Editor’s note: ‘Breaking Glass’ is a twice-monthly feature in Local Tech Wire that focuses on issues of concerns primarily to women and minorities in the high-tech industry. The feature rotates on Mondays with LTW’s High-Tech trends column.From her experience as a member of the first WebGrrls chapter in New York City, Robin Ives knew the group was, as she puts it “a good place to be a girl geek and get support.”

So in May 2000, after moving to Charlotte, Ives began a chapter and has served as its chapter leader for the past two years. On Aug. 1, Tanya Shipman takes over the helm of the group, with 85 paying members and an e-mail list of almost 300. “Robin said I’d be good at it because I’m a tech head,” Shipman says with a chuckle. “But for me, there’s something special about a bunch of professional women getting together — it’s a very nice place to be.”

For Shipman, however, WebGrrls offers much more than female solidarity.

“I’ve been in a number of professional groups, but WebGrrls is the most rewarding one I’ve been in, both personally and career-wise,” she says. “Everyone is encouraging, and the networking helps you have confidence. There aren’t many web tech groups, and it’s enriching for me to be able to talk to my peers and discuss the issues we face on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard to find people like that in Charlotte.”

Shipman, 33, is a web technology specialist for AAA Carolinas, developing back-end web technologies. Ives, 48, develops web and multi-media for e-commerce for Charlotte Pipe & Foundry.

But WebGrrls is not just for geeks and tech heads — it’s open to all woman interested in technology, no matter their skill level or technical expertise, to help empower them with the training and connections to participate in and benefit from the IT field. There are obviously a lot of women who fall into that category — since the organization began in 1995, it has grown to more than 30,000 members in some 100 chapters worldwide.

Finding support within a male-dominated culture

“Absolutely — women in the IT field need networking,” Ives points out. “IT is still a predominately male field, and while I wouldn’t say it is antagonistic towards women, it does remain a male culture. Women can feel lonely there. We need a support network to help us learn to survive and thrive.”

The Charlotte chapter meets the second Monday of the month, usually at Charlotte Pipe & Foundry. Meetings include a networking session, as well as a presentation. Recent topics have included advice for small business owners, how to look for a job in IT, and the latest Microsoft products.

The Charlotte chapter also presents low-cost classes ($10 for members, $25 for non-members) each month on such topics as Java and ASP. That’s how Shipman first got involved, teaching a class on ASP after someone sent her an e-nouncement from the group. “Then I went to some meetings, got to meet more women, and it just kept building up,” she says. “I got drawn in because it gave me so many opportunities to help others, to learn and to grow.”

Providing community service by being role models

Community service is a big part of what Charlotte WebGrrls is all about. The chapter was recently honored as an ‘Outstanding Community Contributor’ for its involvement with TechConnect, a partnership between the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Tech Connect works to improve students’ and teachers’ access to computers in the public schools. Several WebGrrl members taught six-week courses at area high schools on such topics as web development and design, graphics and building a computer. Shipman and fellow WebGrrl Edie Elting were named ‘Presenters of the Year’ for their work at West Charlotte High School.

Ives says that traditionally, the attrition rate for girls in these classes is high.

“I think they get intimidated by the guys,” she says. So at West Charlotte, Elting and Shipman touted their female presence before students signed up, and about one-third of the participants were girls, who stayed in the program. When the two taught a similar course at Providence High, their involvement was not hyped, and Shipman was disappointed that there were no female students. Of her experience at West Charlotte, she says, “It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I was proud of the number of girls we taught.”

Adds Ives, “We’re role models for these high school women — it’s surprising how much our presence means to them.”

Meeting info: Annual membership dues to WebGrrls is $55. Meetings are free to members and $5 for all others. The next meeting is July 8, when the presentation will be something non-tech in nature — yoga as a way to relax and de-stress.

Webgrrls Web site: www.webgrrls.com

E-mail: charlotte@webgrrls.com