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Women at Tech Companies Still Struggle to Reach C-Suite

Executive-level positions are particularly hard to come by at startups founded by men

Two women standing in front of a glass window.

​Female executives in male-founded tech companies are more likely to head HR than to hold other leadership positions, and that's if they're among the relative few who make it to the C-suite, a new study reveals.

U.S. tech startups have made little headway in getting women on boards of directors and in executive suites in recent years. This despite growing industry attention on women's underrepresentation in those arenas, according to Silicon Valley Bank's (SVB's) 2017 Women in Technology Leadership report.

Seventy percent of U.S. firms responding to the survey don't have any women on their boards, the report found, and more than half (54 percent) have no female executives; both percentages are higher than those reported in the previous two years. In 2015 and 2016, the percentage of U.S. startups with no female directors stood at 68 percent and 66 percent, respectively, while 53 percent had no female executives in 2015 and 46 percent had no women in the C-suite last year.

A quarter of U.S. startups, meanwhile, say they have programs aimed at increasing the number of women in leadership roles—a consistent figure year over year—according to the report, which is based on a survey of nearly 950 startup executives mostly in the United States, the United Kingdom and China.

The figures for women in leadership roles were similar for the entire global survey population (68 percent with no women on boards, 53 percent with no women in the C-suite), although Chinese startups have significantly more female executives.

The survey found that, overall, women in the executive suites of female-founded companies were more likely to be chief executive officers, chief operations officers, or chief technology officers, with 47 percent in the chief executive's office.

"We expected to see more women in leadership positions this year, and instead our survey shows how little progress is being made," said Claire Lee, director and head of SVB's Early Stage Practice, in a press release. "We cannot be deceived by our seemingly large network of talented and successful female founders, investors, board members and innovators. The data show us these women remain a lonely minority in the technology world."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Staffing Technology Professionals]

Male- Vs. Female-Founded Companies

SVB found that women in the C-suites of male-founded companies tend to be:

  • Heads of human resources (25 percent).
  • Chief financial officers (22 percent).
  • Chief marketing officers (18 percent). 
Women in the C-suites of female-founded companies tend to be:

  • CEOs (47 percent).
  • Chief operating officers (26 percent). 
"If startups have women in C-level positions, they are more likely to have a CEO, operations or technical title in a female-founded company," the study states. "Women execs in male-founded companies tend to lead in HR, finance and marketing functions."

Whether founded by men or women, most startups are "actively pursuing" a diverse workforce, according to the report.

The survey also suggests that female-founded startups have more trouble with fundraising than companies established by men. Twenty-seven percent of startups founded by women reported that the current fundraising environment is "extremely challenging," compared with 15 percent of male-founded businesses.

Dena Haritos Tsamitis, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Information Networking Institute in Pittsburgh, said SVB's findings aren't a surprise, given the recent Women in the Workplace 2016 study by and McKinsey & Co. That study found that women sat on less than 19 percent of corporate boards and that 130 men were promoted to manager for every 100 women, leaving fewer women on the path to the CEO spot and other leadership positions. That study also noted that only 1 in 5 senior executives is a woman.

"While both studies state that the majority of CEOs cite diversity as a top priority, this does not always translate into visible action," Tsamitis said. "As director of the Information Networking Institute at Carnegie Mellon, I am committed to educating future tech leaders who will work toward creating an equal playing field for all in the tech industry."

Persistent sexism in the tech industry can have dire consequences for the U.S. economy, said Deborah Hurley, a member of the Innovation and Technology Development faculty in Brown University's Executive Master in Science & Technology Leadership program in Rhode Island.

"The small size of the representation and the treatment of women in the U.S. high-tech industries is similar to places like Saudi Arabia and Japan, which have women educated to the same level as men but do not use these resources for the benefit of their economies, to their economic detriment," Hurley said. "In addition to being an individual-level and company-level problem, the situation of women in high-tech industries impacts the national economy."
Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia.

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