Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is taking a drubbing for prescribing from a privileged perch the keys to female success in her upcoming book “Lean In,” but she’s struck a chord among many in her backyard.
In her own technology sector, women remain woefully underrepresented in leadership roles, even more so than in fields generally considered heavily male-dominated like financial services. Sandberg’s willingness to tackle the issue of women and leadership is drawing plaudits from many in Silicon Valley.
“She is bringing a topic forward that a lot of people want to talk about,” says Blair Christie, chief marketing officer at networking company Cisco Systems. “It doesn’t matter what side of the debate you’re on.”
Sandy Kurtzig - one of the first women founders to take a company through an initial public offering when her software company, Ask, listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1981 - brushes aside the criticism that Sandberg is speaking from heights unattainable for most women.
“To put herself out there is how she’s chosen to contribute,” says Kurtzig. “You need more role models.”
Of all the top executives working for a Standard & Poor’s 500, midcap or smallcap indices technology company for at least a year during the decade ended in 2009, just 5.5 percent were women, says George-Levi Gayle, an associate professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis specializing in gender and pay issues in the workplace. The data is the most recent available; other studies on women in the workplace tend to include technology in the “services” category, which includes other unrelated fields.
Technology’s 5.5 percent compares to 5.9 percent for financial services, 6.8 percent for industrials, and 8.1 percent for consumer goods. Sectors that did worse than technology when it comes to women leaders included health care, materials companies, and energy companies, according to Gayle’s data.
He blames the underrepresentation on the low number of women majoring in engineering and computer science. Just 13.3 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science, computer engineering, or information go to women, according to the Computing Research Association, a trade group. That represents a decline from 17.5 percent 10 years ago, according to the most comparable data from the CRA.