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Technology's Too-Small Sisterhood

Karen Richardson grew up a girl among geeks. Her father was an engineer, talk around the dinner table tended toward the technical, and her three brothers went on to engineering school. So naturally, Richardson majored in industrial engineering -- which made her an anomaly at Stanford in the early 1980s.

"I was the only one among my girlfriends who studied engineering," she recalls. Upon graduation, her female buddies went to law or medical school. But Richardson joined the pocket-protector brigade in Silicon Valley, where she worked for data-networking company 3Com (COMS).

In those heady days she rubbed elbows with the brainiacs who would shape the tech transformation that put a PC on every desk and later linked everyone to the Net. Over the years, her résumé began to resemble a Who's Who of hot Valley startups: Richardson did stints at Lotus, Netscape Communications, ccMail, and CollabraSoft. She made it into the Rolodex of the foremost venture-capital powerhouse, Kleiner Perkins.

STALLED RISE. Last July, partly because of her Kleiner Perkins tie-in, Richardson got what in Silicon Valley amounts to the grand prize: She became CEO of customer-relationship-management software outfit E.Piphany (EPNY), joining the thin ranks of female CEOs who head publicly traded technology companies. From that summit Richardson looked around and realized that for all the talk of corporate diversity and meritocracy in the technology field -- and in spite of decades of efforts to bring more women into it -- she was a rare bird.

Richardson says she has always thought of herself as an executive, first and foremost. "I never thought of myself as a woman manager," she says. And like the other women tech execs BusinessWeek Online interviewed for this special report, she believes that hard work and diligence will pay off for anyone in tech, woman or man. Still, she's puzzled and disappointed at the lack of gender diversity in tech. "I would have expected more progress over the 20 years since I started in the field -- more women CEOs, more women at the top," she says.

After three decades during which increasing numbers of women have moved into the tech sector, the drive appears to have stalled at the corner office. A 2003 survey of hundreds of the largest U.S. publicly traded corporations conducted by Catalyst, a national women's business advocacy organization, found that women occupied only 9.3% of board seats at technology companies, vs 12.4% at other outfits. In the executive ranks, the differential is worse. Women represent only 11% of corporate-officer positions in tech companies. Outside tech, they hold 15.7%.

THE NEXT GENERATION. Neither the tech nor the nontech number comes close to mirroring the roughly 50% female makeup of the American workforce or the 45.9% share of overall U.S. managerial positions held by women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And tech's comparative failing vs. the rest of industry is particularly glaring in light of the Valley's common refrain that it's a meritocracy.

"Although three of the eight women CEOs in the 500 largest U.S. corporations are in technology companies, in fact most women at technology companies say they still run into a glass ceiling. Women from many high-tech companies at the [middle-management] level talked about frustration in terms of taking it to the next level," says Telle Whitney, the president and CEO of the Institute for Women in Technology and a former software executive who holds a PhD in computer science from CalTech.

Thus, BusinessWeek Online's 2004 Women in Tech special report takes a different approach than in past years. Rather than profile executives who've already reached the top, this year we're spotlighting a wide variety of influential women who may be the next generation of top women in technology.

"THAT'S A CONCERN." They range from leaders of industry organizations, such as Maria Klawe, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, to up-and-coming executives such as Lorrie Norrington of Intuit (INTU) and Patricia Sueltz of We're also including top researchers, such as Fran Berman, the director of the San Diego Supercomputing Center.

That such women are so rare may point to a future of stagnating, if not declining, female participation in the tech sector. In 1985, women received 37% of all U.S. computer science undergraduate degrees. By 2000 that had fallen to 28%. At top-tier institutions of higher learning, Whitney says, the number is now below 20%.

This is in contrast to the trend in other scientific disciplines. Women now earn more than 50% of all degrees in the biological sciences. And fields such as psychology and biology have experienced dramatic increases in female participation. "If women are earning 55% of bachelor's degrees but only 18% of engineering bachelor's degrees, that's a concern to us," says Elena Silva, research director at the educational foundation the American Association of University Women. "We still don't have a proportional number of women preparing for these positions."

"GRUELING BUSINESS." Blaming the status quo on overt discrimination misses the point, according to Whitney, Richardson, and others. To a certain extent, it's a chicken-and-egg problem. Due to the sparseness of high-ranking women professionals in the industry, women in tech outfits often lack role models, mentors, and guides as they rise through the ranks. This cycle has created a shortage of women with CEO-caliber résumés.

"There's not as much pressure to find a woman today for a key executive role," says Steven Mader, CEO of Christian & Timbers, a placement firm that specializes in filling executive slots. "A lot of that has to do with the fact that there aren't enough of them available."

That's partly because the tech sector's workaholic culture often gives women a stark choice between children and careers. "It's a grueling business," says Vickie Farrell, a vice-president at Teradata, the data-warehousing and database subsidiary of NCR Corp. (NCR).

"There's a lot of travel, late nights, working weekends, and ad hoc meetings. The women who have the children and aren't able to stay late at night didn't have the advantage I've had in getting ahead." During the first week in May, Farrell hit Chicago, Paris, and her San Diego home base all within just 72 hours, a travel itinerary that's typical for her.

ENTREPRENEURIAL INCENTIVE. This may help explain why Farrell sees plenty of women in midlevel tech slots, heading development teams and running software-engineering groups, who later get off the executive ladder. "I just lost a manager who wanted to spend more time with her family," she says.

Other women who drop off the radar go start their own companies. While startups may be equally grueling in terms of workload, they offer flexibility that can make balancing life and a job easier. They also offer women a chance to direct their own fate to a much greater extent than in larger corporations.

"If nobody is ever going to let you run a $5 billion company, then what's your choice if you want to be the boss? Your best bet is to be an entrepreneur," says Anu Shukla. She worked in vice-president-level jobs at several tech outfits before founding Rubric, a marketing-software concern that she sold for $366 million in 2000. She currently heads RubiconSoft, another software maker that has received $8.5 million in venture funding (Shukla has installed an executive team made up mainly of women).

SPENDING POWER. Even in startups, though, women still lag behind. According to venture-capital tracker VentureOne, companies founded by women made up only 6.16% of all startups in 2003. That's up from 4.18% in 1997, but still far below what it should be, says Richardson, Whitney, and other advocates for women in technology.

Again, some of this may be a chicken-and-egg problem. The robust networks male entrepreneurs often use depend on access to top-level execs at companies and VC firms who make funding decisions based to some degree on personal relationships.

This could change. According to Mader of Christian & Timbers, finding female board members has become a top priority for corporations seeking to avoid criticism for ignoring a group that spends more than men on tech toys, for instance. By any measure, however, women still have a long way to go before the technology field looks anywhere close to egalitarian. By Alex Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online

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