How Women in Tech Leadership Hold Each Other Back

Rob Enderle

A few weeks back, I was at a retreat made up of a bunch of handpicked influencers, all of whom had one common goal: We wanted to change the world (preferably for the better). While the group was better than 90 percent white guys, there were a number of women who really wanted us to focus on the glass ceiling and how women are typically underpaid for similar jobs. A few were pretty outspoken about how unfair things were and what jerks men, as a group, were. Once again, the group they were complaining to was made up of 90 percent white guys.

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I was struck by the fact that they were asking for help from folks they were clearly insulting. Not only were they being very rude about it, there was no evidence of a quid pro quo. In short, they wanted our help but it seemed clear that were we to give it, they would use their new-found power to dance on our collective graves. In other words, it wasn’t actually the best motivational speech for an audience made up of men. But this had me thinking of the two companies that stood out as championing women in business, BlackBerry and Dell, and how little support either company seems to get from women as a result of these efforts.

I’ve actually studied in depth two women CEOs. Both seemed to avoid any connection to promoting women in business, even though both had to be promoted into their roles with a lot of support from men. And most recently, you can look at Marissa Mayer at Yahoo; her first major employee-focused action was to eliminate telecommuting, an issue particularly important to single-parent homes, which are predominantly headed by women. She basically was making the statement that women who couldn’t clearly prioritize Yahoo over their own kids had no business in the company. This has been termed “competitive mothering,” and it isn’t good for women. I don’t know a lot of guys who would take that position, yet I’ve found that women, once they get into power, tend to not support other women in power.

Example: Carly Fiorina

While the first time I observed this behavior was likely when I was at IBM under Ellen Hancock, it didn’t really become obvious to me until I studied Carly Fiorina. HP back then was relatively unique; it had hired an external executive who not only didn’t come from the same industry, she wasn’t an engineer, and she wasn’t a man. Now Fiorina did position a woman as number two and her most avid supporter was a woman CMO named Allison Johnson. One of her first interviews was by a powerful woman reporter who wanted to tell the story of a powerful woman running HP. Fiorina refused, not wanting that story told, even though it clearly would help other women, and the relationship with all reporters soured partially as a result.

When Fiorina got into trouble, the board took away her dual CEO/Chairman of the Board standing and put Patty Dunn, another accomplished woman, in as Chairman. You would think the result would be a woman support group that assured everyone’s survival, but that clearly wasn’t the case.

Fiorina and Dunn didn’t seem to get along at all. Fiorina seemed to believe Dunn was more of a competitor for her job (Dunn really wasn’t because she was dealing with cancer that later, likely partially because of the HP stress, took her life). Allison Johnson actually moved against Fiorina by her own admission, going to the HP board when she resigned to work for Apple and pointing out Fiorina as the problem to be solved, directly contributing to her firing. Two catastrophic Fiorina decisions, to license the Apple iPod and replace the HP founder’s pictures with Fiorina’s (this alienated most of the HP employees, turning them against Fiorina), were later connected back to Allison Johnson. Ironically, Dunn lost her job as well, as a result of a coup by Fiorina’s replacement, Mark Hurd, who appeared to be trying to prove a man could be an even bigger jerk. He did one hell of a job in that regard and easily eclipsed Fiorina as HP’s most-hated CEO in history.

In the postmortem of Fiorina’s firing, it was clear that at the core of Fiorina’s failure was her inability to support the people around her, particularly the women. She also couldn’t get along with the folks she reported to, particularly the female chairman.

My working theory is that women who reach the top spots recognize that they are often promoted to assure diversity and that this, rather than driving them together as a team, trains them to look at each other as rivals. They then increasingly work against those of the same gender in order to assure their own advancement.

Dell and BlackBerry

Three powerful companies are run by women: HP, IBM and Yahoo. However, if you want to look at the companies that have the strongest efforts supporting women-run businesses and initiatives advancing women into executive jobs, they are BlackBerry and Dell, both run by men. BlackBerry has Alicia Keys, one of the most powerful celebrities, supporting promoting woman executives and the role as Global Creative Director, based on the BlackBerry Live keynote, is largely tied back to her efforts to promote women. It is interesting to note that 56 percent of BlackBerry’s users are women, but this percentage largely precedes Keys’ placement in the job.

Dell actually went down a slightly different path and hired a serial entrepreneur, Ingrid Vanderveldt, as the entrepreneur-in-residence. She is almost entirely focused on supporting and growing small woman-owned and run businesses. I watched last year as women, one after the other, stood up and praised the work Ingrid and Dell had done to help them get started and say that their businesses likely wouldn’t have survived without that help.

Yet when I see this covered, I don’t see any real benefit to either company. It isn’t as if women are flocking to either brand as a result of these pioneering efforts.

Wrapping Up: Supporting Women in Business

Supporting companies that support the initiatives you believe in should be at least one of the criteria in selecting a vendor. It is fascinating to me that the tech companies run by women generally aren’t at the forefront of driving women into business and that the women executives that run them often seem to treat other women executives as rivals rather than sisters. While I really doubt it is wise to insult men while asking them for help, I don’t think it any smarter for a woman CEO not to take the lead in supporting other women in executive roles and instead be an even more capable barrier to the advancement of women in business.

In the end, selecting a vendor should be partially done by looking at what that vendor does to support what you care about. And, if you are a woman, supporting a vendor that aggressively supports an important women’s issue would seem to be in your best interest. So why don’t you? Answering and fixing that will likely go a long way to ensuring more women are successful as executives and CEOs. Because, man or woman, if there is a clear economic incentive to changing a bad behavior, they are more likely to make that change. Just saying.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 20, 2013 8:20 AM Riazul Hasan Riazul Hasan  says:
Mr. Rib Enderle: Great article and very well written highlighting root causes of conflict among women. Corporate politics exist everywhere involving men and women. Could any contribute to your blog? Having been an IT professional for over three decades - I have several stories to narrate. Riaz Hasan Reply
May 20, 2013 10:05 PM day_dree day_dree  says:
I think the analysis and supporting facts are thin and the conclusions are giant leaps. "The women executives ... seem to treat other women executives as rivals rather than sisters." Carly resigned in 2005, surely there's more to the fact base to consider...? Women can't be competitive, they have to be sisters? I'm a woman executive at IBM. I don't expect Ginni to host a support group, I expect her to (and I) cultivate, educate, promote, and reward women on a merit system that is completely unfettered by limiting assumptions and biases based on gender (or any other social bias for that matter). I look at what percentage of women occupy the top 25% of the management ladder for evidence of fair play: how many VPs, GMs, SVPs, heads of business units are women. The percentage tells the story of whether there is a ladder up for performers regardless of their gender -- and the IBM story is a great one on this front. I hardly think Ginni is in competition with any of us, but rather she is driving a performance-driven company that expects and fosters value creation for customers and shareholders ... period. I don't want a free ride, I want a fair ride. Reply

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