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How Myths About Female Executives Make The Gap Wider

Opting out, subconscious biases, lack of role models– how the challenges women face in tech are being addressed.

How Myths About Female Executives Make The Gap Wider
[Photo: Flickr user Nicki Mannix]

Erica Lockheimer strongly considered quitting her job after becoming pregnant with her now 7-year-old son. At the time she was working as a senior engineer for a fast-growing wireless data management provider, Good Technology, and her husband had a steady job with Google.

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“My husband was doing well at work and financially we could survive on one income,” she said. “There was just a tremendous amount of guilt, my mother was a stay-at-home mom, but at the same time I went to school and I had a career and I couldn’t just throw that all away.”

Lockheimer is glad she decided to go back to work after her children were born, and now holds the position of director of engineering growth at LinkedIn, but she remains among the few women occupying an executive position within the tech community.

Why The Gap Keeps Growing

A recent study by Silicon Valley-based law firm Fenwick and West found that 45% of tech companies in the Valley lack a female executive, compared with only 16% amongst S&P companies, while 43 of the region’s biggest public companies have no female board members.

The gender gap isn’t limited to the boardroom either; it extends throughout the entire pipeline. A 2010 study by the Kauffman Foundation found that only 7% of American tech startups are founded by women, and according to a 2011 study by McKinsey & Company, only 23% of computer science graduates in the United States were female, down from 28% in 2002.


“Just looking at technically oriented jobs, some of the estimates are around 30% entry level for women, contrasted to about 53% on average,” said Lareina Yee, a partner at McKinsey & Company. “At the mid-career level, it’s about 22% women.”

With less female graduates in computer science, the few who do enter the industry tend to drop out at an early age. A 2008 report by the Harvard Business Review found that 52% of women working in the industry leave before reaching the age of 40.

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It’s especially concerning considering that the tech industry is always hungry for more talent. While the American economy is expected to grow 13.1% between 2011 and 2020, hi-tech industries are projected to outpace them at 16.2%, with the average salary ranging from 17% to 27% higher than average, according to a 2012 study by Engine Advocacy, a tech startup lobby group.

According to Christine Heckart, chief marketing officer for Brocade, a San Jose, California-based networking solutions company, women face a variety challenges in the tech world, both before and after the question of parenthood arises. There are subconscious biases that evolve naturally in a male-dominated industry, a lack of female role models and mentors and historically little encouragement for young women to consider a career in tech.

“There’s all of this quote-unquote ‘scientific research’ that shows that women have these softer skills and all this stuff that frankly doesn’t describe how I am naturally, nor the way most executives are naturally,” she said. “Executives are expected to be decisive and have a point of view and be leaders and not be so soft, and if you’re female and you behave like an executive than you’re not really behaving like a female.”

Heckart says that before joining Brocade in March–which has tripled its number of female executives in recent months–she spent most of her career as the only female in the room. She believes that much of the gender gap in the industry isn’t consciously constructed, but has propagated itself over the years.

“Executives come in and reach out and think, ‘whom do I know that can do this job?’ and if they’ve mostly worked with men than those men will get those positions,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a grand conspiracy–it’s pure pragmatism.”

While the numbers point to a systemic problem with attracting women to the tech industry, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and the industry itself are starting to take notice.

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Changing the Numbers

“The data around women in tech is abysmal,” said Samantha Quist, the executive director of Technovation, a global technology entrepreneurship program for young women aged 10 to 18. “Clearly something’s going wrong with respect to the education system and getting girls, specifically, excited about technology early on.”

With the support of major tech companies like Google, LinkedIn and Twitter, Technovation hopes to see those numbers change. What began as a 12-week long app building competition for 45 young women in 2010 quickly evolved into an international program that has gotten young women around the world excited about a career in the technology industry.

This year, 1,500 young girls from 26 countries around the world entered the app building program with the goal of supporting their local community through technology. The top 10 entrants got their chance to pitch their ideas in Silicon Valley this past April, with the winner taking home $10,000 in seed funding.

Some of the entrants included a UK-based team that built an app to help people get faster access to emergency response teams, a Palo Alto-based team who built an app that organizes graffiti cleanup efforts, and a team in Nigeria that built an application to help police stop traffic offenders.

“That’s something that’s really special about Technovation, because the challenge is to solve a real problem in their community, that’s something the girls are interested already, and then we teach them how they can do that using technology,” said Quist.

Quist hopes that teaching young women how to solve real-world problems using technology at an early stage can help diversify the workplace of the future, but still believes more needs to be done today to provide young women with role models in the industry.

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“Certainly there’s a lot more attention now, and it’s great to see many companies taking it seriously and a lot of nonprofits doing activities around this, but I think greater collaboration and greater stretch goals need to be put in place,” said Trish Tierney, Executive Director at the Center for Women’s Leadership Initiatives at the Institute of International Education.

Tierney adds that the IIE has a number of programs aimed at recruiting, retaining and supporting women in the tech industry. She believes these initiatives aren’t only important for the success of women, but for the tech industry as a whole.

“It’s not just corporate social responsibility, it’s about good business,” she said. “These tech companies need talent, and they’re missing out on half the population if they’re not including women.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the winner of Technovation’s app building program received $25,000 in seed funding. The winner receives $10,000 and $5,000 is awarded to the two runners up.

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised, and residing in Toronto, covering technology, small business, automotive, and music news for every major Canadian publication you’ve never heard of. When he’s not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs, or traveling across the continent to music festivals and tech conferences, you can usually find him diligently practicing his third-person bio writing skills.

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