By Blake Landau (Blogger, What’s Your Story)
It’s official, the tech industry is a major laggard in gender diversity at the highest levels of the corporate ladder, at least according to an extensive study produced by the UC Davis Graduate School of Management pioneered by Research Specialist Amanda Kimball.

I attended a panel of senior executives at Deloitte in downtown San Francisco last week. The event was co-produced with Watermark, a non-profit that aims to support women in leadership, for the purpose of discussing the results of the 2011 UC Davis report on California Women Business Leaders with alarming statistics about the snail-like pace of women’s progress in the California corporate world.

The study said “The proportion of women who lead California’s largest companies is growing at such a slow pace that it will take more than a century for women business leaders to achieve parity with men.” Women account for only 9.2% (178) of the 1,925 highest paid executives in the firms surveyed.

Watermark CEO Marilyn Nagel said, “I’ve always had the passion for inclusion and diversity of the way people think and act, and a keen understanding that the playing field is not level.”

“While we like to think the work world is a meritocracy, it isn’t,” said Nagel, former Chief Diversity Officer at Cisco, believes that major purchasers are increasingly women and minorities, and companies will be forced at some point to change the game, even if they don’t do it out of their own good sense.

“The population in this country is changing. Women are now major purchasers. Additionally people of color are buying products. If you don’t have diverse products, you aren’t going to have products that sell. You will financially lose out.”

Nagel also reminds that women want to buy from other women, or at least companies that are woman-friendly.

“When a customer comes in and is a female purchaser in IT — if she talks to an all white male sales team — from that first impression she might not believe the company understands what her needs are,” Nagel said.

From a recruitment perspective, if a company doesn’t have a woman on the board or in senior roles, it’s likely the company won’t make it a point to recruit women.

“Women executives want to work for companies that have a balanced gender executive team, and women on the board. Women are smart and look up the company, and they are attracted to that.”

History tells us bad things happen when there is a lack of diversity in the boardroom.

You’ve Come A Long Way bebe

bebe topped the charts of the study with women holding 40% of its highest paid executive positions. Liyuan Woo (Principal Accounting Officer & VP Controller) talked to me about her personal journey moving up through the ranks from Deloitte to senior officer at bebe.

When asked if she felt she was treated differently as a woman, she said yes.

“I felt I was treated differently in the corporate setting as a female throughout my career with Deloitte, especially when I was in the M&A group. Keep in mind that the M&A group required 24/7 commitment and extensive traveling. The majority of the senior level consultants and partners were men. I felt most strongly when I was at the later stage of my pregnancy and after I returned from my maternity leave.”

Even before facing the challenges of taking leave for pregnancy, and other hurdles down the road, younger women have their own battles.

Woo recommends that younger women arm themselves with books like “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” and public speaking training through Toastmasters. She encourages women to network and recommends girls raise their hand frequently, speak up and make intentions known. Woo attributes her own success to having great mentors, and a career path with the flexibility to revisit and revise.

Personal Thoughts on Showing Up

At one point in the Watermark panel a discussion of for-profit versus non-profit boards came up. MarketTools’ Amal Johnson offered her own experience and said the one non-profit board she served on had 83 board members. She didn’t like being one of 83. She stayed one year and then quit.

What struck me about Johnson’s statement was her insistence that she be heard. So many great women have a great fear of being heard. They are afraid of being the spotlight and shy away from risk.

Marilyn Nagel told me what she saw in her many years in the tech industry. “No matter how successful women are in general, they tend to underplay their success and have greater humility around their accomplishments than is necessary. That plays into the imbalance or the dynamic. Women don’t sell themselves,” said Nagel.

Nagel went on to describe that even women in senior roles don’t take risks —- they need to be pushed to do so.

I believe that we need more women like Amal Johnson who want to be heard. This type of woman wants her voice heard. She wants to move the needle, and she’ll speak out to do it. She’s fearless.

We need more female senior executives like these women who are competitive, confident and yearn to be heard. We also need these women to pave the way for younger women. We need them to mentor and coach younger women.

The report from UC Davis validated the inkling a lot of us feel when we look at tech conference agendas that feature mostly middle aged white males. As Marilyn Nagel told me at the Watermark event, “It’s time to change the game.”


Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Blake Landau is a blogger, speaker and consultant living in the San Francisco. She’s worked with brands such as Verizon Wireless on social media, branding, public relations and marketing. She started her career in customer strategy building Customer Management IQ, a social networking site and online business publication. She loves her running and book clubs. Blake blogs at What’s Your Story?. Follow her on Twitter at @BlakeLandau.