“I didn’t feel that being a female should hold me back from moving up in my career and so I’ve always approached situations that way.” — Act-On Software CEO Kate Johnson (Photo by Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)
As Jive Software’s vice president for finance, Kate Johnson would sit for hours on end in meetings with a succession of prospective investors – pitching them on her company and answering the most detailed questions on its operations and outlook.
Whole days would go by in which Johnson would see just one or two other women pass through the Silicon Valley boardroom where Jive was hosting the investors. The men who came in seemed not to see her, either.
“On more than one occasion I would be bypassed, to even shake my hand,” recalls Johnson. Investors assumed she was an administrative assistant, or junior staffer, and would walk right by her to greet her male colleagues.
The behavior disturbed Johnson but it didn’t discourage her. She would extend her hand anyway, make sure they knew who she was, and compel them to treat her as an equal during the ensuing conversation.
“I would just force the issue,” Johnson said. “It’s their ignorance. Not mine.”
Four years later Johnson is now chief executive of one of Portland’s biggest tech companies, a marketing automation firm called Act-On Software. She’s one of several women running some of Oregon’s most prominent and best-funded tech businesses, including Puppet, Portland’s biggest young tech company, and Ampere, an ambitious chip company run by former Intel President Renée James.
It’s a pronounced reversal after decades when the number of women running big Silicon Forest businesses was rarely much above zero.
“I can’t think of a single one,” said longtime Oregon startup investor Debi Coleman. She’s overstating things a bit – Coleman herself was CEO of Oregon circuit board manufacturer Merix Corp. from 1994 to 1999, having previously served as chief financial officer of Apple.
But if Coleman wasn’t unique, she was close to it. A 1990 history of the Silicon Forest by Portland State historians Gordon Dodds and Craig Wollner mentioned zero female technologists in 193 pages and just nine women overall. (Most of those nine were wives of Oregon executives or politicians.)
Puppet, Portland: CEO Yvonne Wassenaar; automation software for managing data centers and other large computing networks.
Ruby Receptionists, Portland: CEO Jill Nelson; Outsourced receptionist services for small businesses and professional firms.
Outside Oregon, prominent female tech CEOs include Ginni Rometty, IBM’s chief, and Safra Catz, who shares the title of CEO at Oracle with Mark Hurd. Longtime Intel Oregon executive Aicha Evans is now CEO of a prominent Silicon Valley autonomous vehicle startup, Zoox.
Women didn’t get hired as CEOs because boards of directors and venture capital firms were overwhelmingly male, Coleman said, and wouldn’t consider candidates who didn’t conform to a predetermined stereotype.
While women remain underrepresented in technical roles, Oregon has a number of top-notch female executives in human resources, finance and other roles within the state’s tech companies. That may help explain the number of women running the state’s tech companies today.
In the past, though, Coleman said she didn’t see many paths for women to advance. And those that were available weren’t ideal.
“Most of my opportunities came when the guy in front of me failed,” Coleman said. “You’re not the first choice but you’re there when they need you.”
One step forward
The proliferation of female CEOs comes despite an utter lack of progress in efforts to improve the gender balance across Oregon tech. Census data shows fewer than 1 in 3 Oregon tech workers is female. Startlingly, that’s a far smaller share of Oregon’s technology workforce than women occupied 25 years ago.
That may be surprising but it isn’t unusual. Historians have noted that women played key roles in the early days of computing. They were supplanted in recent years by men who had more exposure to computers as children and as emerging gender biases made software in particular a stereotypically male profession.
The history may be similar in Oregon, perhaps augmented by the range of jobs at Tektronix – the state’s largest tech employer for most of the Silicon Forest’s history. Tek was a highly diversified research and manufacturing company, producing everything from oscilloscopes to color printers to office furniture. In its heyday, it had women in a variety of roles.
That said, Tek’s attitudes toward female leadership were by no means progressive. The corporate newspaper, Tek Talk, published an anonymous letter in 1956 noting that women weren’t receiving comparable pay and were being given subordinate positions to men.
“Am I planning a career in the wrong company? I hope not,” the author wrote, according to research published in Marshall Lee’s authorized history of the company. Lee says there was a “very high number of women working at Tektronix at the time,” and though he does not quantify that number he says “more and more women came” in subsequent years.
