May 27, 2010, 2:16 PM

Survey: Field leveling

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The same is true for men working in the industry, but the women interviewed by Internet Retailer universally expressed the opinion that unlike some other industries, the opportunity in e-commerce is at least equal for both genders. If women experience disparity in how high or how quickly their e-commerce career progresses, it's more a function of experience in the field than gender bias, suggests Drivalas.

"Working in a field that has more men than women, you are at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of how much experience you bring to the table," says Drivalas, who worked in information technology earlier in her career. To fill such gaps, she encourages women in e-commerce to network and seek mentoring relationships to learn more, and get the experience needed to be viewed as productive contributors on a project, something she's taken care to do in her own career.

No impediment
A full 68.8% of women in the Internet Retailer survey said that being female had posed no impediment to performing their job or advancing their career in their e-commerce workplace. This number was lower in other industries where the same women had held positions; only 46%.

But the perception of an equal playing field with men broke down over a few issues. 71% of the women surveyed say they've felt they needed to do more than male counterparts to demonstrate their value to their company or its clients. And 65% believe that they are not compensated at the same level as their male peers.

Women earn less
Certainly, data abound that across business, women still earn less than men doing the same job. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2009, women in management, professional and related occupations earned an average $907 per week compared to an average $1,248 for men, or about 73 cents on the dollar. Yet it's difficult to ascertain whether it's perception or reality that this disparity extends into the e-commerce industry.

"I'm not seeing it," says Wendy Weber, president of Crandall Associates Inc., an executive recruiter specializing in direct marketing and interactive marketing. Weber says Crandall conducts searches based on a salary range provided by the client, and asks candidates what they are currently making and what they'd require in order to make a move. "We have not heard women indicating they are making less than men," she says.

Questions around compensation and perceived extra pressure to prove themselves weren't enough to dampen overall enthusiasm for e-commerce as a career among the women surveyed. In fact, 58% believe that e-commerce offers opportunities for women specifically that other industries do not. The same percentage believe that women possess a different perspective that is uniquely valuable to e-commerce. Many women interviewed for this story cited a consensus-building management style, skill in forging an emotional connection between site and customer, and ability as multitaskers as assets women bring to e-commerce operations.

And while stipulating that they didn't want to generalize, nearly every woman interviewed believes women have an inside edge when it comes to understanding the customer experience.

"In traditional retail and in e-commerce, women are the shoppers. They control the home purse and allocation of funds to a great degree," says Susan Aplin, entrepreneur, CEO and founder of e-commerce start-up Bambeco.com. "What women bring to this business is a perspective that is invaluable when you are talking about product selection, design and usability of sites."

Esther Steinfeld, marketing manager at Blinds.com, studied communications in college and taught herself the technology skills she needed on the job in her first three years. "Functionality is great, but when your customers are women, what are they going to want to look at? What are they going to be comfortable with?" she says. "Women like things to be pretty, so sometimes I will argue for that side of it. Fortunately, we have a great graphic design team that works hard on that."

E-commerce has attracted women from diverse professional backgrounds, from communications to information technology to marketing to business operationsÑa group more united by personal traits such as curiosity and high self-motivation than by any common professional pedigree. Like any profession, it offers a mix of reward and roadblocks. But among the women who've elected to dedicate their careers to the field, the perception of big opportunity at the forefront of a young industry is, for now, trumping any downside in their view.

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