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March 22, 2013 at 8:00 AM
Are tech companies indifferent to women in the workplace?
The Puget Sound is a tech hub. Microsoft has roosted in Redmond for almost three decades. Amazon.com was founded in Seattle. The wireless industry was born on the Eastside. But we do not have a woman leading a major publicly traded technology company in our region.
Compare this to Silicon Valley, where Marissa Mayer leads Yahoo and Meg Whitman leads Hewlett-Packard as chief executives. Even IBM (not California-based) has a female CEO in Virginia Rometty.
As part of my research for my Thursday column “Sheryl Sandberg, ‘Lean in,’ the gender gap in Seattle leadership,” I interviewed U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene. DelBene now represents the 1st congressional district, but she spent 12 years working at Microsoft. Her last position was corporate vice president in the company’s mobile business. She also helped start drugstore.com and served as CEO of Nimble Technology. Her husband is Kurt DelBene, president of the Microsoft division that makes Office.
DelBene says the company has changed, but when she first joined Microsoft the company culture was younger and far more male-dominated.
“It was a very confrontational culture. Folks were always challenging each other. If you weren’t confident and willing to stand up, that forced people to face back or not participate. Women who didn’t feel that assertive or didn’t enjoy that culture didn’t want to do that with their careers,” she said. “That limited the number of women going forward.”
DelBene said she had the benefit of growing up in a family where she learned to stand her ground. “Folks were very opinionated and we had a lot of challenge at home,” she said. Working as a high school football referee also helped, she said.
Serving in Congress? Also confrontational. “I don’t necessarily mean that it’s mean spirited,” DelBene said. “I just mean that people challenge your thinking and you have to make sure you step up and defend your position. I think that’s a healthy thing.”
DelBene and Courtney Gregoire, an attorney at Microsoft and a new Port of Seattle commissioner, both said Microsoft is now far more supportive of women and mothers. “It is a true commitment,” Gregoire said, who just went back to work after maternity leave. “They get that it’s good for their bottom line, it helps them attract top talent and it’s good for society as a whole.”
But honestly, organizations that hire women and minorities without changing the culture set up most of those hires for failure. New York chef and author Eddie Huang said in a visit to Town Hall Seattle. That’s how he felt when he was studying law and joined a major New York law firm as part of a diversity program. (Hard to imagine Huang fitting in at any large corporation though. He said he showed up to work on casual Friday wearing a velour polo shirt and suede Air Jordans.)
The highest-ranked woman at Microsoft is Lisa Brummel, chief people officer. Brummel, who also is one of the owners of the Seattle Storm, leads the recruiting and human resources group. It’s cool but hardly groundbreaking to put a woman in charge of human resources. Windows Chief Financial Office Tami Reller and Corporate Vice President Julie Larson-Green have replaced Steven Sinfosky as division president of the Windows group. But neither has been given Sinofsky’s title of division president.
It’s possible that Microsoft is playing a “Bachelor”-style reality game called “The Windows President” and waiting to see which woman makes herself worthy of a rose and the title of president. Next season the winner is expected to compete on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Want to talk more about the gender gap in women leadership? I’ll be holding a virtual book club on Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” at noon Tuesday.