Who are you calling "sister"?

To break through the glass ceiling, women's online communities -- like Webgrrls and DigitalEve -- need to work together.

Published December 21, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

Five years ago, when you thought about women on the Web, Webgrrls probably came to mind. In a medium where men still outnumbered women 3-to-1, a woman named Aliza Sherman persuaded tens of thousands of women to visit Cybergrrl.com and join her Webgrrls community, a network of mailing lists devoted to encouraging girls to become geeks. Newsweek named Sherman one of the "Top 50 People Who Matter Most on the Internet," and at Webgrrls meetings and on mailing lists around the country, both female newbies and Net professionals (including myself) gabbed about everything from workplace equality to feminist zines to HTML for dummies.

More than 30,000 women are currently members of Webgrrls, and many more have passed through the community over the years. Webgrrls' impact on the wired female population has been profound. But Webgrrls is no longer the only game in town, and these days numerous women's communities are pursuing similar pro-women, pro-technology agendas. Cybergrrl.com, once one of the most popular sites for women on the Web, has since been upstaged by Goliaths like iVillage.com, Women.com and Oxygen.com. Meanwhile, Sherman, burned out on the digital world, has left both Webgrrls and Cybergrrl.com in the hands of others -- including, controversially, a man -- and is now traveling across the country in an R.V.

Webgrrls has experienced many changes, but the most recent blow hurt the most. A new organization called DigitalEve, created in part by former high-level Webgrrls staffers, is working hard to steal Webgrrls' thunder and become the No. 1 community for women in technology. Launched on Nov. 13, DigitalEve is slowly but surely eroding the base of the Webgrrls community, as entire Webgrrls chapters defect to the new organization. After less than two months in existence, DigitalEve claims to have drawn 10,000 members -- a large number of them straight from Webgrrls' membership.

This has led to some bitter blood in the women's technology community. The myriad women's organizations -- not just Webgrrls and DigitalEve but also Women in Technology International, Wired Women, San Francisco Women on the Web, HerDomain and others -- are working toward a common agenda: the empowerment of women through digital means. And with their feminist ideology and eye toward equal rights, it will be lot easier to forge change if the women's organizations work together. But sharing an X chromosome and a guiding principle does not guarantee that all the groups will get along. And now that women are no longer the minority on the Net, perhaps they shouldn't have to.

As a woman who believes in the power of women's communities, I find it difficult to write about the failings of organizations like Webgrrls or DigitalEve. How can we -- believers in female empowerment -- turn a critical eye to the inner workings of these groups without running the risk of undermining a movement we essentially believe in? Sadly, the battles over Webgrrls are characteristic of the kind of infighting that has plagued women's movements -- online and off -- for years. For some reason, sisterhood is too often tempered with a destructive competitiveness. No community is without its own internal battles, but when women's communities splinter, it's particularly painful.

Webgrrls began in April 1995 at a cybercafe in New York, when Web designer Sherman invited other women with Web sites to talk about the joys and perils of working in the digital world. One meeting led to another, and by the end of the year several hundred women were showing up to compare notes. Satellite Webgrrls chapters sprang up in cities around the country, and the original Webgrrls mailing list split into local versions. As the concept spread like wildfire, the informal group soon became a formal company, a wing of Sherman's Cybergrrl.com design firm and Web site.

Today, there are over 100 Webgrrls chapters around the world; and if there isn't one in your area, you're invited to start your own. Webgrrls International provides mailing lists and server space for Web sites, and lets local chapter leaders plan their own meetings, training sessions and special events. Members pay $55 in annual dues and local chapters can hunt for sponsorships, but all the money is coordinated and distributed through a central bank account managed by Webgrrls International in New York.

Webgrrls' mission is to "empower women through technology," specifically by encouraging them to network and mentor one another with the aim of breaking through the glass ceiling to claim top jobs in the high-tech world. But over the years, Webgrrls has seen a fair amount of internal strife. Three local chapters in Austin, San Francisco and Washington have seceded from the organization in the past year to launch their own nonprofit organizations (Her Domain, SF Women on the Web and DC Web Women, respectively).

The splits were officially described as "amicable" (despite the fact that in more than one case the departures prompted some nasty flame wars) and new Webgrrls chapters were subsequently established in those cities, headed by new leaders. The grumbling, however, continues on internal "Pointgrrl" mailing lists, where chapter leaders get together to discuss larger Webgrrls issues.

But nothing quite prepared Webgrrls for the summer of 2000, when the Boston chapter began a battle that eventually led to the departure of half a dozen Webgrrls chapters and the launch of a new organization called DigitalEve.

