Industry wants girls to stick to knitting

Upon her retirement, Autodesk's Carol Bartz remains that rare exception, one that's becoming more rare all the time: the female CEO.

The computer industry may pride itself on being different. But for all its self-congratulatory pretensions, this business isn't very different from the rest of the American economy. When Carol Bartz became Autodesk CEO in 1992, she could have counted the number of female bosses in the computer business on one hand. Fourteen years later, the top of technology's corporate pyramid remains more of a man's world than ever.

"Ironically, the technology business, which has this image of being this young and progressive industry, is just as bad as all the other old-line industries when it comes to promoting women into the top jobs," Marc Lewis, an executive recruiter with the Leadership Capital Group, told me.

When pressed, boards of directors and CEOs will say they can't find top female talent because their predecessors failed to hire and groom enough talented women.

More than a few e-interlocutors told me in no uncertain terms that Fiorina was little more than a marketing bimbo.

That's a convenient alibi, but the tech world isn't devoid of female acumen. One of 10 employed engineers is a woman, while two of every 10 employed engineering technologists and technicians are also females. What's more, the government projects that an estimated 219,000 more women could be employed by 2010 as computer software engineers, computer scientists and systems analysts. Some day, at least some of these folks should be worthy of being promoted.

The chief obstacle is the system, not a sudden proliferation of antediluvian knuckle draggers. So it is that 20 years after I began covering the technology industry, the roster of female CEOs remains laughably small compared with the number of females in the general population. Sure you can point to the likes of eBay's Meg Whitman, Patricia Russo at Lucent and Xerox's Anne Mulcahy. But like Bartz, these women are the exceptions to the rule. The press still makes a big deal whenever a woman gets selected for a senior role in the technology world because it's so rare.

"It's still a system...of white male boards picking the people they're most comfortable with," Bartz told me. (View the full video interview by clicking here.)

The Carly problem
There are loads of impressive women who qualify as prime CEO material for this industry. At the top of Lewis' list are 50-something up-and-comers like Linda Gooden, president of Lockheed Martin Information Tech, and Indra Nooyi, president and CFO of Pepsico. The question is whether they and others of the same caliber will get the call to fill a big-time CEO vacancy. After Carly Fiorina's flameout at Hewlett-Packard, I have my doubts.

When Lew Platt said in early 1999 that he was ready to step down as HP CEO, he and the board were keen on hiring a woman. They wanted to signal to the market that HP was ready for change. So it was that Christian & Timbers recruited Carly Fiorina from Lucent. Was she the best choice for the job? With 20/20 hindsight, we all know the answer. But remember that at the time, she was a Wall Street favorite.

However, it did not take long before Fiorina alienated a lot of employees (and shareholders) with her plan to shake up HP's cobwebbed corporate culture and acquire Compaq. During the height of the ensuing shareholder battle, Fiorina came in for bitter criticism. At the time, Christian & Timbers CEO Jeffrey Christian, who placed Fiorina at HP, suggested in an interview with BusinessWeek that her ability to take the heat and weather major conflict had "helped dispel any doubts or concerns over how far a woman CEO is willing to go to do her job."

Maybe if things had not ended badly for Fiorina and HP. I got an earful after writing a couple of columns in Fiorina's defense. She was being unfairly singled out because of her gender and I said so. More than a few e-interlocutors told me in no uncertain terms that Fiorina was little more than a marketing bimbo out to destroy a venerable Silicon Valley institution.

When HP dumped Fiorina, more than a few wisenheimers sent me links to the original columns, asking whether I was ready to swallow my words.

If anything, just the opposite. Fiorina undeniably lost control of the company. But a lot of people dumped extra hard precisely because of her gender. I'm not imagining this. If I had a nickel for every e-mail flame sent my way calling Fiorina an uppity (word that rhymes with "witch"), we'd be talking a summer house in the Bahamas.

And now the pendulum has swung back. Boards of directors are reverting to how things were done in the good old days. There's no bonus in their future for being a trailblazer. In the post-Carly era no board will give female candidates special consideration for a plum CEO vacancy in the tech world--not unless she's a veritable Wonder Woman.

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