Billie Jean, Tara Hunt, & the Bionic Woman

I’ve had an idea percolating for about four days now, and it took watching the pilot episode of Bionic Women for everything to gel. Let me start at the beginning. This past week, I heard a brief mention on the radio that it’s the 34th anniversary of “The Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (CBS Sportline; Wikipedia). I paid attention mostly because of my recent viewing of a bio on HBO about Billie Jean.

I grew up after Title IX was firmly in place and enjoyed every benefit as I ran track and played basketball through much of junior high and high school. While I knew about the match between King and Riggs, I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal until I saw the bio. Beyond the historic value, something else about this anniversary was nagging at me.

Women in Technology

Then, a few days later, courtesy of Robert Scoble‘s link feed, I got another piece of the puzzle when I saw Shroki’s post on Tara Hunt‘s recent article for O’Reilly. Tara, from what I’ve read on her blog and in interviews, gives a voice to women in technology, pointing out the value they’ve brought to the industry as a whole. She also does an excellent job of highlighting the blind spot that pops up when the story relates to women and technology. In this particular article, she addresses the question, “where are the women in tech” with an impressive list of participants:

If you look around, you’ll see that there are many Sandras. Some of the hottest companies of early Web 2.0 (and before) have been co-founded by women: Flickr (Caterina Fake), Blogger (Meg Hourihan), SixApart (Mena Trott), Mozilla (Mitchell Baker), Guidewire Group (Chris Shipley), and Adaptive Path (Janice Fraser).

My exposure to the tech world is relatively recent, not quite a year. But I have met some amazing women at some of the seemingly all-male conferences I’ve attended. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Gina Trapani, one of my favorite tech bloggers, at SXSW. I’ve also become friends with Rachel Clarke at JWT. Then at Gnomedex, I saw Cali Lewis and her husband Neil talk about their experience with GeekBrief.TV. Also at Gnomedex, as part of the Ignite Seattle group, I greatly enjoyed Deborah Schultz. These women are just a few of the amazing individuals I’ve been exposed to since my entrance into the tech world. Now for the final piece of the puzzle.

The Bionic Woman

Tonight, I watched the premiere episode (via Amazon’s video download) of the new Bionic Woman. The original was on the air from 1976–77. This new iteration uses the same basic premise. A “normal” woman, through a series of events, is “rebuilt” and ends up with super-human skills and healing abilities, courtesy of a shadowy government group. I like sci-fi, so the story was interesting to me anyway. But what drew me in was this idea of melding women with technology into something that could easily overpower a guy—and not for the reasons you might be imagining.

For a long time (forever actually), women have had to rely on their brains for the majority of their survival. Physical prowess is not a natural ability gifted to the female form, so we balanced it out with mental skills. What do you think the world would be like if men and women were actually on a level playing field (if such a thing exists), mentally AND physically?

Combining Brains & Brawn

Billie Jean proved that she had the physical and mental ability to beat Bobby Riggs at a time when women in sports had significantly lesser status. Today, some of the biggest stars on the tennis circuit are the female singles players—Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to name three. It’s taken time, but these women are garnering their own endorsement contracts conquering other terrain normally reserved for the male superstars.

Tara Hunt has shown that many women have the necessary mental power to be the leaders in today’s technology industry, a field heavily dominated by men. Women are coding their own programs, creating their own companies, and getting funding from VCs. Now that they’ve found their tech voice, women are using it.

What brought all these random thoughts together was the Bionic Woman (if I remember right, the character’s name is Jamie). For me, she represents a melding of these two realities. Physically, she’s a match for any man, and mentally, she’s got the brains to outwit anyone, too (her IQ score is higher than her genius boss). Plus, she’s got $50 million in technologically advance body parts.

I’m willing to admit I’m stretching this concept a bit, but isn’t that what this medium and everything else haphazardly categorized as Web 2.0 is about? Stretching, testing, discovering, imagining. Maybe Web 3.0 won’t be about any particular technology or toy. Maybe it will be about a level playing field that accepts anyone—woman or man—that dares step onto the turf.



3 Responses to “Billie Jean, Tara Hunt, & the Bionic Woman”

  1. September 24, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    In some ways I think the level playing field exists now but goes unrecognized because we focus so much attention on our morphological differences. I am guilty of this, too. I think you alluded to this in your earlier post on Tags.

    One of the concepts we work with all the time in my job is the balance between opposing forces (yin/yang, shade/sun, strong/weak, etc.). I think this corresponds to male and female societal functions as well.

    Some think that masculine and feminine equate to action and thought, respectively. Without female thinking, our society would lack something. Without male action, something else would be lacking.

  2. 2 Britt
    September 25, 2007 at 9:01 am

    I would challenge your position of the level playing field, mainly to play devil’s advocate. 😉

    If a level playing field exists, why is there still an ongoing debate about whether a woman can be elected president? In the case of men, why does society still look askance at men pursuing historically female jobs like nursing and full-time parenting?

    I believe we’re still more comfortable placing men and women in the categories they’ve occupied for centuries rather than redefining what it means to be male or female.

    I do agree with the notion that balance is needed. However, I don’t believe we’re at a point where we’re ready to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to balance the equation.

  3. September 25, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    Very thoughtful and thought provoking, I read this in the early morning before work then thought about it all day. My general response is that it can’t come quickly enough, but progress is usually at the hands of the young and at the expense of time. In that sense, we have to forgive our elders for retaining what they learned so long ago. We can dare to step onto the more level field, if we acknowledge it.

    I agree with you: we often take the path of least resistance, utilizing “old familiar standards” with regard to gender roles. In fairness, though, it isn’t that easy to redefine what it means to be male. I presume that females find this difficult as well. Any suggestions? Maybe some type of “life experiment”? Should I give up all vestiges of male-hood for a year?

    As you said in your post, I don’t really have good answers to these questions. Rather, they seem to trigger more questions.

    “Level playing field”. Can the phrase itself divide people who might otherwise work together toward a common goal? Maybe we need a new, bolder metaphor?

    Is our ultimate power and true expression achieved only through our jobs? Does my entire identity, beyond just gender roles but also encompassing them, depend on what I do in exchange for some coins?

    Is it good or bad to be a stay at home mom? Is it good or bad to be a stay at home dad? Is it good or bad to be a dual income family? What would it be like to have a “no income” family, where both parents were at home?

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