Want to get to the top? Then raise your hand

Laura Yecies’ CV lists degrees from Harvard, Georgetown and Dartmouth. She has run divisions at companies such as Yahoo and Netscape, and she is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish and French. But, she says, proving she was worthy of a chief executive seat in Silicon Valley was no easy task.

“As I progressed through my career up to the VP [vice-president] level, I didn’t feel it was particularly harder for me than it would have been for a man,” she says. “But progressing from the VP level to chief executive, there was more friction. I think a [board of directors] consciously likes the idea of having a woman chief executive, but subconsciously thinks, ‘You don’t really look the part.’”

Women account for just 11 per cent of executives at Fortune 500 tech companies, and less than a quarter of the software engineers at US tech companies overall, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Today, Yecies is the chief executive of SugarSync, a data synchronisation technology company based in San Mateo, California.

Over the years, she says, she has come to know other women chief executives both professionally and personally − Meg Whitman, the former head of Ebay, is a fellow parent at her children’s school, and Donna Dubinsky, who co-founded Handspring, the maker of personal digital assistants that later merged with Palm, is a member of her synagogue.

One of the consistent themes she has discussed with other women at the top is that at some point early in their careers, they all took on big and challenging tasks – a turnround situation or the establishment of a new division – that got them noticed by upper management.

“When I was at Informix, for example, I was a marketing manager. I was doing well but I was not a star,” she says. “When the company announced it was starting a Latin American division, I raised my hand. Personally, it was very hard for me to do this as I had young children at the time and the job required a lot of travel, and I even moved to Brazil for six months, but the point is that I took on the challenge.”

In January 1998, working for Netscape, she raised her hand again when the company made its internet browser free to the public.

“Both my parents were physicians, and we are Jewish. They always told me that the Jewish doctors should work over Christmas. So when Netscape announced it was making its browser free starting in January, I said I would work on the details of [that project]. It ended up being a defining moment in my career.”

Yecies, who has four children, says working for SugarSync is particularly gratifying because it helps customers in their quest for work/life balance. The company’s technology gives people access to their computer files from many different kinds of devices.

“During my career, the work environment has really changed. There’s much more time and geographic flexibility. Now we have tools and technologies that enable us to be just as productive anywhere, any time of day,” she says. “This [technology] allows me be at my son’s soccer game and stay connected to the office while I am, say, waiting for an important document to come through. I can use my time better this way.”

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

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Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

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Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.