Tektronix opted not to publish a corporate response to the letter. In the ensuing discussion, one supervisor wrote that he “hates to see talent wasted, even if female,” according to Lee’s research, but “could not recall offhand any woman supervisor in the plant who was outstanding.”
Among the women running Silicon Forest companies today, there is hope that their success in breaking through the glass ceiling may at last promote diversification across Oregon tech.
“Those kind of changes don’t happen from the bottom up. They have to come from the top down,” said Karla Friede, CEO of Beaverton financial technology company Nvoicepay. She sold the business earlier this month to a Georgia company called Fleetcor.
Tech is among Oregon’s biggest industries and may be its most economically vital. And it’s still overwhelmingly run by men.
Silicon Forest employers say they want to diversify but progress has been slow. Women say companies have failed to develop a pipeline for women to advance and haven’t made diversity a genuine priority.
The lack of diversity in the tech industry is by no means unique to Oregon. Big companies like Google, Apple, Intel and others remain dominated by men – and largely by white men.
That means women and other underrepresented groups have been disproportionately excluded from some of the nation’s best-paying jobs. In Oregon, female tech workers earn about 69 cents for each dollar men make.
The issue is especially acute among the executive ranks – and not just in tech.
Among 18 of the largest publicly traded companies in Oregon and Southwest Washington, just two have female CEOs – Portland General Electric and Schnitzer Steel Industries. Among the Fortune 500 nationally, just 25 have female CEOs.
In addition, women working in Oregon’s tech industry lament that many companies have yet to improve their workplaces, long plagued by harassment, stereotyping and sexist behavior.
“It feels like people leave cultures when they feel like they’re not welcome,” said Friede, adding that an unfriendly environment can chase women out before they ever have a chance to advance. “Women vote with their feet.”
Continuing the move forward
Yet Fried said she has seen a genuine interest in a more diverse workforce among technology investors and managers. She said change is happening slowly, accelerating as women move into leadership roles and begin implementing changes – and conveying their own experiences to younger entrepreneurs.
So perhaps it makes sense that women would leapfrog into the executive ranks even before making headway within the engineering and developer roles that make up the bulk of many tech companies’ jobs.
“If you had to pick one thing that I think matters most it’s having diversity at the top levels,” said Yvonne Wassenaar, a veteran technology executive hired in January as CEO of Portland’s biggest young tech company, Puppet.
She said that if prospective employees see a board of directors and executive team dominated by men, women perceive that as a signal advancement would be difficult. And when they see diverse leadership, Wassenaar said they see that as a sign a company is open to diversifying.
“As a female CEO I guarantee you it will be easier to attract female talent,” she said.
During her career, Wassenaar said she’s had many male colleagues and friends who proved excellent coworkers. Even among the supportive ones, though, she said colleagues would sometimes make an off-putting comment – oblivious to how it sounded to her.
“There are a lot of behaviors that people have that they don’t realize are coming across as microaggressions or exclusions,” Wassenaar said. Among those men, though, many were receptive to suggestions on how to do better.
“What makes for an inclusive environment is the ability to listen, and be wrong, and the desire to learn,” she said.
Indeed, Portland State University management professor Meredith Woehler said companies need a broad commitment to diversity if they’re really going to change. One CEO can’t do it alone.
Woehler said academic research shows that a single executive from an underrepresented group, or even a handful of them, may continue to be seen as outliers within a company. She said change is most likely to come when the entire company shares a commitment to diversify.
“Any executive has a lot of power,” Woehler said, “but really there’s not a whole lot they can accomplish if those around them are opposed.”
Megan Bigelow, president, co-founder of PDX Women in Tech, said the recent progress is a good sign but she isn’t sure it’s indicative of a more open local tech community.
“I do not believe that a women-led company is a silver bullet, as it largely depends on the company culture, hiring and recruiting practices that thrive under her leadership,” Bigelow said in an email. “It is also important that, as a community, we do not expect women CEOs to carry the entire burden, as it should be equitably shared amongst all leaders in the community.”
Kate Johnson, Act-On’s CEO, said women thinking about the future of their careers shouldn’t rule anything out.
“I didn’t feel that being a female should hold me back from moving up in my career and so I’ve always approached situations that way,” Johnson said.
Though it’s still much harder for women to reach the executive ranks, she said it’s a problem that has more visibility today. The obstacles are real, but Johnson said women shouldn’t let them get in her head and hold them back.
“You can’t change everything at once,” she said. “So you’ve got to focus on what you can change.”