In The Social Network, David Fincher’s film, few women players are more than sex toys for the male protagonists, with the possible exception of Erica Albright, Mark Zuckerberg’s on/off girlfriend. Whether or not the film presents an accurate picture of Facebook’s birth, gender does appear to be an issue for technology companies.
Many – if not most – of the hottest Web 2.0 companies are run by all-male boards. Just look at Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Groupon and Foursquare. (While Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook’s chief operating officer, she is not formally a member of the board.) LinkedIn has just one woman director – Leslie Kilgore, who joined from Netflix last year.
Google has one woman on its management team: Shona Brown, senior vice-president of business operations. With a first degree in computer systems engineering and a PhD from Stanford, she is one of a handful of high-profile women engineers to operate at this level in a technology company.
Larry Page, the Google co-founder, reputedly increased diversity at the company when, after employing 16 male engineers on the trot, he said he would not sign off any more hires until an equal ratio of men and women started appearing on shortlists. Today, Google hiring panels always include a woman engineer, and that has probably helped the company build its ratio of women techies to 20 per cent – a better number than the 16-17 per cent of Silicon Valley engineers who are women.
People argue (as though it is a reasonable excuse) that because these companies are heavily backed by venture capital, which is a very male preserve, board seats are going to go with the money – to men.
But it’s not just about the money. As we have discussed here before, the female engineer continues to be a rare species, and not just in the geeky world of high tech.
Earlier this month, General Motors made US automotive history by appointing Mary Barra, its first-ever female senior vice-president. With a BSc in electrical engineering and an MBA from Stanford, she will lead the design and engineering of all GM’s global brands and a team of 36,000 international staff.
As with so much of the discussion on this subject, the argument becomes circular. Too few women graduating in computer sciences, programming or engineering leads to what some critics dubbed the film about Facebook: The Homosocial Network, in which the geeks are guys, period. In turn, the brightest graduates go on to found all-male companies. The capital these companies need to grow is managed by men on behalf of mainly male investors. This means that even as they prepare for an initial public offering, their board seats are occupied by men.
It seems to me the only way to break this circuit is for companies to do as Page does, and purposefully seek talented women to be fast-tracked through the organisation. With more examples such as Sandberg, Brown and Barra, clever girls may be more likely to choose maths and hard sciences as a springboard to a geek career that isn’t just for guys.