Tech companies on edge of innovation continue to leave women behind

With very few exceptions, Silicon Valley remains an entrenched boys’ club in executive offices and boardrooms

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer at the 2013 Dreamforce conference, Nov. 19, 2013, in San Francisco.
2013 Getty Images

Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley electric car maker with the ambitious goal of curing the nation’s addiction to oil, has no women among its top executives. Its board is similarly an all-male club.

That’s 17 men in senior positions, zero women.

Tesla is an extreme example of the gender imbalance in the top ranks of many Silicon Valley companies. Although the technology industry is at the forefront of innovation and likes to talk about changing the world, it has lagged in swinging open the executive suite and boardroom doors to women.

“Generally speaking, there’s definitely lots of room for improvement,” said Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a nonprofit group that encourages women to pursue careers in technology. “Just look at the numbers.”

Only 11.5 percent of top executives at the largest publicly traded Silicon Valley companies are women, according to a study by the law firm Fenwick & West. At companies on the S&P 100, an index that covers a variety of industries, 14.7 percent of executives are female.

The gender gap is even bigger in the boardroom. Among technology companies, 9.1 percent of directors are women, compared with 19.9 percent for S&P companies, the study found.

In recent months, that gender imbalance became a major issue after complaints arose about a shortage of women at Twitter, which at the time had only one woman in a senior role at the company but counts millions of women among its users.

Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, added fuel to the flames when he publicly mocked a critic who had accused the company of arrogance and chauvinism. Eventually, the company bowed to public pressure and appointed a woman to what had been an all-male board. But the episode highlighted how much work remains in closing Silicon Valley’s gender gap.

Women help bottom line?

The reasons are complicated. Executives say they are willing to hire women but the pool of qualified candidates is small. Indeed, relatively few women pursue technical careers. Only 18 percent of computer-science undergraduates are women, according to the Anita Borg Institute, a group that pushes for more women in technology.

But studies show that companies with women in leading roles perform better than average. A Credit Suisse report found that over a six-year period, the stock prices of businesses with at least one female board member rose faster than the market overall. Shares in those companies with a market capitalization of more than $10 billion outperformed their category overall by 26 percent; shares in smaller firms rose an extra 17 percent.

How Tesla stacks up is unclear. The company went public only three years ago.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, has helped to guide his company from the brink of financial collapse during the economic downturn. Today it’s a fast-rising star known for luxury electric cars. Why Tesla has no women among its senior officials is unclear. The company declined to comment.

Mary Barra will become GM's CEO next month.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

In contrast, auto giant General Motors has three women at the senior vice president level or higher, including Mary Barra, who was appointed chief executive earlier this month. When she takes over the post in January, she will be the first woman to lead a major auto company.

Tesla isn’t alone in Silicon Valley in its lack of female leaders. Linear Technology and Cypress Semiconductor are also among a small group of public companies that are entirely without women in senior roles. Dozens more have only one female official.

There are some notable exceptions, of course. 

‘Who do you know?’

Marissa Mayer.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Yahoo has several women in top jobs, including Marissa Mayer, the company’s chief executive. Meg Whitman leads Hewlett-Packard. Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook’s chief operating officer and has used her high-profile position to encourage women in business — the central theme of her book, “Lean In.”

“No matter what progress women have made, we’re still really far from getting our share of leadership roles in any industry, in any country and anywhere in the world,” Sandberg said at a recent technology conference in San Francisco.

Kathryn Ullrich, founder of the Silicon Valley executive-recruiting firm Kathryn Ullrich Associates, said companies should widen their search for senior leaders. Too often, she said, they rely on recommendations from their inner circle.

“You ask your executive team or you ask your board, ‘Who do you know?’” Ullrich said. “Now think about it — your board is 90 percent male, and your venture capitalists are 98 percent male, so guess whose name gets brought up.”

Companies often complain about a scarcity of women. When they do come up with a list of potential female recruits, it usually consists of just a few well-known names, such as Mayer, Whitman and Sandberg, who are already plenty busy. What companies need to do is look at less prominent but equally qualified women at smaller companies or those who have senior titles but have yet to serve as chief executive.

“There are a lot of women in that range, but you don’t know them because they’re not your friends,” Ullrich said.

Mentoring is another problem. Male executives often don’t feel comfortable spending time alone with a female subordinate after work or on the weekends. As a result, female managers may miss out on developing those key relationships that help boost a career. Because of the scarcity of women at high levels, there is often no one else to turn to.

Hiring women is only the first step, however. Retaining them is the next. A company without women in leadership roles may be a red flag that the environment is unwelcoming. For example, a mother in a top job may require some flexibility in work hours. Without it, she may very well leave for another company that is more understanding.

Ashcraft said closing the gender gap will likely take decades. Reaching out to girls as early as primary school and exposing them to technology is key to advancement, she said. Girls know what doctors and lawyers do but not what computer scientists do. Furthermore, girls tend to spend less time playing with technology than boys, who are encouraged to by social norms and the media.

“It’s going to take a while to see a tangible improvement,” Ashcraft said, “because there is such an entrenched pattern.”

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