Tech's Glass Ceiling Barely Scratched - InformationWeek

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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
8/21/2009
03:09 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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Tech's Glass Ceiling Barely Scratched

If ten years ago someone had told you that nine women, or almost ten percent of Forbes' list of 100 most powerful women, represented the technology industry, it would have seemed like an improvement over the status quo. But today it feels like a bit of a step backward, especially when you consider that two of the nine names could easily be slotted into other categories.

If ten years ago someone had told you that nine women, or almost ten percent of Forbes' list of 100 most powerful women, represented the technology industry, it would have seemed like an improvement over the status quo. But today it feels like a bit of a step backward, especially when you consider that two of the nine names could easily be slotted into other categories.The seven no-doubters (with their ranking in parenthesis):

  • Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo (12)
  • Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox (14)
  • Anne Mulcahy, Chairwoman, Xerox (15)
  • Safra Catz, President, Oracle (16)
  • Ann Livermore, Executive VP, HP (31)
  • Cathie Lesjak, Executive VP, HP (32)
  • Virginia Rometty, Senior VP, IBM (70)
  • The two women who could be added to the tech group:

  • Nancy McKinstry, CEO, Walters Kluwer (43) -- a publisher with an important tech component to the business
  • Charlene Begley, chief executive, GE's Enterprise Solutions unit (96) -- which counts tech applications among other activities.
  • If 7 (or 9) percent of the total seems like a lot, consider that 21 of the world's most influential women are either executives of their respective countries, or ministers or, in two cases, Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Twelve others are heads of financial services firms, another 9 are heads of NGOs like UNICEF, and another 9 head entertainment businesses.

    Put more simply, women have a harder time cracking the glass ceiling of only a handful of sectors, including industrials, biotech, pharmaceuticals, health care and educational institutions.

    The Forbes list certainly omits a number of powerful women -- Facebook's Cheryl Sandberg immediately comes to mind -- which probably reflects Forbes' predisposition for established companies. But the question still needs to be asked; given how many women have risen to positions of great influence in what were once bastions of male dominance -- like financial services -- why do women seem relatively underrepresented in technology?

    Is it that girls are less likely to speak up in schools, which in turn perpetuate the myth that women are more suited to humanities? That would hardly explain the relative strength of women in financial services and politics.

    Looked at another way, if you subtract the 21 political leaders, women tech leaders represent only nine of the 79 women comprising the balance of the list -- 11 percent of influential female business leaders. Given the importance of technology to business and the economy in general, that looks pretty skimpy.

    Maybe Forbes' list is flawed, of course. But another possibility is that tech companies aren't doing as much as they can to foster leadership among women. Maybe other sectors have done better because they've been around longer and their feet have been held to the fire. I find that hard to believe.

    The likeliest explanation is that technology still retains a quasi-mystical aura that prevents the general public and the mainstream media from focusing on this glaring disparity.

    Whatever the reason, tech companies that aren't promoting women to positions of leadership are losing a critical competitive advantage at a time when they can least afford to lose to.

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