According to Diane Darling, the former leader of the Boston Webgrrls chapter and a co-founder of DigitalEve, problems had been brewing for a while. Some leaders, she says, were upset by the management of Webgrrls, which is run by Cybergrrl.com's 20-person staff in New York but lacks any Webgrrls-only staff. Although Sherman started as the Webgrrls director, in 1997 she stepped down to focus on Cybergrrl.com, handing over the reins to a series of short-lived directors. When the last director, May Leong, departed in February 2000, Webgrrls didn't hire a replacement; instead, the CEO of Cybergrrl.com stepped in.

The CEO of Cybergrrl.com -- a longtime partner of Sherman's -- just happened to be a man named Kevin Kennedy. Although Kennedy quickly defended his credentials as a women's advocate -- "It's true I am a man and it's not subject to change ... but it's always been a mission of mine to help people and teach people and help them strive for excellence" -- some chapter leaders were uncomfortable with the idea of a man running a women's organization.

And then there was the profit issue. Webgrrls is a "C" corporation -- that is, for profit -- for tax and banking reasons, and although the organization had never come close to breaking even, let alone made a profit, some chapter leaders felt that a women's community should, by definition, be nonprofit. Darling was among those who objected to Webgrrls' for-profit status: "Why was I volunteering for a for-profit? I decided that, for me, I couldn't continue to be the leader when it wasn't a woman management team, it was a man, and it was a for-profit -- people were volunteering their time for a company." After exchanging some strong words with Kennedy, Darling began polling both her chapter's members and other chapter leaders to see if there was interest in starting a different kind of organization. Not surprisingly, her chapter members felt less affinity with the international organization than they did with their local networks. In a town hall meeting, more than 95 percent of the group said that they were interested in starting their own online women's community. And in July they launched "Boston Web Women," which within a few months had pulled in more than 1,200 members, decimating the ranks of the remaining Boston Webgrrls group.

That was the rock that started the avalanche. Other chapter leaders contacted Darling, and she began to reach out to Webgrrls groups in large cities to discuss a new and bigger nonprofit organization for women. Darling found strong kinship in Canada, where Webgrrl members had grown frustrated with the inconvenience of dealing with U.S. currency.

Working with May Leong, the former international director of Webgrrls, and Jennifer Evans, the director of a strong Webgrrls chapter in Toronto, Darling officially launched DigitalEve in November, with chapters in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Boston, Houston and San Francisco. Most of these chapters were formed straight from the member rosters of the Webgrrls chapters in those cities. In some cases, the chapter leaders simply made an executive decision and informed the members that they would be changing affiliations; in others, the entire community voted to make the change.

Since they left, DigitalEve's founders have found plenty of criticism to level at Webgrrls. For starters, the name: "The 'Webgrrls' part of it was cute but people grew out of that. I had one person say, 'I haven't been a professional for 15 years to be called a grrl,'" says Darling. "It was uncomfortable for people to the point that they wouldn't join the organization."

Other chapters felt neglected by the organization, believing that Webgrrls was more interested in being a generalist group than a localized community. "If you want to start a chapter of Webgrrls, you apply, they give you Web site space and then that's it. That's the extent of the support," complains Evans, who switched her Toronto Webgrrls chapter over to DigitalEve. "There's no consistency of programs. We developed all the programs we had in Toronto in a vacuum -- that's why we feel such a sense of ownership in our chapter for what we're doing." DigitalEve, she says, will both provide more templates and assistance to local groups and give them room to tailor their chapters around their own needs.

Yet all of DigitalEve's founders profess admiration for the Webgrrls organization ("We have a lot of respect for the Webgrrls name and reputation," says Evans) and, especially, Aliza Sherman. What's more, says Anna Gonowon, director of public relations, "DigitalEve doesn't see itself as a competitor to Webgrrls." But it's clear DigitalEve can't help edging in on Webgrrls' territory. Gonowon admits, "We all compete for the same audience -- DigitalEve, Webgrrls, WITI, Wired Women -- we all compete for the same people."

That competitive drive is presumably what led DigitalEve's founders, despite their professions of love and respect, to invite the leaders of Webgrrls chapters to join their organization. In the earliest press coverage, the founders described themselves as an alternative to a problematic Webgrrls organization. And chapter leaders responded: In Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia and the United Kingdom, they either defected along with their entire membership or simply left the leader position, began a DigitalEve branch and then invited former community members to join. Of the group's reported 10,000 members, 6,000 live in Canada, and Evans estimates that at least 4,000 of those came directly from Webgrrls chapters.

From the outside, it looks like DigitalEve is poaching Webgrrls' members, chapter by chapter. Evans says that Webgrrls CEO Kennedy has leveled such an accusation against her group, but she insists it's untrue. It's difficult, in this tangle of she-said-she-said stories, to figure out whether DigitalEve really has made a concerted, intentional effort to woo away Webgrrls' members and how much is simply a natural changing of the guard.

