When technology behemoth IBM named Virginia "Ginni" Rometty, 54, its new CEO, it was hailed as a landmark for women in tech, an industry notorious for its Gorilla Glass ceiling. Starting out at as a 24-year-old systems engineer, Rometty now joins Meg Whitman (CEO of Hewlett-Packard) and Ursula Burns (CEO of Xerox) to complete a female Fortune 500 holy tech trinity.
More women than ever before are taking names in tech. There's Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg; Google's Marissa Mayer and Susan Wojcicki; HTC's founder Cher Wang; Oracle's President Safra Catz; Flickr founder Caterina Fake; Twitter's VP Katie Stanton; Carol Bartz, the former CEO of Yahoo!; and rising stars like Ory Okolloh, co-creator of Kenyan startups Mzalendo and Ushahidi, and LOLapps' co-founder Annie Chang.
Forbes magazine, which every year compiles a list of the World's Most Powerful Women, noted that 2011 saw the "Rise of Lady Geeks," with techies making up 9 percent of the rankings, up from 6 percent in 2009, and 4 percent in 2007. After IBM's announcement, the blog Technorati asked: "Is Technology the Best Sector For Female Advancement?"
That's certainly not the image that tech has cultivated over the last few years. In 2010, women held just 23.9 percent of high-tech jobs, according to a FINS.com analysis of Labor Department data, down from 25.6 percent in 2001. The percentage of undergraduate degrees in computer science awarded to women has been declining since 1984. In 2009, it was only 18 percent, reports the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
As of last year, between 1.5 and 5 percent of open source developers were female, according to experts, as were only 13 percent of Wikipedia contributors.
What about the "angry nerd misogyny" of "The Social Network," which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin defended as an accurate portrayal of a "deeply misogynistic group of people" who are "very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback"?
What about the 2008 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP), which described tech's "geek culture" as "at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to women"?
Have the last three years really transformed the tech industry from a vicious climate for young lady talent to a bastion of girl power?
"It absolutely is changing," says Laura Sherbin, director of research at CWLP. "We did find in 2008 that that sector was a little bit of a time warp. There were stories of women being the only woman on the floor of their companies. A lot of those things are still alive and well today, but companies are realizing that they cannot sustain the growth that they need to stay competitive without leveraging the full talent pool, more than half of which is women."
The tech industry actually has the smallest income gap between men and women, according to a U.S. Census data analysis by Claudia Goldin, Harvard economics professor and Sheryl Sandberg's thesis adviser. This is largely because there is less of a "motherhood penalty."
"Because it's a relatively new sector, it's better at accommodating the different schedules women, and some men, want," explains Goldin. The tech industry is bustling with new companies, trying to change both the world and the world-of-work, with office cultures that value such hokey notions as happiness, flexibility and employee autonomy.
Many of these startups are helmed by young people in their 20s and 30s, who don't want the soul-strangling work lives of their parents. This is particularly useful for women, who have always struggled to balance a soul-strangling work life with the demands of housework and parenting that disproportionately fall on their shoulders.
"That change isn't necessarily driven by women, it's driven by Gen Y," notes Sherbin. "They tend to rebel against the notion of things like face-time, and the need to be in the office for the pure sake of being seen by your manager."
Young people also tend to have a more liberal understanding of gender. "They've been born into a time where women in positions of power don't really faze them," says Hanna Rosin, founder of Slate's women's blog DoubleX and author of the forthcoming book "The End of Men."
Slow And Steady
But IBM isn't a young company. In fact, it's a century old. While women make up just 28 percent of the company's current workforce, and 21 percent of their executives, IBM has a long history of recruiting and supporting diversity. The company hired its first professional women in 1935, and female executive in 1943.
Rometty's ascent is actually unusual in how traditional a path she took to get there. Rometty has worked at IBM for three decades, climbing the ladder at a steady pace in technical, strategy and sales positions, and spearheading the landmark $3.5 billion acquisition of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting in 2002.
"She wasn't plucked out of Times Square," Goldin points out. "She was there. Suddenly she became queen, but she was already in the castle."
"They had the pipeline," as Sherbin puts it. "They really did have the woman who was frankly the right person for the job."
It is IBM's age and long-standing focus on diversity that allowed Rometty to rise to such lofty ranks, as opposed to falling out of the executive track, like so many women who take time off to have children. IBM has had a three-month family leave policy since 1956.
Why Is There No Female Steve Jobs?
