Woman advocates regret Fiorina's departure

Some in computing world say HP's former chief helped inspire women, who nonetheless have been abandoning computer careers.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
3 min read
"Carly Fiorina, we're sad to see you go."

Despite an abundance of criticism surrounding her vision and leadership, that's what a number of woman advocates said Wednesday, after Hewlett-Packard ousted its chief executive.

Fiorina's six-year rein at computer giant HP signaled that a woman could ascend to the top of a leading technology company, observers said, even as women overall have been dropping out of computer careers.

"She's been a great role model for women in the field."
--Melinda O'Neill
Director of marketing,
Decision Design

"She's been a great role model for women in the field," said Melinda O'Neill, director of marketing at software company Decision Design. "It's disappointing that they let her go."

HP said Fiorina's firing stemmed from disagreements over how to execute the company's strategy. During her tenure, Fiorina spearheaded HP's megamerger with rival Compaq Computer. But the company has produced uneven results and has come under pressure to change its business tack.

"While I regret the board and I have differences about how to execute HP's strategy, I respect their decision," Fiorina said in a statement. Her severance package is worth $21.1 million.

Many analysts have criticized Fiorina's leadership, arguing, for example, that she lacked a consistent vision. Nonetheless, a number of proponents for women in the technology and business worlds suggested that she has played an important role in opening doors for women.

Fiorina was one of the most prominent female business executives overall and arguably the leading one in the tech world, though others include eBay's Meg Whitman, Lucent Technologies' Patricia Russo and Xerox's Anne Mulcahy.

"I think it's a terrible thing for the progress of women in top executive positions."
--Laura Roden
President, Silicon
Valley Association of
Startup Entrepreneurs

The technology profession has long been largely male, and it has grown even more guy-centric in recent decades. Explanations put forth for this state of affairs range from biological differences between men and women--echoing a theory recently suggested by Harvard's president about women in science--to social factors, including the computing field's reputation as the province of male geeks.

It's rare for women to run large businesses, but leadership in the technology industry is particularly male-dominated, according to a 2003 report by Catalyst, a group that pushes to increase the presence of women in senior management roles.

While women comprised 12.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies' boards overall, they accounted for just 9 percent of high-tech company boards in that set, according to Catalyst. The group also found that an important barrier to women's advancement in high technology is that "women feel isolated because they lack role models, networks and mentors."

Fiorina has been an important example of what women can achieve, said Carol Muller, chief executive of MentorNet, a group that pairs women in science and engineering with mentors working in the industry. Stereotypes about women still have to be overcome, she argued, noting that just a few decades ago, many top schools were closed to women.

Fiorina was in a hot spotlight as a female executive, but she did not shy away from talking about fairness issues such as gender-based bias, Muller said. "She did a wonderful job of speaking out on a wide variety of business topics as well as playing a leadership role in the broader community," she said.

Laura Roden, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs, said she doesn't worry about women being discouraged by Fiorina's departure. But she fears that men who discount women's abilities will be emboldened. "I think it's a terrible thing for the progress of women in top executive positions," Roden said.

Roden doubts that HP's board was motivated by sexism in booting Fiorina. That view is shared by Sally Crawford, president of the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Alliance of Technology and Women, which advocates for more women in executive roles.

Crawford said Fiorina was the first woman to become president, CEO and chairperson of a major corporation. She has already left a lasting impression, Crawford added. But she suggests that Fiorina is far from done. Crawford has no doubt that HP's deposed chief will bounce back in some new incarnation.

"I expect something greater," she said.