Technology: Women byte back

The way women use technology has changed beyond all recognition. So what does this mean for the tech PR sector? Alex Blyth explains.

Not long ago, technology was a man's world. There were a few women who were interested in the technical details of hardware, but by and large they switched off when men started in-depth conversations about who had the biggest server.

But then the world changed. Technology shifted from being something used by a growing minority of people to being as ubiquitous as clothing. Women were no longer waiting for the techie conversations to end. All of a sudden they were starting the conversations.

Sue Grant, MD of technology PR agency Grant Butler Coomber, has worked in the field for more than 20 years and says women's use of tech has changed beyond all recognition.

'From young female gamers who have been brought up with mobile phones and PlayStations to mums organising their children's social activities via text and communicating with schools over the web, women of all ages are using technology. They are keeping in touch with old friends via Linkedin and Facebook, and sharing thoughts in blogs and online communities.'

This shift in product use and perception has been accompanied by a shift in how technology is marketed to women. For example, there has been a marked rise in the number of pink gadgets produced. Debby Penton, MD of Wildfire PR & Marketing, says: 'The trend to produce pink laptops and the like reflects the increasing focus on markets, rather than technology. It's a marketing, versus engineering-led, approach.'

Dumbing down

Many women find this approach patronising, pointing out that they do not need a laptop to be pink; they just need it to be good. Elizabeth Dolcourt, director of technology at Trimedia, says: 'Brands will fail if they think this is all women want. Dell's female brand, Della, which famously overplayed to stereotypes, was a catastrophic failure and now lives on as a cautionary tale.'

Cate Sevilla, founding editor of women's tech and lifestyle blog, adds: 'Women are hard to please and do not like to be pigeonholed, so it is not easy to market to them. But I think brands should try a little harder and realise they do not need to make things so fluffy.'

While it can be a useful marketing tool, the current trend for colouring gadgets pink to make them appeal to women may be more of a fad than a permanent fixture.

Personal approach

The future is genuine personalisation, argues Chris Bignell, director at XL Communications: 'Tech is now software-based. It is not so much about what colour your iPhone is, it's the apps that personalise it. That is a lot more sophisticated than saying we'll make this pink.'

It is not just the way products are marketed to women that has changed. Ten years ago, young women were viewed as perfect to pitch stories to the predominantly male tech journalists. Sara Driscoll, content director at Carbon, part of Bite PR, says: 'This led to women being seen as inferior in the world of technology. The underlying assumption was that they were only suitable for fluffy PR roles.'

Over the past decade both employers in the industry, and women working in it, have cottoned on to the fact that good tech PR professionals are not necessarily experts on technology - they are just good at PR.

Not all about knowledge

Abigail Lovell, PR manager for enterprise and corporate at Symantec, agrees. 'I began my career in IT PR in the late 1990s and looking back I spent too much time feeling insecure that I knew less than my male colleagues. It's vital to realise PR isn't about understanding all the features of the product you're promoting; it's about conveying benefits compellingly to the media.'

As a result the number of women entering technology PR has soared. According to recruitment experts Major Players there has been a 322 per cent increase in the number of women working in technology PR over the past ten years.

Hearteningly, it is rare to find anyone who has entered the industry recently who complains her gender has held her back.

Rachel Hawkes, account director at media consultancy Elemental, says: 'I think it's quite an even playing field now, so long as the PR professional knows her clients' products and understands how they can appeal to the media. The key skill is being able to use language that is engaging to anyone, not just to technical experts.'

But Grant Butler Coomber's Grant says there is still much to be done: 'While the majority of account executives and managers are women, at the top it's still mostly men. To some extent this is a result of women taking time out of their careers to raise their children. But looking ahead, we need to do more to break through this glass ceiling and ensure in the future there are more women running the large global technology brands.'

Consultancy high achiever Jo Jamieson, Berkeley PR

"From where I sit, technology PR is dominated by women,' says Jo Jamieson, director at Berkeley PR. 'Our founder is male, but the three operational heads of the company are women. I'm one of them. In fact, out of the 28 people here only four are men.'

Jamieson began her career at Lewis PR a decade ago. She says. 'I had no interest in a job where I'd be trying to think of something interesting to say about a new type of lipstick. Technology is much more interesting - there's always something new to learn, something to talk about. So, the graduate scheme at tech PR agency Lewis was ideal.'

She was there for two years, and describes it as a tough introduction to the world of PR: 'A lot of people only survived two weeks at Lewis. We had to learn very quickly to cope with the demands of a fast-paced working environment. It was also pretty intimidating. I was a young woman, fresh out of university, and I was expected to advise older, more experienced men on their PR.

'It took a little time,' she continues. 'But eventually I realised that I might not know more about their products than they did, but I did know more about PR than they did.'

Jamieson now heads up Berkeley's technology team. As well as the HR, marketing and financial work that involves, she is client-focused, directing campaigns for companies such as Memorex, Adax and Affiliate Window.

She is also heavily involved in new business. 'In the past I wasn't keen on new business,' she says. 'I used to think it was something senior people did. But over time I've learned that it's less about "presenting", and more about finding solutions to problems. Now I really enjoy it.'

She concludes with this advice for women who are hoping to break into technology PR: 'Go the extra mile to prove to a potential employer that you have a passion for technology. This isn't just telling us you have an iPod. It's responding to our Tweets or posting comments on our blog. Employers want to believe that you are really engaged in the future of this industry.'

In-house high achiever Stacey Torman, Avaya

Stacey Torman began her career at agency Blanc & Otus in 1994. 'The two founders were the scariest women I've ever come across!' she recalls. 'They were just so bright. I didn't get the job initially, so I decided to phone the recruiter once a week to politely ask if any opportunities had come up. I did that for six months and eventually got a job.'

Right from the start of her career Torman was fascinated by technology. However, she believes it is essential when starting out in this field to ask questions. 'I was lucky,' she says. 'I had two great mentors, but no-one ever learns anything if they're not prepared to ask questions.'

She moved to Oracle in 1999, where she spent eight years, rising to senior director. She says: 'At Oracle I had to learn a great deal of technical detail about vertical markets like aircraft maintenance. Again, it came down to a willingness to ask questions and an ability to translate the answers for a non-technical audience.'

Two years ago she moved to Avaya, where she is now the director for European & Asian PR, responsible for PR campaigns across its hardware, software, phones and networks. Her key focus is on conveying the benefits of the Avaya network, a role that means she has to quickly absorb a lot of information and then relate it in an engaging way to the media.

She does not believe software is ever inherently a male or female issue, and is convinced that being a woman has caused no problems in her career. She says: 'Technology is all around us now. It can be esoteric, but that just means you have to be willing to learn. The first step should be to find a company you admire and then to persuade them that they have to employ you.'

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