Rometty may have achieved success for the exact same reason that there is no female equivalent of a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg -- visionaries who dropped out of college and transformed the entire industry.
"The way women tend to move ahead is through large organizations, credentials, structures and systems," explains Rosin. "People who step outside the box -- that's still a little difficult for women to do."
"On average, what women are doing is a very good thing," Goldin emphasizes. "They're not dropping out of college. Just because we have three or four individuals we can point to who are making gazillions and being enormous entrepreneurial successes, if not failures in their personal lives, doesn't mean it's a good plan for everyone."
A longitudinal research report published this month by Catalyst, a women in business research nonprofit, found that when men and women both "do all the right things" to get ahead, men still get ahead substantially more. The only strategy that effectively upped women's pay and position was calling more attention to their accomplishments, seeking credit when deserved, and asking for a promotion.
In the high-risk, high-reward tech world in particular, women often find their accomplishments ignored, and their failures cast in sharp relief, according to Sherbin. Women are more isolated in tech firms, while "men are more likely to have a supervisor who will pick them up and dust them off."
A 2008 Catalyst study on women in technology found that women in technical positions were significantly less satisfied with their supervisors and lacked the mentors, sponsors, and champions to make their accomplishments known.
"People don't leave companies; they leave supervisors," says Heather Foust-Cummings, the senior director of research at Catalyst and co-author of the report.
"If you're a science major and a woman, you're used to being the only woman in the classroom. But you're not used to being sidelined." In her research, Sherbin found that when just 10 percent of a company's senior management was female, it made a statistically significant difference on female employees' experience of their careers. "It's kind of amazing that 10 percent was enough of a tipping point," she says.
It may have been Rometty's willingness to assert herself that propelled her on her corporate climb. At Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit this month, Rometty advised the crowd, "you have to be very confident, even though you're so self-critical inside about what it is you may or may not know."
The fact that many women are raised to under-sell themselves may be why there are so few female tech entrepreneurs. Only 8 percent of venture capital funded firms were headed by women in 2010, according to the research firm CB Insights.
To get venture capitalists to trust you and your big idea with millions of dollars, you have to be able to sell yourself hard. In an experiment, Tara Tiger Brown, owner of Tiger Productions and a women-in-tech blogger, found that between 3 percent and 11 percent of comments on VC blogs were posted by women.
"The problems aren't in the tech industry itself," explains Rosin, "but in the old world industries, like venture capital, because it's a fairly male network."
Of the top 30 venture capitalists, as ranked by CloudAve, not one is female.
It also doesn't help that venture capitalists tend to go by pattern recognition, with a well-worn formula for the individuals that bring solid returns.
Quoting venture capitalist John Doerr of KPCB, business consultant Janine de Nysschen wrote: "If you're white, under 30, a technical geek with no social life, and a Harvard or Stanford dropout, you can line up for VC money."
What Do Spock, Iron Man, And Dr. Frankenstein Have In Common?
It is perhaps this image of a successful techie that is discouraging girls from pursuing tech in the first place, even on the most subconscious level. A recent study found that when women were cued to think about romantic goals, they were especially turned off by jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, which were perceived as masculine.
"Most people would admit that when they picture a technology geek, she's not a girl," says Sherbin. "She's not -- especially if you asked a child five years ago to draw a scientist, or draw a person who's really good at computers, they're not necessarily drawing women."
Rometty makes for another very visible female techie. "Her appointment serves as a really large announcement that there are role models of women in technology," says Foust-Cummings. "Girls can think, 'hey if she can do that, I can do that too.'"
Not only does the tech sector have an image problem for women, but powerful women have an image problem in the tech sector. Women are often punished for adopting the traditional traits of a leader -- like assertiveness and ambition -- because those traits are coded male.
As Sandberg put it in a TED talk: "Being less aggressive in women is often equated with likability." Ruch Sanghvi, Facebook's first female engineer, echoed in The Huffington Post: "The impression that people had of me was that I was really harsh, hard-edged, brusque and to the point. All of that happened because I am a woman, and I was acting in that kind of environment."
This may be part of the reason why Ursula Burns and Carol Bartz, the recently fired CEO of Yahoo!, had significantly below average approval ratings on jobs and careers community Glassdoor. Employees gave Burns 38 percent approval, and Bartz 54 percent, compared to a mean of 62. Whitman scraped above that with a 65.
It's hard to say anything general about female tech CEOs, however, with just three examples. The key here is to increase the sample size.
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