Cynthia baker joined Women's Wire for the same reason thousands of other professional women have entered the gender-specific areas of the Net: she was planning to move to a new city and hoped to network with women who lived there. But when her boss objected to her career plans -- and then delivered an unexpected ultimatum about her future -- the stakes got higher. As one of a handful of female managers in a major consumer-electronics company, Baker recalls, "I didn't know who to turn to."
Then she saw a Women's Wire forum called Career Coach. She sat down at her computer, took a deep breath, and began to type: "Dear Career Coach: I'm not sure if this is the correct forum for this but here goes ... "
Lost in all the hype over market-share battles among the giant online services and smut in cyberspace is an intriguing new way in which businesswomen are using the Net: as their own digital version of the old boy's network. More and more professional women are joining smaller, highly focused discussion groups to share stories from the trenches, look for career advice, and devise strategies to bust through the glass ceiling.
In fact, there are as many different kinds of forums as there are women's issues and interests. And while each forum has a slightly different take on men, the general rule is clear: none need apply.
Women's Wire may be the most mainstream -- and one of the few to welcome men. You'll find solid advice from consultants, lawyers, and entrepreneurs; information from groups such as the National Association of Female Executives; and serious-minded discussions about job transitions, work-family balance, and burnout.
Systers has a different mission and personality. The name comes from morphing "sisters" and "systems" -- which is essentially what the discussion group does. Membership is open to women at high-tech companies and universities, as well as women in other kinds of organizations who work with technology. Discussions are kept "at a very high professional level," says founder Anita Borg, an engineer at Digital Equipment Corp., although they're more often career-related than technical. "There are calls for [academic] papers," she says, "but the most useful stuff helps women stay in the field and deal with difficulties."
Cynthia Baker needs no convincing that online discussions can help deal with difficulties. Her initial post to Career Coach generated a long-running series of reactions and advice. She wound up quitting her job, moving to Seattle, and starting her own company. Now, in addition to Career Coach, she regularly visits two other Women's Wire forums -- Entrepreneurs and Business Roundtable -- as well as several Internet newsgroups.
In Entrepreneurs, she reports, she recently met a woman who was starting a mail-order pharmacy. They've exchanged and reviewed each other's business plans and worked on marketing strategies. Baker says she's even landed a half-dozen small clients over the Net: "I think it's a great support mechanism."
Founded:In 1994 by Ellen Pack.
Who's online: People (ages 18 to 48) from every state in the country use the service. Women's Wire has just been launched on CompuServe and the Microsoft Network, as well as the World Wide Web. Almost 95% are women; 90% are professionals.
On men: "I never had a desire to keep men out," says Pack. Their presence "makes for more interesting dialogue."
Who should join: Net newbies, career-changers, relocators, recent college grads, health nuts, male feminists.
Price: Varies depending on the commercial online service.
How to join: Call 800-210-8998 for information and a starter kit, or visit the World Wide Web home page http://www.women.com
Founded: In 1987 by Anita Borg, consultant engineer at Digital Equipment Corp.'s Network Systems Laboratory and creator of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
Who's online: 2,000 women from about 24 countries, at least 100 companies, and 150 colleges and universities. Well-known early members included Barbara Liskov, a professor of computer science at MIT, and Anita Jones, now director of defense research and engineering at the Pentagon.
On men: Newcomers must sign a statement that they are women. The only man who ever got in did so by accident, says founder Borg -- and he couldn't wait to leave. "It's not a list where voyeurism would be particularly interesting."
Who should join: Computer professionals and academics looking for mentors, role models, advice, and high-level conversation.
How to join: Go to the Systers home page http://www.systers.org/mecca or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word "subscribe" in the subject line.
Women in Telecommunications
Founded: In 1990 by Echo founder Stacy Horn to find out why women weren't posting on Echo's other forums.
Who's online: Women in Telecommunications is a misnomer. Among the 600 women on WIT you'll find an assortment of mostly young artists, filmmakers, TV producers, and other professional-type New Yorkers (or former New Yorkers). Why the name? "We liked the acronym," says Horn. "WOE [Women on Echo] sounded too pitiful."
On men: Horn confirms gender by telephone.
Who should join: Culturally sophisticated New Yorkers looking for advice from a community of female professionals.
Price: $19.95 per month for the first 30 hours; $1 per hour after that, up to 60 hours. Echo charges a $25 setup fee for full Internet access.
How to join: Call 212-292-0900 or dial up by modem to 212-292-0910 (low-speed connection) or 212-292-0920 (high-speed connection). Echo's home page is at http://www.echonyc.com .
Women on The WELL
Founded: In 1985 as a private place for women members of the Sausalito, California-based Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. Cohosts are Reva Basch and Bev Talbot.
Who's online: More than 400 mostly urban women between ages 28 and 45.
On men: WOW is for women only. Women verify their gender over the telephone. The method isn't foolproof, says cohost Basch, and "if someone's getting his jollies from reading the discussion, we can't do anything about that. But they should go out and get a life."
Who should join: Women who want to communicate with one another on career issues, office politics, and a host of other personal topics.
Price: $15 per month with 5 free hours or $35 per month with 20 free hours. There is a one-time setup fee of $15.
How to join: Call 415-332-4335. Modem dial up number is 415-332-6106. The WELL's home page is http://www.well.com.
Natalie Engler (email@example.com) is features writer at "Open Computing," a "McGraw-Hill Monthly."