiorina, our token bimbo." I laughed, I did my best to dazzle the client, and then I went to the boss when the meeting was over and said, "You will never do that to me again."

When Fiorina was booted from the top spot at HP in February 2005, the reaction was a fascinating glimpse into how females in tech-related jobs are perceived. These days, she spends most of her time on the speakers circuit, which saw her visit Sydney recently.

After a career peppered with questions like "Who cooks at home?" and being painted as an icon for corporate women trying to ascend the ranks, Fiorina's fall from grace was equally polarising. Commenters on News.com tended to either paint her as a destructive influence whose marketing background made her ill-suited to the role, or as a female hero whose legacy will inspire women across the world. The article "What if Carly Were a Man?" by fastcompany.com sums up the reaction well.

There are many conflicting issues relating to females in tech, especially regarding image. A profile piece on Helen Coonan in the Sydney Morning Herald's the (sydney) magazine featured the senator styled in fashion-spread worthy designer gear, and made note of the effect her "Cleopatra eyes" and curvy figure had on members of parliament. On one hand, this focus on physicality gives me the irrits for the same reason that the irrelevant mention of Jessica Rowe's lemon-hued Chanel suit in articles on her court case did. Why does it matter what these women wear or whether their eyes resemble an Egyptian queen's?

Playing devil's advocate though, I'm inclined to consider that ignoring the issue of image would be to pretend there is no elephant in the room. The attention to the physical attributes of powerful women is such a well-established discourse that it may seem odd at first to focus exclusively on their achievements.

I'll end with another quote from Fiorina at the time of her appointment as CEO: "My gender is interesting but really not the subject of the story here". Amen, sister.

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