Don't Cry for Us, Silicon Valley

Despite the media's anxiety about fallen female executives, women are actually advancing in high technology

There are so few women running technology companies that when one steps down, it's inevitable that we women in Silicon Valley will be confronted by hand-wringing over the lack of female leadership in the tech sector.

The soul-searching resurfaced on July 29, when Patricia Russo stepped down as CEO of telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent (ALU)—much as it emerged in the wake of other recent executive exits: Diane Greene, ousted in July as CEO of virtualization software maker VMware (VMW), and Meg Whitman, who left e-commerce giant eBay (EBAY) earlier this year. Let's not forget the high-profile departures of Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) in 2005 and Carol Bartz, who left Autodesk (ADSK) in 2006.

It doesn't help that in most of these cases, the executive left on a low note. Fed up with choppy results, HP's board replaced Fiorina with Mark Hurd. Whitman overpaid for Internet calling provider Skype and couldn't quickly find a way to reverse eBay's growth slowdown. After presiding over one of the few great software success stories of the decade, Greene exited after a couple quarters of less-than-stellar results left the stock price down some 60% from its peak. And Russo could no longer withstand calls for her departure amid slumping demand and a transatlantic merger that failed to deliver promised benefits.

Core of Female Executives and Entrepreneurs

Greene's fall from grace was the final straw for the San Jose Mercury News, which on July 11 published a page-one story that screamed, "Female CEOs at Top Firms Now Zero," lamenting the disastrous state of female leaders in the Valley. Right around the same time, Newsweek ran a 1,500-word article on the emergence of hip, tech-savvy, and sexually empowered "girl geeks" who are taking tech by storm.

Which is right? Both are. The fact is, there is a dearth of women at the CEO level in techdom. But make no mistake: There's a solid core of female leadership right near the top of such companies as Oracle (ORCL), Google (GOOG), and Hewlett-Packard that will no doubt set the tone in tech for years to come.

What's even more exciting to me is the base of newly empowered and scrappy women working their way up at the startup level. You've never heard of scores of them, but these women you have: Tina Sharkey at Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) BabyCenter; Caterina Fake, who co-founded Flickr and sold it to Yahoo! (YHOO); Mena Trott, co-founder and president of blogging powerhouse Six Apart; and Gina Bianchini, CEO of Ning, which lets users build their own social networks. And no, Google's no longer a startup, but there's good reason to keep an eye on Marissa Mayer, the company's vice-president for search products and user experience.

For many women—me included—the refreshing thing about this wave is the nondefensive, "so what?" nature of being a woman in tech. Consider the contrast with the pantsuit-wearing older guard of Silicon Valley female leaders, such as Fiorina and Whitman, who rarely discussed being a woman, even though gender was the ever-present elephant in the room. They were political, buttoned-up, their hair frozen into place, often exuding an androgynous public persona. I'm not faulting them. They were criticized at every turn for decisions—and outfits—in a way a man never would be. That kind of scrutiny can make anyone a bit drone-like.

An Inspired New Guard

But Bartz was always a breath of fresh air, talking openly about her battles to balance motherhood and being a woman with running a company, saying to me in a 2006 interview (BusinessWeek, 3/6/06): "Let's face it, I don't believe the CEO of Autodesk would be invited to be on the President's Science & Technology Council if she wasn't wearing a skirt." Yet, she clearly had the goods. She transformed a small, niche design-software maker into a diversified behemoth with an $8 billion market value.

This new guard is remarkably Bartz-like. First, let's look at their results. Trott's eye for design has set the benchmark for the look and feel of corporate and professional blogs everywhere. Sharkey has transformed the once-static and very Web 1.0 BabyCenter into a full social-media site that reaches some 78% of moms in the U.S. and many overseas.

For all those snarky bloggers who say Ning would be nowhere without the imprimatur of co-founder Marc Andreessen: I can tell you after hours of interviewing Andreessen and Bianchini, it's clear who's running the show—and what a show it is. Ning has more than 380,000 networks and its page views are growing about 1% a day, or doubling every 72 days or so. And don't be fooled by Mayer's quirky laugh and glossy magazine features. Ideas for new features and tools don't make it far without her blessing.

What's more, while these ladies don't overdo girliness, they're unafraid to show their feminine side. All are fashionable and hip in that casual, understated-workaholic Silicon Valley way. Sharkey, Fake, and Trott are all mothers to young children; like Bartz, they don't hide that part of themselves from their public and business lives. Mayer is renowned for showing up at benefits in designer gowns and has graced more than her share of magazine covers. And when Bianchini demoed Ning at Web 2.0 in 2006, her example of a make-your-own social network was one where her friends could help plan her upcoming wedding. Can you imagine one of the older guard giving a room full of Valley power brokers that kind of window into her personal life?

Influence Spreads

Of course, they've all gotten public scrutiny—frequently related to their relationships with men. Trott and Fake are married to their co-founders and there are always people who assume the men did more of the work. Sharkey is married to another entrepreneur, Seth Goldstein, but she solidly established herself as separate from him during a multidecade career as an Internet and media executive. For all the cult of Mayer, it never goes unnoticed that she once dated Google co-founder Larry Page, just as Bianchini once dated Andreessen. But such criticism has only made these women tougher, more resilient, and, unlike the previous generation, more determined to be themselves in the public eye. It's not that they talk about being women, but they don't pretend they aren't either.

Finally, their impact on other women in the Valley has been profound. Dozens of women gather at monthly events put on by a group called Girls in Tech—a name that many of the older guard find offensive in and of itself. They trade tips on getting venture capital funding and talk trends in social media, but also show pictures of their kids. Says Tara Hunt, an author, blogger, and social-media consultant: "On the surface, it feels like there is a disaster here because many of the companies that are focused on are run by men. But in actuality, if you dig around, you will find more startups than ever run by women."

Susan Mernit, a former AOL (TWX) and Yahoo executive, agrees. She's starting her own company now and has noticed that the number of women milling around the Valley and talking about starting their own business is increasing dramatically, even if we haven't seen many hot startups emerge yet. When they do, they'll have plenty of smart-women role models to follow.

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