There is a tectonic shift happening and we’re living the future right now here in technologyland. Women are gaining and holding power at a rate we have never seen before and finally they are openly talking about it.
Sheryl Sandberg’s well-marketed new book Lean In, is stirring up the timely discussion about what it takes for women to get ahead. Sheryl says you need to “lean in,” believe in yourself, and not hold yourself to impossible standards of doing everything; and she’s rightly pointing out that men and our workplaces have to change to make it possible for women to broadly have equal opportunity for leadership.
Sheryl’s saying what those of us who lead technology companies here already live: you have to have confidence, embrace your opportunities and be ready to not get hurt by the “likability gap” that women in power face. Her situation is particularly fortunate in that she joined not one, but two, very high growth opportunities (Google and then Facebook) and so she’s now rich and is taking criticism for telling those less wealthy than her what to do, but hats-off to her that she’s speaking out and putting the issue of gender in leadership onto the national agenda.
But she’s one of many now in Silicon Valley, and not all the stories are as sunny. Women are also taking on some of the hardest turnaround challenges in technology today:
• Marissa Meyer stepped up to be CEO of Yahoo! — a challenge so difficult that even a strong product executive with her technical chops may not be able to pull it off. When she stopped employees working from home she was strongly criticized by men and women alike (ironically, often on the grounds of gender equality), and yet she is making the tough business decisions needed to change the Yahoo! culture from one of entitlement to one of growth. If a male CEO had made the same decision it either would have not made the press, or it would have been lauded as a “brave” and “bold” move to turnaround Yahoo!
• Meg Whitman has taken on the thankless task of righting HP after a disastrous revolving door of CEOs — not a challenge for the faint of heart — but early indications are she’s going to win and accelerate revenue growth in 2014.
Whether you consider Safra Catz, President of Oracle, Diane Bryant, CIO of Intel, or Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco, women are winning and holding leadership positions and showing us the future today. And it’s hard not to include Ginni Rometty, the CEO of the technology powerhouse IBM, even though she is not based in Silicon Valley. The fact that these executives are women is a distant second to their ability.
So why is it different here in Silicon Valley for women? There are two fundamental reasons.
1. Generational. Many of our new, fast growth technology companies are run by men, and women, of a younger generation than in other industries. Consider the leadership of Facebook, Google, Salesforce.com, LinkedIn — they are all under 50 and many are under 40. Even Tim Cook of Apple is only 52. Their generation have grown up with women working in their families and so they don’t bring the same prejudice the over 60 generation bring. As a female technology CEO I’ve found the number of times I get asked “what about your kids?” goes down dramatically every year as the peers I work with drop below 60.
2. Technology is a meritocracy. It’s all about how good your product idea, your code, your algorithm is, not your race, gender or whether or not you are gay. And it is especially true in the new generation of tech companies. The competition for talent in the San Francisco Bay Area is ferocious and the competition for market share never lets up, so we simply can’t afford to not hire the best engineers, regardless of gender. We just need more of them.
When Pamela Ryckman was researching her new book Stiletto Network (releasing May 2013) she found that the unique entrepreneurial ecosystem of Silicon Valley has benefited women disproportionately. Instead of rigid organizational structures, Silicon Valley thrives on change: companies come and go, teams form and disband, and so talent gets spotted and adopted regardless of gender.
Companies, and whole industries, are going through disruptive change now as the impact of software increases the power of the individual. The payment industry is being rocked by disruptive changes like Square and Google wallet. Manufacturing is being rocked by 3D printing, making it possible for you and me to manufacture products from our imagination without having to build a factory.
The demands made by the pace of change and fierce competition in our industries do not leave room for gender bias at the top any more. And that’s why more and more women are emerging as leaders and holding power here in Silicon Valley.
P.S. This does not mean women, however, are gaining equality across technology as a whole. We still hold a distant minority of board positions (9.1 percent of board seats in Silicon Valley are held by women) and we still have a dire need for more girls to go in to, and stay in, computer science and technology (less than 18 percent of our CS graduates are girls). The work of non profits like the Anita Borg Institute to coach and encourage female geeks is still essential for the technology industry as a whole.