Dismantling the Silicon Boys Network

The Boardroom Will Lead a Cultural Turnaround

By Betsy Atkins

As a woman who’s served on many major tech company boards, much of Uber’s woes sound like old news. Women in technology industries still push against a silicon ceiling when it comes to career advancement and cultural issues.

Research from the Society of Women Engineers found that 20% of today’s engineering school graduates are women, yet just 11% continue working in the field. Women in IT leadership roles (such as chief information officers or technology VPs) are just 9% of the total, according to a survey from Harvey Nash/KPMG.

Among Silicon Valley’s boardrooms, the numbers are also bleak. At the Valley’s 150 largest tech firms, only 15% of board members are women (versus 21% in the S&P 500). A Korn Ferry study of the top 100 U.S. tech firms saw just three with women as CEO/chairman, and five with a woman as the board’s lead director.

(Related article: Uber Report Calls for Board Oversight Overhaul)

Changing any corporate culture is a challenge, but I’ve found bringing diversity to the tech industry is even trickier. Fast-growth “unicorn” companies, those with $1 billion or more in revenues, can quickly outgrow their founding, venture-based startup corporate governance, and find themselves facing Uber-like crises with too few adults in the boardroom.

Yet in my own experience, I’ve seen technology companies nurture diverse, inclusive cultures, starting with a few one-on-one approaches from the boardroom.

(Related article: Women Leaders=More Women Leaders)

Here’s how:

• Build internal career networks. At Volvo Car AB, where I serve on the board, we’ve launched a regular program where I have the opportunity to meet with senior and midlevel women executives on personal career development. We work with these execs to build on their strengths, clarify their career aspirations and offer advice on advancement. This is a new program, but it is already proving a success in energizing and motivating the paths of these current and future female leaders.

• Make mentoring personal. On the board of Schneider Electric, I make it a point to directly mentor a number of women on the company’s senior executive team. Women in management find it tremendously helpful to have someone in the boardroom take a personal interest in their career strategy and development. At Uber, new board member Arianna Huffington will be in an ideal position to put her mentoring and career savvy to work in helping rising women execs rebuild the company. The key is a regular ongoing program of mentoring and support.

• Go beyond mentoring. The tech industry, in particular has too few role models for rising female talents. The mentoring aid above is helpfulbut why not go one better? Companies can ask their male and female execs (and board members) to either mentor or sponsor their female execs. Mentoring is periodic advising while coaching and sponsoring is taking ownership for introducing and actively “sponsoring” an individual for their next step up in their career. That’s a big difference. Take personal ownership of career coaching for your top talents. Give them advice, introduce them to the people they need to sharpen their skills, and introduce their names at strategic moments.

• Recognize the women making a difference. When I served as chair of the board’s compensation committee at tech firm Polycom, we were active in the annual recognition event for sales staff. I noted that women were leaders in sales, making up less than 10% of the sales force, but were 34% of our “President’s Circle” top sales performers. Making an added effort to celebrate (and promote) this talent is crucial in sending the message that sales is not just a “guy thing” in the company.

(Related article: Board Women and Fearless Girl Unit)

While Uber’s woes make the news, they can also serve as a spark for making the support and advancement of women in your company a boardroom mission. The talents of these women are a strategic asset to companies, and there is a growing body of research proving that firms who nurture and empower their gender diversity gain in revenues and adaptability. In any company, balance sheet results are always found downstream from company culture. When it comes to reshaping that culture to be welcoming to women, the boardroom is the ideal place to start.

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