While the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s recent tome, Lean In, has focused the national discussion on the diminished roles of women in big business, there still remains a major gender problem over in Silicon Valley.
According to a study by Catalyst Census, 14.3 percent of executive officers among Fortune 500 companies are women. And yet the number of women in senior-management positions in technology companies has remained relatively unchanged over the past decade, staying at between just 3 and 5 percent, claims a separate study by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
Recently a string of incidents have stoked the flames of the women-in-tech debate.
Marissa Mayer, who is simultaneously nursing a newborn baby and defibrillating Yahoo, was raked over the coals for banning her staffers from telecommuting. Female developer Adria Richards was fired after tweeting a photo of two men whom she accused of making sexual comments at a Santa Clara, California, tech conference in an episode now referred to as Donglegate. And Complex magazine got in hot water after publishing a list of the “40 hottest women in tech” and omitting whom they perceived to be unattractive candidates—against the writer’s wishes.
If the tech world is indeed the meritocracy it appears to be, something has to give.
On Friday morning four female tech executives took the stage at the 2013 Women in the World Summit to discuss how women are “shaping the future of tech innovation.” The talk, called “Grooming Titans of Tech,” was moderated by Chelsea Clinton and presented by AT&T.
“Girls and women have lost ground in the United States” in tech, said Clinton, introducing the panel. “What we’re doing is not only not working—it’s failing.”
The panel consisted of Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the fields of tech and engineering; Leah Busque, the founder and CEO of TaskRabbit, an online mobile marketplace that allows users to outsource small jobs or tasks to others in their localities; Andrea Zurek, the founding partner of XG Ventures, a venture-capitalist firm that invests in burgeoning tech companies; and Esther Lee, the senior vice president of brand marketing, advertising, and sponsorships at AT&T.
The biggest task at hand, according to Saujani, is changing the stigma surrounding women in technology.
“We live in a culture and society that tells us math, science, and computers are not for them,” said Saujani, whose company teaches girls how to code in 32 different languages. “This is the most important domestic issue of our time. The train is leaving, and we have to make sure our girls are not left behind.”
Busque, who changed her major from dance to math and computer science as a college undergrad at Sweet Briar, credited her female teachers in high school who empowered her to love math and science as well as the benefits of going to an all-women’s college, which instilled in her the requisite confidence. After serving as a programmer for Lotus Products at IBM, in 2008 she started TaskRabbit, which has grown to become a wildly popular mobile app that’s received $37.5 million in funding.
“I never think about the fact that I’m a women founder or CEO, I just think about what I have to do each day,” said Busque.
Several panel members sang the praises of Facebook’s Sandberg, and her book Lean In, for shining a light on the problem of women in tech.
“The great thing about what Sheryl’s done for all of us is raise the conversation in boardrooms across this country and across the world,” said Lee, whose company, AT&T, hires 90,000 women, and women hold 37 percent of management positions. “The first step to finding solutions is to raise consciousness.”
And Zurek explained how her VC firm, XG Ventures, has invested in 46 companies—10 percent to 15 percent of which were founded by women—but it’s yearning for more women-fronted startups.
All the panelists agreed it’s an uphill battle for women in tech—one that must start at the ground level with women required to take computer-science courses. Also needed is more support for the computer-science field, since there are only 1,500 comp-sci teachers in the country, according to Clinton.
A rousing speech by Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State—and potential 2016 presidential candidate—preceded the panel. In her speech, Clinton discussed how America needs to learn from its women and alluded to recent reports that suggest the country’s economy benefits greatly from women “leaning in.”
“If America is going to lead, we need to learn from the women in the world who have blazed new paths,” she proclaimed.
Your move, Silicon Valley.