While Carly Fiorina was lauded as one of the most powerful women in business when she took the reins at Hewlett-Packard in 1999, she was never widely known as someone who opened doors for other women to succeed. Fiorina is remembered instead for her autocratic style and for presiding over a tumultuous period of boardroom clashes and cuts.

But several former colleagues say Fiorina did, in fact, work quietly during her leadership in the early 2000s to boost the careers of women in a high-tech office culture that had long favored men.

The picture that emerged from more than a dozen interviews with former high-level executives is complex, one of a corporate leader who didn’t want to be dismissed for pushing “women’s issues” but fought to level the playing field in Silicon Valley.

“If the first thing a woman does is come in with a ‘female agenda,’ a lot of people will flip out and say, ‘That’s just what I feared,’” said Susan Bowick, who worked at H-P from 1977 to 2004, most recently as the global head of human resources. “Shortly after she laid out the business agenda, she and I started working together on how to get change to occur on a variety of issues – like promoting people based on performance, not because they were next in line.”

Management at the time was mostly male and white. Fiorina wondered if talent in different packaging was overlooked. So, she requested data from across departments — the company started releasing gender-specific numbers in 2001— to understand who stood out among more than 100,000 employees.

“She asked: What are the stats on women at different levels?” said Bowick, now retired in Colorado. “Her philosophy was: What gets measured gets done.”

One apparent result was a bump in gender diversity. From 2003 to 2005, the share of female managers at HP in the United States hopped from 36 percent to 38 percent, company reports show.

In 1999, the year Fiorina joined H-P, 27 percent of the executive officers listed in the company’s annual report were women, or six of 22. By 2004, the share had shifted to 47 percent, or 7 of 15.

The typical Fortune 500 company, by comparison, had about 22 corporate officers in 2005, according to Catalyst, which tracks gender diversity data. Women, on average, held 3.6 of these positions.

In her bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Fiorina’s focus on gender economics sets her apart in a crowded field. “A woman has a lot of potential,” Fiorina declared at a recent rally in Washington, “and when that potential is used — as the facts undeniably demonstrate — the world is a better place.”

During Wednesday night's GOP debate, though, she spent more time fielding attacks on her record at H-P. And, in fact, some former colleagues remember her harsh style more than any focus on helping others break glass ceilings.

“Carly’s focus was on numbers, a certain set of criteria she knew would be seen by the board and by stockholders,” said Jerry Cashman, a former communications executive who left H-P in 2000. “They had nothing to do with diversity and work-life.”

Fiorina was an outsider, the firm’s only chief executive never to climb an internal rung, and the first woman to hold the title. Unlike her predecessors, former staffers claim, she avoided the cafeteria. She walked everywhere with body guards. She kept her office doors closed.

Her notoriety spiked in 2002 during a merger with Compaq Computer. Critics argue the move diluted Hewlett-Packard’s star printing business at an unjustifiable cost to shareholders. Another expense was human: Some 30,000 workers lost their jobs.

Fiorina was ousted in 2005. She has never held public office, though she tried to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) in a failed 2010 Senate race. She stakes her reputation on her time at Hewlett-Packard.

Susan Burnett, the company’s former vice president of workforce development, said she reported to Fiorina during the Compaq merger.

“We overlapped,” recalls Burnett, who left HP in 2003 after 22 years at the company. “We had two of everybody. The question was: What are we going to do? If we could get all the A-players from Compaq and keep all the A-players at HP, that meant we had to say goodbye to some of your solid, heavy-lifting people.”

Top technology firms today collect gender-specific data, though findings are rarely released to the public. Google and Facebook, for example, have pledged to hire and promote more women, who hold less than a quarter of senior management roles at both companies. Twitter was both praised and mocked this month after announcing plans to grow share of female employees from 34 percent to 35 percent.

“At the end of that process, I had the best team I’d ever had in my life,” said Burnett of the Hewlett-Packard reorganization. “Brilliant ideas came from having a different group with new blood, new perspectives. Carly believed if you get a diverse team, you get better results.”

Using data to advance underrepresented groups was not a radical idea, said Debra Dunn, the former vice president of corporate affairs and global citizenship. “The issue has always been how aggressively companies move to change the data,” she said. “Carly made it more of a focus throughout the company at all levels. It’s not rocket science, but it has an effect.”

