Twitter Board Controversy Shows Depth of Gender Gap in Silicon Valley

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Andrew Gombert / EPA

You’d never know that women make up half the population from peeking inside Silicon Valley’s boardrooms. Nor could you tell from sitting in on meetings with rank and file programmers. Men dominate in the technology industry, literally and figuratively.

That imbalance was hammered home this week when Twitter appointed its first female board member. Marjorie Scardino, a former chief executive of Pearson, publishing giant, brings a wealth of media experience to the online messaging service. Her appointment eases some of the pressure on Twitter, which had recently become a target of intense criticism for its all-male board. But the episode also highlights how far Silicon Valley still has to go to close its gender gap.

“Silicon Valley has a sexist arrogant culture, and this brought it to the surface,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and a frequent critic of the technology industry’s hiring practices. “We’re not in the 1960s anymore.”

By nearly every measure, technology companies have a dearth of women. Their numbers are thin from the executive ranks all the way down to fresh recruits. Women account for just 11 percent of board members for technology companies, according to Spencer Stuart, the executive recruitment firm. One-third of technology companies have no women at all on their boards including Tesla Motors, LeapFrog Enterprises and Demand Media.

The reasons behind the gender gap are complex. Saying that technology companies simply ignore women misses the point. Recruiting programmers and engineers is complicated by the fact that relatively few women purse technical careers. Only 18 percent of computer science undergraduates are women, according to the Anita Borg Institute, one of many organizations that promote women in the technology industry.

“We lose women at that boundary between high school and college,” said Telle Whitney, chief executive for the Anita Borg Institute. “They don’t see themselves in computer science.”

There are few female role models in the technology industry for young women to look up to, she said. Getting mid-career women promoted to leadership positions is difficult because they are often overlooked. “I’m afraid to say we’ve fallen back a little,” Whitney said.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions to the shortage of women in leadership roles. Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo; Meg Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard; and Virginia Rometty, chief executive of IBM, are among the industry’s biggest names. So is Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, who doubles as Silicon Valley’s leading motivator for women with her book, “Lean In,” and a related non-profit group.

Twitter’s pedigree is particularly male. A team of men founded the company seven years ago. All three chief executives have been men. Until recently, all its other top executives have been men too.

That changed a few months ago when Twitter hired Vijaya Gadde, a woman, as general counsel. A few other women are vice presidents, but they serve in business or operational roles, and not in technical jobs.

Before yesterday’s board appointment, Twitter’s board included only men. Critics alternately called the situation “appalling,” “egregious” and an example of Silicon Valley’s “frat culture.” They pointed out that Twitter’s service is used by a huge number of women. Getting a woman’s perspective at the board level would almost certainly improve decision-making, they said.

Studies show that having women on boards translates into a higher return on income for companies and a faster repayment of debt, among other benefits, said Kellie McElhaney, faculty director of the Center for Responsible Business a business professor at University of California at Berkeley.

She complained that some male executives in Silicon Valley have an “absolute blind spot” when it comes to hiring women. Another problem is that executives define the requirements for its board so narrowly – members must be current or former chief executives, for example – that they exclude women who could make a huge contribution.

Silicon Valley hasn’t helped its image with women. Making women feel welcome will require toning down some of the excesses. Earlier this year, a team of start-up founders went onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt, a major conference, to show off an app for taking photos of men staring at women’s breasts. The conference organizers quickly issued an apology and said they had failed to properly screen entries.

“One thing that has to be to change is the culture so that companies don’t think its O.K. to advertise for ‘brogrammers,’ ” McElhaney said, referring to the slang and macho term for programmers.

Achieving gender equality in the technology industry will take some time, everyone interviewed agreed. The debate over Twitter and the makeup of its board helps, however, by putting a spotlight on the issue of women in technology. Wadhwa, the Stanford fellow who is also vice president of research and innovation at Singularity University, said a dozen executives have contacted him for advice. It’s a good sign, he concluded.

“It’s got them thinking,” he said. “Mission accomplished.”