Publicly, Kennedy is guarded when discussing DigitalEve, describing the departures as momentary glitches of leadership in local chapters: "It's not the chapter that goes away," he says. "The leadership steps down to pursue whatever they want to pursue. What's interesting is that in almost every case, as soon as one of those leaders steps down, we have someone else to step in and take over."

Sherman takes the departures more personally. While she says she understands that some women simply object to a for-profit women's advocacy organization, or might want to strike out and do something on their own, she objects to how it's being done. "It does hurt me that DigitalEve is literally being built on the Webgrrls membership, as opposed to people just coming from Webgrrls," she says with some emotion.

"There can never be too many great organizations that help women, no matter how they are structured, but to create something not just out of the vision and inspiration of something else but literally out of its membership hurts," Sherman explains. She adds: "The thing that distresses me the most is that all of this is based on helping women, yet from the get-go with Webgrrls -- and almost every women's organization I've ever belonged to -- there's always this infighting."

And that, truly, is the most painful part of this rift. One would like to believe that women united in the common cause of promoting equal rights for women would be, well, united. But just because a group shares the same vision doesn't mean it has the same route to getting there or that conflicting personalities won't get in the way, just as they do in the corporate world.

The women of the Web, in their own peculiar way, can be one of the most difficult groups to organize. Women who have become savvy professionals in the high-tech world tend to be both ardently competitive and well-versed in marketing tactics -- including the practice of promoting one's own product by casting aspersions on others'. DigitalEve knows that to draw membership from Webgrrls it must also distinguish itself by criticizing the other organization.

And yet, in the name of feminism and sisterly love and the betterment of womankind, these women still really want the other women to like them; they hold steadfast to the notion of common ground. So with the same voice that they criticize the women they disagree with, they simultaneously reach out and ask for forgiveness and friendship.

As I was reporting this story, I'd hear critical comments that I was asked not to attribute; then I'd hear about phone calls made behind the scenes to make sure that no one was really angry at anyone. It was difficult to untangle the real story from the complicated layers of female friendship and competitiveness -- and I wondered if it is ever possible to uncover any particular truth from such an internal community struggle.

Meanwhile, other women's organizations are observing Webgrrls' chaos and bitter breakups with consternation. "It is unfortunate -- I think that there are bad feelings about the split," says Anja Harman, president of the Canadian women's organization Wired Women, which has amicable relationships with both DigitalEve and Webgrrls. "But like all things, we need to try to have dialogue to overcome it. We think we can lobby for change -- by all these women's groups existing and working together, we can have greater impact on the large scale."

Webgrrls and Cybergrrl.com might be perceived as relics of a past era. Certainly, Cybergrrl.com never took off the way iVillage and Women.com did, a fact that Sherman blames in part on her reluctance to accept venture capital funding and give up control of her feminist vision to what she saw as "corporate, often only male, investors." Cybergrrl.com -- and as a result, Webgrrls -- have therefore not had the marketing or branding that better-funded organizations and corporations use to launch themselves into the public eye.

Some might even argue that a generalist women-in-technology organization is no longer necessary now that being a woman online isn't a novel concept, but the norm. What's more, can an organization that targets half the Net population ever appease its entire audience? Elaine Sosa, who co-founded SF Women on the Web, believes that Webgrrls was more relevant in the early days of the Net: "The fact that women online grew so quickly kind of obviated, perhaps, such a need [for a broad, global group]. Suddenly more than 50 percent of the people online are women, and [they] are becoming sophisticated in the online world in a very fast clip." Many of these women, she says, are probably more interested in smaller local organizations that target their specific skills or interests.

The women's organizations are still growing, anyway. DigitalEve may be poaching its membership from Webgrrls, but Webgrrls' management says that the organization has still grown more this year than any other year since the heady days of 1996. Women in Technology International, Wired Women, SF Women on the Web and others also claim to be growing rapidly. "Will DigitalEve bring Webgrrls down?" ponders Sherman. "I think they've leveraged what Webgrrls built in order to have a running start with DigitalEve. They have a lot more visibility now than the other organizations have, but despite that visibility Webgrrls is still growing and there are a ton of leaders that are incredibly loyal and very satisfied."

In the meantime, there's plenty of room for improvement. Female entrepreneurs still get a far smaller percentage of venture capital than their male counterparts do. Their presence in boardrooms may be more noticeable, but they are still overwhelmed by men in suits. And despite the presence of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, women are mostly absent from the Fortune 500.

"The idea that women in technology as an entity or as a force need to be recognized is not something that has faded at all; if anything it's come into more significance," says DigitalEve's Evans. "The numbers of women online are equal to men, but the number of women in the technology workforce is around 20 percent; for the technical employees, 80 percent are still men. That's a discrepancy that still really needs to be addressed."

The more these disparate communities unite to promote their vision, the farther their voices will be heard. Despite the growing pains and despite the fact that no organization can make all women happy, at least women agree on that vision. The question is whether they can shake hands and make it happen.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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