Punky Fuerstenberger, a former human relations employee under Fiorina, remembers scouring women’s magazines for female talent outside the company: Did Cosmopolitan spotlight a rising engineer? “We tried to find even more women technical people than we had,” she said. “But at that point in time, there weren't that many in the industry.”

Fiorina wanted to create them, Fuerstenberger said. She oversaw an executive development program that paired prospective superstars with top brass mentors.

If a company site wasn’t meeting performance standards, human resources would conduct a talent review at a lower level, according to Burnett’s memory. They sought talented women to train and place on a promotion track.

“Seasoned executives were assigned employees who they’d normally never hang out with,” said Burnett, now a leadership consultant in Silicon Valley. “I remember saying to a team of all-white, male executives, ‘You don’t really hang out with Indian women.’ So, they’d hang out with someone every month and realize: There’s an extraordinary talent here.”

Mei Chen, who worked in robot research at Hewlett-Packard from 2001 to 2006, recalls being dispatched to teach high school girls in the San Francisco bay area how to build computers.

“We knew it was important to have a strong, competitive workforce,” said Chen, who now teaches informatics at the University at Albany, State University of New York. “You start with education to create such a workforce, so we were guiding people from our own communities.”

Fiorina started as a secretary at a nine-person real estate firm. “One day, two men who worked there approached my desk and said: ‘We’ve been watching you and we think you can do more than type and file,” she said in June at a hotel party in Washington, D.C. “They saw potential and possibilities in me and so I came to see these things in myself.”

In 1980, Fiorina joined AT&T as a management trainee. By 1995, she ran the company’s North American operations. She next moved to Lucent Technologies, an AT&T spinoff, to work on the firm’s 1996 initial public offering, which raised $3 billion. In 1998, Fortune crowned her “the most powerful woman in American business.”

Not everyone, however, warmly welcomed the rising star to Hewlett-Packard.

Cashman, who worked at the company from 1983 to 2000, most recently in communications, said he decided to split after Fiorina arrived. He remembers spotting her at a retirement party for Lewis Platt, her predecessor.

“She had a huge frown on her face,” said Cashman, who now works at an insurance company. “She wanted nothing to do with the H-P legacy. She had the dynamic of ‘I’m not going to let these white boys tell me how to run the company. It’s mine now.’”

Platt, a widower who raised two daughters, put work-life balance in the company’s top three priorities, said Cashman, who said he helped run support programs for working parents. Fiorina, he feared, valued profits over people.

An email from a listserv of more than 20 retired HP women, forwarded to a Post reporter, reveals dislike for Fiorina and the possibility of her in the White House: “I wonder how much the country will pay her to leave,” one message said.

Susan Albert, who worked across business roles from 2001 to 2006, said she was placed in the Hewlett-Packard’s executive development program shortly after joining the company. Albert said she enjoyed the management classes, the conversations with seasoned mentors. “I appreciated the recognition,” she said, “that they should be doing something.”

She doesn’t fondly remember Fiorina, though. The chief executive, she said, seemed impersonal, obsessed with productivity at the cost of worker wellbeing. “I was no fan of Carly,” Albert said. “She just took everyone to task.”

Pat Pekary, the former managing director of Hewlett-Packard Professional Publishing, who worked at the company for 23 years, said authors would call her often to request an interview with Fiorina. The chief executive usually declined.

“They wanted to know if Carly would give them a quote about women in engineering or how women could break through the glass ceiling,” Pekary said. “The feedback that came to me was always: Carly didn’t want to be associated with women’s rights. She wanted to be seen as a strong leader, man or woman.”

Pekary, now retired in California, recalls feeling stuck after the Compaq merger. “Like our feet were in quicksand,” she said. “People became unsure of what to do. Employees at Compaq were put in positions over us. They seemed to be very ineffective.”

One day, she reported for a meeting in a conference room. There sat a telephone on an empty table. Pekary answered it. She remembers the voice on the other end of the line, the order: You have ten days to clear the building.

The layoff matched a description of Fiorina that few have disputed: Frank, calculated, unapologetic — all business.