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'WEBGRRLS' HELPS WOMEN USE INTERNET TO ADVANCE THEIR CAREERS

Webgrrls got started in a Manhattan restaurant in 1995, when six women met to help each other break into the male-dominated technology arena.

Back then, "women represented just 10 percent of the online population," says Aliza P. Sherman, the founder of the group. "Now, women make up 51 percent of Internet users, and they are using it to advance their careers and their businesses."

Today, Webgrrls International is a global membership organization that links about 30,000 women in technology careers, or those interested in learning more about info-tech.

Sherman, the original Webgrrl, plans to be in Buffalo early next week to meet with a newly formed chapter here, which met for the first time this month. The visit is part of a cross-country tour to take stock of women in technology as Webgrrls International approaches its sixth birthday in January.

Although women have caught up to men online, they remain far behind in the technology workplace. Only about 17 percent of jobs in high-tech fields go to women, according to industry estimates, and few women are launching technology companies.

Webgrrls -- the unusual spelling derives from Sherman's "Cybergrrl" Web site -- aims to help women succeed in the booming industry by providing networking and training opportunities, as well as mentoring programs for the next generation.

In most industry networking situations, "there tend to be more males than females, and the dynamic changes," Sherman said in a telephone interview. "When there is a mixed crowd, a woman is less likely to say 'I don't understand this.' "

Gwen McIvor, founder of the local chapter, said the group attracts women interested in learning about info-tech as well as technology professionals who are looking to enhance their careers.

"There are special challenges to being a woman in technology -- we are a minority," said McIvor, a former marketing director at Reciprocal Inc. in Buffalo who now runs a consulting and training business called BridgeLight Group. "Webgrrls provides a non-competitive, non-threatening environment to learn and network."

And the networking has already begun. "I just got an e-mail from a woman in Houston who's moving back to Buffalo -- she was asking
'What are job opportunities like, who can I speak to,' " McIvor said.

Dues are $55 a year, or $35 for students or those without jobs. Members receive local networking opportunities, access to the worldwide membership network, plus discounts on computer training classes, McIvor said.

One focus that McIvor plans for the group is to create mentoring that will allow high-school girls to interact with women in technology careers.

"There's kind of this boy-oriented computer culture that has to do with gaming and doing cool stuff with computers," McIvor said. The culture may make girls feel excluded and prevent them from getting valuable computer skills.

Carol Kostyniak, director of a network of private schools and a Webgrrls member, said providing adult role models is important for women to break down barriers to technology careers. As the first woman in Kodak's systems department when she started in 1969, Kostyniak said she encountered skepticism.

"I was challenged by people who said, 'No way can a woman do this job,' " Kostyniak said. While workplaces are less rigid today, many technology fields remain overwhelmingly male. A recent conference on advanced network technology in Rochester drew about 300 people, only three or four of them women, Kostyniak said -- "and one of them was the secretary for the man who organized it."

Sherman founded Webgrrls in 1995 after learning Web development tools and launching the site Cybergrrl.com with Web developer Kevin Kennedy. The site -- a kind of online magazine -- is part of New York-based Cybergrrl Inc., along with the search engine Femina and the Webgrrls organization. Sherman said she chose the unusual spelling because "girl" sounded too young, while "grrl" sounded cool and hip.

Sherman has since left the company to devote her time to writing and consulting -- her current tour is an effort to gather material for a book on women in technology. Kennedy runs the business as president of Cybergrrl Inc.

Cybergrrl.com was a pioneer of the online "community" site, now an e-commerce model. Community sites provide information and networking services to a specific group, generating opportunities for online sales and advertising in the process.

Other women-oriented sites iVillage.com and Women.com have overtaken Cybergrrl in traffic, attracting over 5 million visitors a month, according to Media Metrix. And newer entrants like gURL.com, with a younger, edgier approach, are also crowding the market.

But unlike most e-commerce sites, Cybergrrl is profitable, Kennedy said -- without abandoning its original mission of empowering women.

"Cybergrrl is geared to personal and professional advancement . . . instead of regurging Cosmo," he said.

To attend next week's meeting of prospective Cybergrrl members in Buffalo, contact McIvor by e-mail at gwen@bridglight.com, or by phone at 668-7831.

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