When Hewlett-Packard of Palo Alto, California, discovered that quilters were using its ink-jet printers to transfer patterns onto cloth, the company decided to capitalize on the trend. In 2002, HP introduced a line of custom quilting software at $24.95 each.
A few years ago, an idea like that might not have gotten much of a hearing in the male-dominated, nerdy world of high tech. But things have been changing, particularly at companies like HP, which is considered a high-tech leader in recruiting and retaining women.
With more women in its workforce, HP tends to pick up on ideas it once might have missed, including those with a decidedly feminine slant like quilting software. And because the company has a significant number of women in management, those kinds of ideas are more likely to be taken seriously.
It’s about the customers
The quilting software is an example of what can happen when a high-tech company gets serious about recruiting and retaining women. The pursuit of tech women is not simply a matter of gaining social acceptance; it is an attempt to cash in on demographic trends.
"We want to make sure that from a company perspective, we are prepared to meet and change with the changing demographics of the workforce," says Debby McIsaac, HP’s director of diversity, inclusion and work-life learning. "The number of women who are business owners is the fastest-growing segment. Our customers are going to be led by and owned by women."
Recognition of that has increased competition among high-tech firms for the limited number of female engineers and women with tech-savvy business backgrounds. But HP has proved to be particularly adept at recruiting women and adding them to management. "HP has one of the better track records in terms of women in senior leadership positions," says Kara Helander, vice president of the western region for Catalyst, the women’s management research and advisory group.
HP today counts six women on its 14-member senior management team. That’s 40 percent of its top-level management. By comparison, statistics from Catalyst indicate that 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers are women, with the total dropping to 11 percent for high-tech companies. Similarly, 12.4 percent of Fortune 500 corporate boards are women, with the total dropping to 9 percent in the high-tech sector, according to Catalyst. At HP, three of nine board members are women--one-third of the board.
Counting the number of women in the tech workforce isn’t quite as simple. Telle Whitney, president of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, says the percentage of women in tech jobs is a "closely guarded secret. They just don’t want to share it." Most estimates put the overall average in the tech industry at about 20 percent, Whitney says. HP boasts that women make up 32 percent of its workforce.
Do they look like me?
How does HP manage to land so many women and move them into management--particularly scarce female engineering-school graduates? Part of it is simply that success sells. HP has been actively recruiting women for years. As a result, it can now brag about the number of women in senior positions. Cathy Lyons, senior vice president of business imaging and printing, says that the strongest card HP has in recruiting and retaining women these days is its track record. "I think the thing that really appeals to women is whether or not they feel like they will be able to make a contribution, how much of an impact they will be afforded, and the kind of promotional opportunities they have," Lyons says.
Helander agrees that HP gets an image boost on the recruiting trail from its current roster of female managers. Female job candidates shopping high-tech companies are likely to ask themselves, "If I look at senior leadership, do I see anyone who looks like me?"
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the top-ranked female in the high-tech industry running the company. HP chairman and CEOCarly Fiorina is regarded as a tech superstar among women in university business and engineering programs. "I knew who she was when I was in graduate school in Rochester," says April Slayden, a software engineer who joined HP Labs in Palo Alto two years ago after graduation.
Fiorina’s presence, combined with the company’s well-known brand, was enough to get Slayden interested in working for HP. And while the chance to work in a research environment helped persuade her to join the company, she also sensed that HP stood for more than simple business results.
Helping people--with a business benefit
In its recruiting of women, HP stresses its social responsibility (a part of the company’s longhistory), both in the United States and internationally. Since joining the company, Slayden says, she has volunteered in HP tech camps--summer programs run by the company in which groups of middle-school girls are given a chance to interact with HP female employees and undertake science projects. The camps are an opportunity for HP to encourage young potential female engineers, and they also help convince employees like Slayden to stick with the company.
"It is very important for women to feel that what they are doing is not only the latest and greatest but also important," Slayden says. "In picking somewhere to work, it was important for me not only that I believed in a company but also that it reached out to younger age groups."
Slayden’s search for something extra beyond salary and career advancement in her job hunt is fairly typical of women and sets them apart from their male counterparts, according to A. Richard Newton, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. He says male and female students take a different approach to engineering and technology. "Men are much more attracted to technology just for the sake of technology," Newton says. "Women in general are less attracted to the technology for the sake of technology and more for what it can do to help--to help people, organizations."
By undertaking projects on that front and then promoting the work it does--projects like its e-inclusion initiative, which works to improve computer usage in underdeveloped communities--HP appeals directly to the interests of female job candidates.
Those projects are typically not pure philanthropy. The e-inclusion project, for instance, involves some donations of equipment and services with the understanding that more equipment and services will be purchased later, potentially opening new future markets to HP. But the side benefit is that those projects increase HP’s appeal among women.
More return on equity
HP isn’t alone in showing strong gains in the representation of women in its ranks. IBM has been working at it probably longer than any other high-tech company. It has been honored by Catalyst three times, in 1987, 1989 and 2002. In 2003, the Society of Women Engineers named Nicholas Donofrio, an IBM senior vice president, as its SWE Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award winner for his efforts to advance women in engineering, science and technology. At IBM, 17 percent of management posts are held by women, and 5 of its 50 senior fellows (the most senior technology positions in the company) are women.
What IBM and HP both recognize is that adding women employees and managers makes economic sense. Another Catalyst study backs that up. In analyzing the companies that make up the Fortune 500, Catalyst found that companies with the highest representation of women in top management positions delivered 35.1 percent more return on equity and 34 percent more total return to shareholders than companies with the lowest representation.
Given that kind of incentive, it might seem odd that tech companies have not been more aggressive in adding women. The problem is that the tech industry and science courses of study remain male bastions, with characteristics that turn women off. It will take years of work to make internal operations more women-friendly, and years more to convince female job candidates that a tech company--or even a tech career--is a good choice for a career woman.
"There is still too much of a perception in grade school and at the high-school level that computers are for boys," says Margaret Ashida, director of corporate university relations for IBM. "They’re for geeks; they’re not cool. We’ve come so far, and yet it is the same issues."