Women Create Tech Show of Their Own in Silicon Valley


At a glance, it was a typical high-tech convention: buttoned-down executives talking up the latest industry trend, marketers hyping new products, wireheads debating the relative merits of digital security schemes and hungry young entrepreneurs prowling for clients.

But there was an otherworldly feel to this particular confab, because nearly all those in attendance were women. In a role reversal with a multitude of tech trade shows, men made their presence felt primarily as booth bunnies--the perky promoters on the show floor whose job it is to pull in attendees for a sales pitch.

Part pep rally, part technology boot camp and part consciousness-raising group, the Women in Technology International conference here last week brought nearly 5,000 women together in the heart of male-dominated Silicon Valley.

"The future here in Silicon Valley is not about technology, it's about people," said keynote speaker Carol Bartz, chief executive of Autodesk, a maker of design and graphics software in San Rafael, Calif. That means building teams and nurturing them--which women tend to do best, Bartz argued.

Internet companies such as Amazon.com, the online bookstore, are not about computers but about marketing, graphic design and customer service--areas in which women excel, said Deborah Triant, CEO of Check Point Software Technologies, a Silicon Valley-based security software company.

This year the WITI conference initiated a "Hollywood track" to reflect the growing influence of technology--and women--on the entertainment industry's online presence. Four female executives from major studios--Warner Bros., Columbia TriStar, Fox and MGM--took the leadoff panel.

The first to speak, Kathleen Barton, executive director of online marketing for Fox, demonstrated a major feature of her Web site (http://www.fox.com)--an animated display of the nuclear-tipped missile that impaled bad guy John Travolta at the climax of director John Woo's testosterone-infused thriller "Broken Arrow." That set the tone for a gender-neutral, bottom-line-oriented seminar about online marketing.

"We are reaching the women who go into stores and execute purchases," said Elizabeth Sherman, director of programming and development at Warner Bros. Online. She said her site (http://www.warnerbros.com) is profitable--a rarity on the Web.

Sherman attributed this success, in part, to using pizazz to grab the attention of Internet users who are accustomed to the studios' steady diet of TV and movies. "When you go to our site, it's sight, sound and motion. It's eye candy," she said.

Surprisingly, the speakers barely mentioned the influence or role of women in the studios' online efforts.

"Entertainment is entertainment. I can't say I want to create female-oriented programming," said Lynda Keeler, vice president and general manager of Columbia TriStar Interactive, a division of Sony.

But Keeler also echoed Bartz's theme when she said her site (http://www.spe.sony.com) is designed mostly by women and is "open and embracing, rather than exclusive." As an example, she said, the site includes a wide range of links to other Web sites--a risky business where the goal is to steer Web traffic in your own direction.

"This is a connected world," she said. "And in the long run, it comes back to us."

Sherman also said that women tend to be warmer and more welcoming than men and that those characteristics can help create a successful Web site.

Women visit her site almost as frequently as men do, in part because they are interested in the television programs it promotes, including the popular "ER," "Veronica's Closet" and "Friends," Sherman said. But the popularity of the shows is only a starting point.

"For women, leisure is a zero-sum game," she noted. Most women don't have a lot of free time, so Warner Bros. Online tries to make the time they spend online a good investment by providing compelling personal details about TV and movie actors, entertaining games, movie trivia, parenting tips and a form of personal contact with stars.

"How about being able to e-mail Mel Gibson on the set of 'Lethal Weapon IV'?" she asked. And Sherman doubts that an all-male development team could have come up with another feature (only on Warner Bros.' America Online area): "Rosieoke"--in which online visitors sing TV and movie theme songs, plus pop and holiday favorites, karaoke-style, with talk show star Rosie O'Donnell. Sherman said the activity is designed to be used by moms and kids as after-school family fun.

Bartz suggested in her speech that in an industry principally concerned with moving frenetically to the next product release, women see a bigger picture.

"What are you leaving for the world?" she asked, suggesting that women more often try to contribute beyond the bottom line.

Does the preponderance of female executives at the studios' online departments suggest that Hollywood gets that message and sees the unique qualities women can offer to the online business?

Sherman was doubtful. "Let's face it," she said. "How much money can we lose if we screw it up, versus [the huge sums spent on] a television show?"


Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at charles.piller@latimes.com.

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