You’d think that even the most powerful macho men in business would get it by now. In an economy powered by new ideas and committed employees, companies simply can’t afford the innovation-squelching impact of discrimination or the morale-sapping effect of runaway testosterone. You’d think that would be especially true for technology-driven companies — fast-moving organizations where getting the right answer quickly is more important than who gets the answer, and whether that person’s name is Chris or Christine.
You’d think so, but you’d be wrong. That is the stark conclusion of a new survey released in June by Deloitte & Touche, the professional-services giant, and conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide.
Lots of consulting firms issue lots of reports on big issues, but few of them ever make me stop and pay attention. This report, however, caught my eye. Not because of its less-than-catchy title — “Women in Technology Leadership” — but because of its dour message about the future of women in the field. Consider these telling statistics: The survey reports that 60% of women in technology would choose another profession if they were starting a career today and that 61% of women in the field say they generally face a glass ceiling.
Those figures seem to confirm what many of us suspect, at least on a bad day: There is a huge disconnect between the promise of a meritocracy in the digital economy and the day-to-day reality of a machotocracy that refuses to die. But I wonder. The more closely I looked at the numbers, and the more I spoke with women executives, the more reservations I began to develop about the report — and about the point of view that the study represents. I kept coming back to three basic questions: How do you evaluate the status of “women in high-tech” when every industry is being reshaped by technology? If things are so bad, why do I have such trouble finding high-tech women who are ready to give up on their career paths? And if men have it so good, why are so many of them unhappy too?
First, the question of definitions. The Deloitte & Touche survey defines the technology industry as “companies dedicated to computer hardware or software, telecommunications, ‘dot-com’ companies, or company departments that are focused on e-commerce.” Isn’t that an awfully old-economy definition of the new economy — the notion that “high-tech” somehow means Silicon Valley, or a traditional software company, or a small e-commerce team inside a big company? What about a female engineer doing computer-based product-development at General Motors? Or a woman leader of a logistics team at Wal-Mart, a company that’s more of a power user of technology than the vast majority of dotcom retailers could ever hope to be? The simple point is that there are “women in technology leadership” at companies of all shapes and sizes, in all kinds of industries, many of which are not automatically associated with traditional definitions of high-tech. Ignoring the career trajectory of those women paints an incomplete picture at best.
My second question is admittedly unscientific, but I’m a journalist, not a PhD researcher. I’ve interviewed countless women during my tenure at Fast Company, many of them deeply involved in technology fields. And while those women have expressed plenty of frustration with their companies and colleagues, almost none of them would choose a different career field or would even suggest that the cards are so stacked against them that they feel as if they are waging a steeply uphill battle.
And, by the way, I’m not totally convinced about the credentials of many of the people in the Deloitte & Touche report. Of the survey’s 1,000 female respondents, 40% said that they work in technology as defined by the study — which means, of course, that 60% of the respondents don’t work in the field, yet felt perfectly comfortable offering their opinions. In other words, this is basically a report about how high-tech is perceived by women, not a report based on the actual experiences of women in high-tech.
The experiences of high-tech women whom I speak with paint a more subtle picture of the realities in the field. Patricia Sueltz, president of software products and platforms at Sun Microsystems, a company that seems to run on pure testosterone, is convinced that there really is something different about the digital economy. “Unlike other industries, the strongest and the brawniest don’t always succeed in technology,” she says. “It’s about the brains behind the work, and that has served women well.”
The tech industry’s emphasis on mental strength benefits women, adds high-tech entrepreneur Judy Estrin, CEO of Packet Design Inc., in Mountain View, California. “Clearly, there have been times in my career when it’s been annoying to be a woman in a predominantly male environment,” says Estrin. “But I don’t dwell on the fact that I’m a woman. I spend my energy doing my job.” Estrin, who cofounded three technology companies before establishing Packet Design and who served as chief technology officer at Cisco Systems, is fond of saying that she doesn’t hit glass ceilings because she builds her own houses.
Radha Basu, president and CEO of Support.com Inc., based in Redwood City, California, also doesn’t tolerate artificial barriers based on sex. She simply breaks through them — or works around them. “Have I encountered the old boys’ network?” she asks. “Of course. Do I ever feel as if there’s a barrier between the customer and me, because I’m female or because I’m of Indian origin? Yes, occasionally. And how do I deal with it? I remind myself that the business comes first.”
Basu’s company works with blue-chip clients such as Delta Air Lines, General Electric, and Sony — which means that she often bumps into the assumptions and prejudices of executives from the old economy. Recently, for example, Basu sensed that an executive from one of her big-deal customers felt uncomfortable around her. So she quietly brought in a male colleague to work with the client. Weeks later, the executive thanked Basu for delicately teaching him a lesson and promised to be a loyal customer of her company.
Despite the existence of slow learners, Basu is a true believer in the equalizing impact of the new economy. “I would be really foolish to say that women in technology work in a meritocracy,” she concedes. “Though the last time I checked, men weren’t totally evaluated on merit either. Technology practically begs for the skill sets generally associated with women. So much of the Internet is about collaboration, and women are genetically encoded to make teams work through collaboration.”
The Deloitte & Touche survey raises one last question — perhaps the most important issue for future research. One of the most striking numbers in the report is that 60% of high-tech women would choose another field if they could start their careers over again. Read on, though, and you discover that nearly half of the high-tech men surveyed would do exactly the same thing. So just because women are dissatisfied with their situation doesn’t mean that men are 100% content.
In other words, is the real problem for women in high technology not men but the field itself? Have the past five years been so demanding, so frenetic, so unforgiving, that life in technology-driven companies simply feels unsustainable — for men as well as women? That is the question I’d like Deloitte & Touche to explore next.