In a recent gender diversity survey released by Fenwick & West LLP, extensive data about the growth of women in leadership positions at companies included in the Standard & Poor’s 100 Index (S&P 100) and companies included in the Silicon Valley 150 Index (SV 150) –an index representing the top 150 public companies in Silicon Valley –between 1996 and 2013 provides some insight into the staggering deficit of women leaders in high technology compared to large public companies.
According to the survey, S&P 100 companies have seen a substantial amount of growth in the number of female board members and women in executive level positions compared to SV 150 companies. As we explore the trends in female leadership within large public companies nationwide versus the SV 150 more closely, we have to ask the question: are women breaking the glass ceiling in Silicon Valley?
Moreover, how can CEOs, senior executives, and diversity managers at Silicon Valley’s top companies use a gender diversity study like this as a benchmark for progress going forward?
Where are the Women on Boards in Silicon Valley?
The Fenwick survey found that during the 2013 proxy season, 98 percent of S&P 100 companies reported having at least one female director, compared to only 56.7 percent of SV 150 companies with at least one female director. Although over 40 percent of SV 150 companies currently do not have a female represented on their executive board, they have increased the average percentage of female board members from 2.1 percent in 1996 to 9.1 percent in the 2013 proxy season, but considering the fact that it took seventeen years to achieve that growth, it is difficult to label the increase of female board directors as real progress.
According to Fenwick, there are some important components at play contributing to the lack of female board representation in Silicon Valley. The authors indicate that larger boards – like those in S&P 100 companies –will have more female participation by default compared to the much smaller boards found within SV 150 companies. In addition to board size, the survey suggests the following factors are keeping women out of Silicon Valley’s boardrooms:
- CEOs typically serve on their company’s boards, and among high tech companies, female CEOs are few and far between.
- Venture capitalists also represent a large number of board members and women are underrepresented among these investment professionals as well.
- Low turnover on public boards results in fewer opportunities for women to be considered for vacant board seats.
Sana Choudary, CEO and Co-founder of YetiZen, a game community hub and game focused accelerator, has a different opinion about why women are mostly absent from Silicon Valley boards, and shared her observations with us. She stated, “Women, unless they grew up playing team sports, typically know a lot less about social dynamics in the business world then men. This is not because women are not as smart or as talented as men, it is simply due to a lack of exposure to the male team environment and its social dynamics compared to men.”
Choudary added, “Over the years, larger companies have typically been able to help earlier stage women learn these dynamics during their career advancement. However, the public Silicon Valley ethos is that of a pure meritocracy, where the best idea wins and not necessarily from the most masterful manager of social dynamics.”
She continued, “In reality social dynamics are still at play, but you will find an almost aggressive drive by many women to ignore them. Unfortunately, by not learning the rules of the social dynamics game, women pay for it in their advancement, as evidenced by results of the gender diversity survey.”
Attracting and Retaining Women in Technology
What can companies do to make sure they are fostering an environment where women are motivated to grow and advance in their careers? This is the predominant – albeit multilayered –question facing tech companies of all sizes in Silicon Valley.
There has been a lot of recent discussion about increasing the number of women in STEM fields, not only at the professional level, but at the educational level as well. According to a report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, 74 percent of teenage girls are interested in STEM subjects in school. However, there is a significant drop off at the college level, where women make up about 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics. Furthermore, women account for less than a quarter of STEM jobs in the US.
These numbers suggest the interest level in STEM exists among young women, but what creates the disconnect between the educational years and the moment they enter the workforce? Furthermore, what contributes to the extraordinarily high quit rate among women in technology at the mid-career level?
According to the Anita Borg Institute, women in technology cited the following reasons for leaving the field in favor of other careers: working conditions, work-life balance conflicts, lack of interest, and organizational culture. In order to quell the mass exodus of mid-career women in technology, Anita Borg recommended that companies hold managers accountable for retention, foster a corporate culture that promotes awareness and collaboration, create mentoring and networking programs for women, and create policies that support a healthy work-life balance.
In addition to companies implementing programs and policies to retain women, Choudary suggests that we encourage women to find their passions and negotiate/create work that allows them to live their passions.
She advised, “We need to encourage women to cultivate and advance their portfolio of passions. Anything worth doing has its up’s and down’s, and it is our passion and conviction that allows us to keep going during those down moments. This passion also fuels innovation and experimenting with new strategies during the downs. That being said, if you lack passion for what you do, you are probably more likely to fail.”
Networking, Mentoring, and Sponsorship: Valuable Tools for Women in Technology
According to Choudary, formal mentoring and sponsorship can be beneficial for women in technology, but these relationships will flourish more when they occur naturally. She stated, “I believe networking, mentoring only works if both parties, the mentor and the mentee, have a real resonance with each other. You can’t force it.” Choudary added, “Giving women a better platform to share their successes and learnings with each other and the company at large, however, allows natural mentoring relationships and other types of collaborations to evolve. These relationships, in the long run, are more productive.”
Our 2013 study, “Women in Technology: Leaders of Tomorrow,” supports the notion that networking, mentoring, and sponsorship are all important to women’s career advancement in technology. We found that women in technology who have role models of either gender are more likely to aspire to the C-Suite. Our survey also revealed that women in technology place a high value their networks and tend to be very active in networks, within their workplace and external as well.
What Does It All Add Up To?
Fenwick’s gender diversity survey collected and compared data about trends in women’s leadership roles between the 1996 and 2013 proxy seasons. The results supported the fact that women in technology companies are grossly underrepresented in the boardroom and the C-Suite, but perhaps the most alarming realization from the gender diversity survey is the slow rate of growth women have experienced in Silicon Valley.
There is a game of catch-up occurring in technology –and STEM fields in general –but with so many initiatives in place to fill the leaky pipeline and keep women engaged, the finish line is closer than ever.