By Wendy Lee
San Francisco Chronicle.
Work wasn’t the same after tech consultant Roxane Divol returned from maternity leave. She no longer received the best assignments, especially those requiring travel, because her colleagues assumed she wanted to stay close to home because she had a child.
She confronted a senior male colleague, telling him to stop asking if she was okay and to help her tap into the best opportunities at the firm.
“I get it,” she recalled the male colleague saying. “I guess you are the man in your family.”
It’s the kind of sexism women still face daily as they push for equal representation in the workplace, especially in tech, which has specific and unusual gender problems. Female engineers represent a tiny minority at many companies, with even fewer women in the upper echelons of leadership.
A Chronicle analysis of the Bay Area’s top 15 publicly traded tech firms by workforce shows that only a handful have a significant number of female managers reporting directly to the CEO.
At several companies, women represented just 20 percent or less of a company’s executive team. The company with the highest percentage was Cisco Systems Inc. with women representing 36 percent of the executive team, while the lowest was Fremont-based Synnex Corp., which lists no women on its leadership team.
Studies have shown that companies with more women leaders have better financial results, experts said. Without more diversity, marketing campaigns can play to gender stereotypes, or products launch only taking into account a man’s perspective.
“Companies that do not utilize women in top management positions are really giving up 50 percent of the talent,” said Michalle Mor Barak, author of Managing Diversity: Toward a Globally Inclusive Workplace. Those firms “are not only not doing the right thing, but also harming themselves in the long run,” she said.
To be sure, some tech companies have high-profile female executives, but those women have few peers at their companies. That’s the case at Facebook for chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and chief financial officer Ruth Porat at Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
The sexism directed toward top female executives can be blatant. In a meeting with investors, Michelle Forsythe, CEO of Lake Forest, Calif.-based NoteStream, fielded questions about what it was like working with her husband and if they had any children. Meanwhile, her husband — the company’s CTO — got questions about the business behind the start-up’s learning app.
“The raw truth is this: sexism is alive and well in the tech industry. It hides behind polite smiles and discreet glances at the clock. It masquerades as interest, but manifests as condescension,” Forsythe said, later adding, “I’m a woman CEO with data to back the success of my app. Let’s talk about that.”
The trend of fewer women at the top isn’t just in tech but across other industries. A study released in 2015 by McKinsey & Co. and non-profit LeanIn.Org showed that even though women and men are almost equal in representation at entry-level positions, fewer women get promoted to each higher level. By the time women reach senior vice president, they represent just 23 percent of the positions, the study said. C-suite representation is even less at just 17 percent, according to the study’s data, which tracked 118 companies, including 26 in tech.
“We’ve lost women every step of the way,” said Lareina Yee, a partner at McKinsey & Co.
As women climb the corporate ladder, many of them are promoted through “staff roles” or positions related to legal, human resources and IT, while fewer high-ranking women hold “line roles” that deal directly with the company’s finances or core operations, according to the study.
In the C-suite — the highest level of executive leadership — only 43 of the women executives are in “line” positions such as chief development officer. The people who hold these roles often later become CEO.
Starting families while working may represent another challenge. More women than men with children say they don’t want the top job because of the stress associated with it, and they don’t feel they can balance their work and family commitments, according to the McKinsey survey of roughly 30,000 employees.
Biases also influence why women don’t advance to higher positions within a company, Yee said, referring to unconscious bias, where “women are often looked at for their performance and men just on their potential.”
Some tech companies are working to address this through mentorship programs and special opportunities for employees to learn about their companies’ other departments.
San Francisco cloud computing company Salesforce piloted a program for roughly 20 “high-potential” female leaders, mostly at the vice president level. Through the program, Sara Varni, a vice president of marketing, networked with senior executives around the company, broadening her perspective about what she could do at Salesforce. She worked with a coach on improving her presentation skills. The experience gave her the confidence to speak in front of more than 4,000 people at Dreamforce in September, and ultimately, what she learned helped her land a promotion to senior vice president of marketing for Sales Cloud.
But once you reach more senior circles with few or no other women, there are still hurdles. Divol, now senior vice president and general manager of Trust Services at Symantec, said there’s still the “challenge of being so different.”
“If you are asking different questions, you look different, you dress different, you sound different — it can be offensive to folks,” Divol said.
Author Mor Barak said it’s important that companies allow women and other underrepresented communities to show perspectives that make them unique, rather than force them to fit into the existing culture.
“(The talent) will be stifled if they are expected to behave like the mainstream,” Mor Barak said.
After Divol joined Symantec, some people said she was hard to work with. Her executive coach interviewed her peers about it, and learned that because everything about her was different, it was a lot for people to absorb. One of the male colleagues, as she recalled, said: “You know, Roxane, you bring up really good questions, but everything about you is so surprising. You dress different, you have a different angle on things — it’s a lot of things for us to take on.”
Ultimately, Divol realized she needed to treat her colleagues like she did her clients when she was a consultant, “with a little bit of care and cocooning with how I support the same topic.”
Women executives in tech are still struggling with equal compensation. Median pay for female executive officers was about $3.7 million, nearly $893,000 less than their male counterparts, according to research firm Equilar. That gap was more pronounced in tech compared to other sectors, including finance, consumer goods and utilities, Equliar said.
With many male founders (think Google’s Larry Page or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) owning equity in their companies, that factors into the pay. The disparity stems from the very beginning, with a higher percentage of start-ups founded by white men landing more venture funding.
It will take a while before the percentage of women leaders increase across all industries. McKinsey & Co.’s study says it will take more than 100 years to reach parity at the C-Suite level and 25 years at the senior vice president level at the rate progress has happened since 2012.
Divol is doing her part to reduce that wait. At Symantec, she learned that a male employee was up for a promotion, but a female employee, in a similar position who was also ranked very well, was not getting promoted. “When these numbers are off balance, it gives me the opportunity to ask why,” Divol said.
She asked her team to either promote them both or keep them at the same level. Both were promoted.
Maggie Wilderotter, executive chairman of Frontier Communications Corp., was instrumental in the shift at her company. When she joined as CEO and president in 2004, there were no women on the board or any female executive reporting directly to the top boss. Today, three out of seven executives report to the president and 42 percent of the board are female.
“The good news for our company was I was at the top. I am also a woman,” Wilderotter said. “I basically said this is good business and this is what we are going to do.”