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.”