With the fashion industry emerging as one of the driving forces of innovation within the Internet world, it could have an important impact on the number of women who explore technology-related careers. The rapid adoption of Tumblr as a micro-blogging platform, the rise to prominence of mobile photo-sharing networks like Instagram and the continuing popularity of “flash sales” websites like Gilt Groupe can all be attributed to early female adopters within the fashion industry. As a result, a more visual and aesthetic Web that favors photography and video over text will encourage more women than ever before to experiment with technology-related disciplines.
In fact, the impact of the fashion industry on the Internet may be so great that it will finally close, or even reverse, the much-ballyhooed gender gap in the tech sector. Veteran tech observers have complained for years about the difficulty of closing this gender gap, pointing to a lack of role models within the tech sector. A few names stand out – Marissa Mayer of Google, Meg Whitman of eBay, and, until a few days ago, Carol Bartz of Yahoo – but the number of poweful female tech leaders has always been under-represented. Whereas women once accounted for more than 37% of workers in the IT industry in 1984, that percentage has dipped to 20% in recent years. Compounding this problem has been the slowing pipeline of women into the computer science field at the university level. In response, educators have focused on ways to make computer science “cool” and “hip” to women. After all, who wants to spend all day coding in a cubicle, right?
And that’s exactly where the new innovators like Tumblr, Instagram and Gilt Groupe have excelled – they’ve made the Web a visual, aesthetic experience that appeals to the design sensibilities of women. Suddenly, technology is cool enough for the runway. Consider the number of fashion brands and fashion insiders that have set up Tumblr accounts, or the number of fashion brands that have set up accounts on Instagram. Social media-enabled “social shopping” has really taken off, with more brands embracing ways to make the online experience replicate the personality of the in-store experience. At the same time, innovative websites like Polyvore are experimenting with ways to make the shopping experience more fun. Of the major fashion brands, Burberry stands out as a pioneer. Burberry, for example, was one of the first brands to live-stream fashion runway shows directly to the iPad and has already attracted nearly 85,000 followers on Instagram alone – not to mention over 8 million fans on Facebook.
Which brings us to New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which kicks off September 8 with a full program of events for the aspiring fashionista. What’s interesting is how much technology and the culture of the Web has been integrated into the runway experience. Suddenly, people who had absolutely no interest in these events are tuning in for the technological spectacle of these events. VIP bloggers with front-row seats, live Twitter feeds from fashion insiders, live streaming video — these are just some of the ways that Fashion Week has become Internet Week as well.
It may be too easy to opine that fashion is putting the “cool” factor back in technology for women, but the signs are certainly hopeful. When nationally-prominent fashion insiders like Nina Garcia and Anna Wintour embrace the Web, it is a sure sign that the image of the technology field for women is ready to change. The Web is becoming a more welcoming place for women, and in turn, the technology sector is becoming an exciting place for women to combine interests like design and fashion with more technical interests like programming and computer science. In less than a decade, we may be puzzling over why the gender gap in the technology world ever existed.