Since men invented the Internet, big tech hasn’t been too kind to humanity’s other half. Women hold just above a quarter of the computing industry’s jobs. And according to nonprofit Catalyst, which works to expand opportunities for women in big business, that share has actually declined over the past two decades. And the upper ranks of the industry tend to be dominated by males. Hewlett-Packard provided double exceptions with CEOs Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman. Then there’s Safra Catz, the Israeli-American president of Oracle—Larry Ellison’s best dealmaker. Sheryl Sandberg effectively runs Facebook, and Marissa Mayer recently took the helm at struggling Yahoo. But none of Apple’s top five highest-paid executives is a woman. Intel has few female executives, and none in engineering. Why the disparity? According to a 2002 Carnegie Mellon study (PDF), women tended to reject the “geek” label more than men and were more prone to say they didn’t want computers to “become their life.”
Apparently, nobody told Julie Larson-Green and Tami Reller: the two women who now run Microsoft’s Windows division, which is arguably the company’s most important business. Larson-Green replaces former software biz boss Steven Sinofsky, who left the company on Monday after his crucial Windows 8 launch met with poor reviews and internal tension. She’ll take the role of managing the Redmond, Wash.–based company’s giant software engineering team, while Tami Reller will lead Windows’ business strategy.
It’s difficult to overstate how much influence the two women will wield in the industry. According to Forbes, Microsoft is by far the world’s biggest public software company, with double the sales of its closest competitor, Oracle. Though the operating system has been tarnished by disappointing launches and stiff Apple competition in recent years, by market capitalization Windows is still the world’s most important and valuable software franchise. According to its 2011 year-end earnings report, Microsoft’s Windows division brings in $18 billion a year in revenues. By comparison, Yahoo’s total revenues were $4.98 billion in 2011. Larson-Green and Reller may have just joined the ranks of the software industry’s most powerful executives.
Of course, Gates, Ballmer, and company have had a mixed history with women. One of Microsoft’s senior British directors, Simon Negus, made waves in 2011 when, after being fired for publicly kissing a female employee, he sued his former bosses for £10 million. The trial brought accusations of lewd rabble-rousing and rampant sexism at corporate events—bad publicity to say the least. (Negus and Microsoft settled in January.)
Although that publicity hurt, Microsoft has several programs to increase female representation—about a quarter of its employees are women. The leadership of Microsoft’s Cambridge-based New England Research and Development Center (NERD) is all female, according to The Boston Globe. But despite the company’s best efforts, the disparity has remained. As Mary Jo Foley, a two-decade Microsoft watcher and author of the book Microsoft 2.0, puts it: “There still are very few women engineers in Windows at Microsoft. There are also no women Distinguished Engineers or Tech Fellows at Microsoft and almost no women on the senior leadership team at the company.” The appointment of Larson-Green, a former Sinofsky deputy who has been working for Microsoft for 19 years, and Reller, Windows’ former chief financial and marketing officer, marks a significant step forward.
"I do not think Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer opted to go with Julie Larson-Green and Tammi Reller as the new "leads" on Windows because they were women," said Mary Jo Foley. "The million-dollar question," as she put it, is why so few other women reach the top spots. "Some say it's women aren't recruited enough. Others say women don't want to go into a field that is seen by society to be full of nonsocial geeks."
"With so much work needed to advance talented women in business … promoting more women into leadership roles is essential—similar to what has been announced at Microsoft," said Deborah Soon, senior vice president of strategy at Catalyst. "We look forward to the day when such promotions, in the tech sector and in other industries, are just commonplace." The Windows news is a sign that women are finally making their way up the big, bureaucratic companies—and in the hardest of all sectors: software.
Larson-Green and Reller will have a big bucket of problems to fix as they take the helm. Microsoft is trying to make Windows a mobile platform, but is struggling against iOS and Android. Moreover, the company has to decide whether to continue Sinofsky's big bet on "touch-centric operating systems,” and continue to compete head-on with Apple in the tablet market.
But should they succeed, the sky might be the limit. The departed Steve Sinofsky was viewed a favorite to succeed Steve Ballmer as Microsoft chief—“the heir apparent,” as Business Insider put it. On Wall Street, Microsoft, whose ticker symbol is MSFT, is known as “Mister Softee.” How about “Miss Softee”?