Among tech industry leaders, gender diversity is slowly increasing

Women held 15.5 percent of the seats on corporate boards in the software industry, a new report by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found. But gender diversity within the physical limits of Silicon Valley is lower, while racial diversity in leadership roles continues to lag.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
Marissa Mayer, president and chief executive officer of Yahoo, participates in a panel discussion at the 2015 Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco in November. A new report by researchers at the University of California Davis found that gender diversity among top leaders in Silicon Valley is slowly increasing.

In California’s technology industry, gender diversity is slowly improving, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.

Across the state’s 400 largest publicly-traded companies, women held 15.5 percent of the seats on company boards in the software industry, compared to 13.3 percent overall. In technology hardware, they held 13.8 percent of board seats this year.

In all industries, the number of female chief executive officers also jumped, from 14 to 17, according to the study, which was conducted in partnership with women’s leadership group Watermark.

Retailer Williams-Sonoma, real estate investment company LTC Properties, and biopharmaceutical company Halozyme Therapeutics, which all have female chief executive officers, had the highest number of women in top-ranking roles.

In the tech industry, software company Zendesk had the highest percentage of women leaders, with 40 percent, reaching No. 7 on the researchers’ list of the most diverse companies by gender, while Yahoo, which is headed by Marissa Mayer, took the 14th spot.

“Despite these signs of progress, the numbers of women in corporate leadership in the state continue to be disappointing,” wrote Ann Huff Stevens, dean of UC Davis’ Graduate School of Management, in the report. “There is only one woman for every eight men, on average, among directors and highest-paid executives at these high-profile companies."

But amid an ongoing discussion about a lack of diversity in the tech sector, progress on ethnic and racial diversity was much slower.

Only 1.8 percent of the directors of California’s 90 Fortune 1000 companies was a woman of color, the study noted, while 15.6 percent were white women. Among men, 9.1 percent of directors were African American, Latino, or Asian, while 73.4 percent were white.

“I think there’s a higher level of consciousness [about diversity] now in the Valley, which I think is exciting and very welcome,” says Leela Srinivasan, the chief marketing officer at Lever, a San Francisco-based firm that provides recruiting technology to a range of companies.

But, she says, fostering a culture of inclusion for diverse job candidates, especially those new to the tech world, is an ongoing effort.

“If you see female leaders, in positions of power or encouraging and fostering talent coming up, that leads to an environment where more diverse talent feels they have a place in the company,” she says.

Silicon Valley’s location itself may also be part of a gender divide, the researchers found.

Of the 92 companies that had no women directors or highest-paid executives this year, 30 were in Santa Clara County, where Silicon Valley is located, the largest share in the state.

In Santa Clara, where only a small number of companies in this study are in industries other than hardware, software, or semiconductor manufacturing, women make up 12.7 percent of board members, compared to 20.2 percent in neighboring San Francisco, which has a small number of companies overall, the study found.

Apple, for example, ranked 39 out of 400 in the researchers’ list for gender diversity, while Facebook ranked 45 and Google tied at 106th place — 17.6 percent of its directors and highest-paid executives are women.

While a number of Silicon Valley firms have pledged to increase their gender and racial diversity in recent years, some researchers suggest creating explicit quotas, as firms such as Twitter and Pinterest have done, can actually harm efforts to create a diverse workforce by reinforcing stereotypes.

The UC Davis researchers note that a similar effort by the state legislature to increase gender diversity on corporate boards in California hasn’t been particularly effective. The non-binding resolution, which was adopted in December 2013, requires boards with nine or more directors to have at least three women, at least two women for boards of five to eight directors, and at least one female director for smaller boards.

So far, only 70 of the 400 largest public companies would meet this standard, 24 of which are in the computer hardware or software industry.

“I think that the numbers are one piece of the puzzle, but it’s really about what you do behind the scenes to help diverse candidates succeed,” says Ms. Srinivasan, who previously worked for LinkedIn and at management consulting firm Bain & Company.

She says Lever and other start-ups have increasingly begun using alternatives to the traditional process of recruiting through employee referrals, which can often yield candidates with similar experiences.

One approach used by digital privacy start-up KeepSafe, which Lever has worked with, is to have candidates submit information about previous projects they have worked on, rather than a traditional resume with educational information.

She also points to educational efforts to encourage diverse students to pursue an interest in technology, such as GoldieBlox, a set of construction and engineering toys aimed at girls

Another key step to encourage diversity is to provide training for companies in order to discover unconscious biases that may come out during an interview process. Examining a company’s workforce in order to improve diversity is also much easier when a company is smaller, Srinivasan says, noting that she has attended several diversity-focused events in recent weeks.

“I’m highly encouraged that it's just such a hot topic today. It gives me great hope for the future wave of companies that are coming through the ranks,” she says. “It’s not easy, but the business benefits are obvious.”

[Editor’s Note: This story originally misstated the nature of Lever’s business. It provides recruiting technology. This article has also been updated to clarify a recruiting approach used by the start-up KeepSafe.]

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