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Despite Mayer, women still face hurdles in tech

morgueFile user mconnors

(MoneyWatch) Marissa Mayer's move to leave Google (GOOG) and take the reins at Yahoo (YHOO) seems to extend a trend of troubled technology companies turning to female executives as their "Chief Rescue Officers." Carol Bartz in 2009 was drafted to take the helm at Yahoo, while Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) last year elevated Meg Whitman from her director's seat on the board to CEO. Some well-managed industry giants, including IBM (IBM), also have recently enlisted a woman to lead.

Yet despite these high-profile management moves, questions remain about whether women face career obstacles in high-tech, especially in what some people still regard as a culture of discrimination in Silicon Valley.

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The widely respected Mayer might appear to have bucked these obstacles. She is considered a major "get" by Yahoo. But it remains open to question why she would take a job at a company that has been in serious trouble for years. One possibility is that the top job at Yahoo remains, despite the company's struggles, an important assignment, while Mayer presumably believes she can turn the Web portal around.

Yet there is another possibility: Her opportunities for advancement at Google were limited, as Kara Swisher at AllThingsD reports:

But, it was notable to many inside and outside the company that she did not get one of the key senior vice president nods at Google in a major reorg of the company under new CEO Larry Page.

"She was pretty much voted off the island, even though she was critical to its earliest successes," said one person close to the situation.

Recently, multiple sources said she had been quietly seeking an exit from the search giant, including considering several venture firms. She also recently joined the board of retail giant Walmart.

Not every executive stays on the CEO track at a company. And it's not as though Mayer was the only woman in the upper echelons of Google managers. But of the roughly 20 executives listed by Google on its management team, only three are women.

HP's Whitman, the former CEO of eBay (EBAY), originally got the top post at the online auction company when it was young and relatively small. She also had a long resume, albeit one where she bounced around a bit -- two years as vice president of strategic planning at Walt Disney (DIS), a few years at Stride Rite, then CEO of flower delivery company FTD in 1995. But as with Mayer, her entry into HP came at a difficult time for the company, which like Yahoo had churned through a series of CEOs and which reportedly was having trouble recruiting candidates for the post.

Even IBM chief Virginia Rometty, who earned one of the plum jobs in tech, is getting short shrift in a way -- a relatively short five-plus years as CEO before she turns 60, which seems to be the de facto retirement age for IBM chief executives.

One issue may have to do with such executives' educational background. Many tech companies prefer CEOs with a heavy engineering, science, or math background. Rometty, Mayer, and Bartz all have engineering degrees. Whitman studied economics, another discipline requiring math expertise. But the pool of women with such backgrounds is relatively small, with the number of female engineering graduates shrinking.

Possible bias against women at venture capital firms, which are critical to the tech infrastructure, also could be playing a role. Forget for a moment Ellen Pao's sexual discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Research suggests that even though VC-backed startups led by women tend to do better than those run by men, firms with a female CEO or founder only draw about 11 percent of VC money. Maybe such attitudes as this one by storied VC John Doerr help explain the gap:

If you look at [Amazon founder Jeffrey] Bezos or [Internet entrepreneur Marc] Andreessen, [Yahoo co-founder] David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white male nerds who've dropped out of Harvard or Stanford, and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in -- which was true of Google -- it was very easy to decide to invest.
The upshot? For women to become the first choice to run major tech corporations when times are good -- as well as bad -- attitudes will have to change in the industry and in society at large.

Image: morgueFile user mconnors

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