It’s time for tech companies to fix the gender imbalance

October 16, 2013

Technology companies have few — if any — women on their boards.  They say this is because there is only a small pool of technical women to recruit from.

Twitter, which recently filed for an IPO, has no women on its board of directors.  As do most Silicon Valley companies, it has an almost all-male management team and an all-male investor group.  And it is unapologetic.

In response to criticism I made about the lack of diversity on the Twitter board, CEO Dick Costolo chose not to address the issue.  Instead, he launched a personal attack on me and tweeted that “the whole thing has to be about more than checking a box & saying ‘we did it!’ ”

Corporate America is more professional but makes the same excuses: There are not enough qualified women and it wants to do more than check a box.  This is how CEOs account for the dearth of women on boards — as of 2012, only 14 percent of the S&P 1500.

Is there really a shortage of women who are qualified to be on technology-company boards?  It depends on how you define the qualifications.  If the requirement is that board members must have strong technical skills, then yes, there surely is a shortage.  The pipeline is very weak, and fewer women than men are entering computer science.

This criterion is however disingenuous or dishonest.  Look at the composition of the Twitter board as an example.  As Connie Guglielmo reported in Forbes:

Of the 12 “executive officers and directors” called out as “Management” in Twitter’s Oct. 3 S-1 filing, only two—Costolo and Christopher Fry, senior vice president of engineering—have technical degrees.  The rest of Twitter’s executive officers and directors as of Aug. 31, listed on page 118 of the filing, have undergraduate degrees in a myriad of subjects, from French literature to East Asian Studies to Philosophy, while co-founders Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, who serve on Twitter’s board, are college dropouts.  There are also five M.B.A. degrees in the mix, and the law degree obtained by the general counsel, the one woman on Twitter’s top leadership team (again, as defined by the executives and advisors it’s called out in the filing).

After all, board meetings are not hackathons, in which geeks come together to write computer code.  They are about corporate governance and protecting the interests of shareholders.  Board members do not need technical skills, other than the ability to operate a laptop or smartphone.  The role of the board is to review the performance of the chief executive, monitor finances and budgets, approve compensation, and help set corporate strategy.  Having an understanding of the industry is very helpful, but not every board member needs to be an expert.

There are thousands of women who can do this.

Twitter is the presently most talked about company in the technology industry—because of its upcoming IPO. It needs to be an example for the industry. And it needs to do what is best for its shareholders.  Instead of hiring one woman and checking a box, it should have half of its board be women, as well as include people of color. This will better reflect the demographic of its user base and could lead to much a better financial outcome for its investors. Companies with the highest proportions of female board directors, for example, outperform those with the lowest proportions by 53 percent. They have a 42 percent higher return on sales and 66 percent higher returns on invested capital.

Below are my suggestions for women that I personally know who can do an exceptional job not only on the board of Twitter but also other boards. I’ve categorized them by their areas of expertise, starting with women who can guide business strategy and take on any boys club. They will surely pave the way for the next female board member — who can provide a broader technology vision and new marketing perspectives. Corporate governance and ethics are a critical component of any board. In each category, I have suggested four very knowledgeable and worldly women. Finally, the company also needs the perspective of the next generation. The vast majority of its users are under 35 years of age.   Having some from that age group on the board could only help.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.
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