We might not be talking about women in technology if not for the stupendous advocacy of Carolyn Leighton. After founding her own technology consultancy, Criterion Research, in 1985, Leighton noticed that women like her were working in an often-hostile all-male industry, an environment she’s described as “toxic.”
With a background in education–a sector where female solidarity rules–Leighton set about to create a support network where women could find a foothold in science and high-tech fields. Launched in 1989, Women in Technology International was essentially an email network to help coordinate in-person events for women in tech. The social Web was in its incipience; the first search engine was just being assembled at McGill University, and five-year-old Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg was somewhere in suburban New York watching “Sesame Street.” Needless to say, there was no Meetup.com to come to her aid; Leighton had to build up her membership woman by woman using word of mouth.
WITI could not have materialized at a more contentious time. Women were just coming to terms with the so-called “second shift,” shorthand for the chaos of career and motherhood, and economic troubles were scaring some good-old-boys into retrenching against them. Leighton urged women to seek each other out to build professional relationships, even suggesting they consult with other female colleagues before hiring men to work under them.
Like many advocates of her ilk, Leighton has to toe a careful line to avoid being branded as a radical feminist. (The organization’s official website states proudly that WITI has never been interested in “male-bashing,” and claims to cultivate male membership.) In 2001, WITI transitioned from a support network into an official trade organization, lending new legitimacy and gravitas to its cause. Today, WITI estimates its reach at over 2 million women (and men) worldwide, and boasts subsidiaries in the U.S., Mexico, Hong Kong, Great Britain and Australia–with Leighton still at the helm.