Women break to front of tech

The glass ceiling finally seems to be shattering.

Hillary Rodham Clinton nearly snagged the Democratic presidential nomination. Danica Patrick became the first female winner in IndyCar history. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as a major figure in world affairs.

Eva Chen smiles at the comparisons. As one of the tech industry's top female executives, she is already accustomed to strides in her own profession.

"It's gratifying to see more women in prominent roles in tech," says Chen, co-founder and CEO of Trend Micro, the third-largest computer-security company in the world, behind Symantec and McAfee. Its market value is $5.5 billion.

Chen, who helped start the company in 1988, became CEO in 2004. After two decades in tech, Chen now has plenty of company in the executive ranks. A wave of female CEOs is putting a new face on the once male-dominated industry. These technically astute up-and-comers are benefiting from more start-ups, plenty of funding and lower costs to start a Web 2.0 company.

And some heavyweight players, such as Google, are proving to be fertile grooming grounds for aspiring female executives.

"Computer sciences and the Internet have made technology tangible and put a face on them as careers for everyone, women included," says Marissa Mayer,who, as vice president of search and user experience, is one of Google's top executives.

Estimates of the number of female CEOs at high-profile tech companies are hard to come by, but they easily outnumber women CEOs on the Fortune 500 list. (Of the 12 female CEOs on that list, the lone tech representative is Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, according to market researcher Catalyst.)

The Internet boom created a lot of opportunities, says Michelle Peluso, who, as CEO, has fashioned a turnaround at travel site Travelocity. "The entrepreneurial path became easier and more inviting."

"Anecdotally, I do think that there are more opportunities generally in technology for people who may not look or match up to traditional definitions of, say, what an engineer or someone in product management should look like," says Gina Bianchini, CEO of social-networking site Ning. "This is a direct result of the fact that creating things online today is basically free and requires very little direct coding experience to create real businesses or new products."

There are more opportunities today than 10 years ago because more women are pursuing engineering degrees and careers, and they're better suited for fast-paced business environments in the online world, says Teresa Phillips, CEO and founder of Graspr, which aspires to become the YouTube of how-to video clips.

What's more, marketers are deploying technology to reach women, many of whom oversee family budgets, do more shopping online, and increasingly rely on the Web to organize after-school activities, says Heidi Roizen, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist and founder of several tech companies.

"There are ever-increasing opportunities for women because there are ever-increasing opportunities," Roizen says. "The more a company is pitched to women, the more opportunity there seems to be for women to lead these companies."

"It's the confluence of technology, consumer and mass audience," says Tina Sharkey, global president of BabyCenter.com and a former senior vice president at AOL. "I want to go where the consumers are going, and where I can create incredible experiences for them."

A new wave

With the departures of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz, there has risen a new crop of accomplished female CEOs. Whitman and Fiorina are generating plenty of headlines themselves as a fundraiser and adviser, respectively, for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

Fueling the growing ranks of C-level executives (CEO, chief operating officer, chief information officer ) are more engineering and computer science graduates. The number of female engineering graduates in 2005, the last year for which statistics are available, was nearly 13,200, up 8% from 2000. The number of female computer-science college graduates rose 7%, to 11,235, in the same time frame, according to the National Science Foundation.

Venture funding for tech companies, meanwhile, has steadily grown, to an average of $6 billion to $8 billion per quarter today from $4 billion to $6 billion during 2003-2005, says the National Venture Capital Association. Not that funding is essential to a company's success. "You need little money to start something now," says Ning's Bianchini. "You can now bypass VCs altogether and let the adoption of your product or service speak for itself."

Ruckus Wireless CEO Selina Lo credits the rise in female executives to more social-networking companies and shopping-related websites that require "right brain" skills.

Still, despite advances women have made in the upper rungs of tech companies, they lag behind males. It's rare for a woman to occupy the company's most powerful corner office. For decades, the pat explanation was that women didn't have the technical education or executive experience.

"It still is very much a gentleman's club," Gary Beach, publisher emeritus of CIO magazine, says, alluding to a survey last year that found only 14% of 550 executives (CEO, COO, CIO) in various industries were women.

"What do you mean by more? Compared to a few years ago, when there weren't many at all?" asks Lo, who helped start Ruckus in 2004. "There could be more." At a conference last month in San Francisco, she was one of a few female CEOs. "There is a bit of intimidation, yes, after all these years," she says. "You walk into a room full of men. Once everyone talks, the gender gap disappears if you know what you're talking about. The environment is more welcoming, but traces of sexism exist."

Trend Micro's Chen, who sees more female executives at tech conferences after years of being the only one, says it could be better. "What's taking so long?"

While social-networking sites such as LinkedIn have made it easier for all to make career contacts, fundamental barriers still exist for women, says analyst Marissa Gluck, of Radar Research. "Women (remain) underrepresented in engineering, math and science, and they still confront the same face-to-face discrimination," Gluck says.

Progress has been slower than it should be, says Julie Hembrock Daum, North American board practice leader for executive-search firm Spencer Stuart. "Really, the numbers for executive female officers in all industries could be better. … It is a long struggle."

Under cover

Two decades ago, female tech executives were such a rarity that Chen masked her identity so that underlings — unfamiliar with working for a female boss — would follow her instructions.

"I used to pretend I was a secretary at engineering meetings. I would take notes, and suggest doing this and that on an engineering project," says Chen, who had two sets of business cards in the early '90s — one as chief technology officer, the other as engineering secretary. "They would agree. I didn't want these guys to know I was their boss."

Stereotypes and bad habits can be hard to break, however, say several female executives. Phillips says a male venture capitalist recently pressed her to act more like a man. He opined that women were more disposed to jump at a deal if someone offered $20 million for their company, rather than hold out for more. "He wanted me to swing for the fences like a man," says Phillips, who got the funding.

For now, the swelling number of female executives are finding ways to increase their ranks, in the same manner of old boys' networks of golf, corporate boards and well-heeled clubs.

Joanna Shields, CEO of social-networking giant Bebo, and a network of other female executives — most of them former Google colleagues such as Sheryl Sandberg, now Facebook COO — share advice, ideas and support. TechCrunch holds about a dozen events a year for women — and men — to network, says its CEO, Heather Harde.

"The more other women see female executives, the more of a reality the opportunity becomes," says Sandy Jen. She and fellow Stanford student Elaine Wherry in 2005 helped found Meebo, an instant-messaging service that is popular on websites. "Just a bit of exposure can really do a lot."