The Male Geek Is Not the Only Image of Success in the Tech World

By Laura Sydell

The image of the Silicon Valley innovation in the media—the young entrepreneur, computer programmer or engineer—is often a white male geek, the kind of guy made famous by The Social Network, a dramatic account of the founding of Facebook by Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg. In the film, women are decorative, fashionable and pretty, getting drunk at parties and looking to snare—not be—the next billionaire.

But the truth is that it was a woman named Sheryl Sandberg who transformed Facebook from a hugely popular website into an extremely profitable company. Sandberg met Zuckerberg while she was at Google. There she was part of the team that developed Google’s highly successful advertising models for AdWords and AdSense, the engines behind all those little text ads you see on a search page or certain news sites.

Zuckerberg lured Sandberg—who actually did graduate from Harvard, with an MBA—over to Facebook in 2008. At the time, the media were harping on Facebook’s failure to come up with a business model. In her role as chief operating officer, Sandberg found the secret to monetizing Facebook by selling ads without turning off customers. When the company goes public, as is expected later this year, its worth is anticipated to be pegged at $80 to $100 billion.

Sheryl Sandberg

Meg Whitman, another Harvard MBA, transformed the online auction site eBay from a $4 million company to an $8 billion one. Whitman joined eBay as its CEO in 1998, when it had 30 employees. By the time she left in 2008, the company had more than 15,000. After an unsuccessful run for governor of California, Whitman became chief executive of Hewlett-Packard in 2011.

Some of the big engineering breakthroughs in the tech sector have also been driven by women. Diane Greene, who has a master’s in computer science from UC Berkeley, cofounded VMware, whose software has been crucial to the development of cloud computing. She was leading the company when it was acquired in 2004 for more than $600 million. In January, Google appointed Greene to its board of directors.

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer, one of the first 20 employees at Google, was also its first woman engineer. Today, she presides over a division that creates products for the highly competitive mobile market, in which the company’s Android operating system battles for dominance with Apple and Microsoft.

In fact, despite the image that it’s geeky guys doing the inventing, if you use the Internet at all, you probably use a product developed by a woman. Today, most of the video you watch on the Internet is animated by a technology called Flash, and it was software programmer Sarah Allen who led the team that developed it.

A major force behind Palm, which created the market for handheld computers, was Donna Dubinsky. At Facebook, director of engineering Jocelyn Goldfein is happy to point out that many of the site’s most popular products were engineered by women. Jing Chen co-built News Feed, the front page where you see your friends’ posts in real time. Yuan Tian was behind Photo Viewer, the latest update to Facebook’s photo-sharing feature. Beluga cofounder Lucy Zhang took her talents to Facebook when her company was acquired by the social-networking giant and built Messenger, a product popular with those who want to chat live with friends on their laptops or their mobile phones.

But maybe the greatest irony of the supposed male dominance in programming is that the field itself was envisioned by a woman. Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and daughter of the poet Lord Byron, has often been referred to as the “prophet of the computer age.” In 1843, she published a paper in which she postulated that numbers could instruct a machine to do more than calculations and perhaps could tell it to play music. Another tech pioneer was Austrian American movie star Hedy Lamarr, known for her sultry on-screen presence during Hollywood’s Golden Age in the ’40s. She co-invented spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, innovations central to much of today’s wireless communications.

But today, the numbers of women going into tech are declining. In the 1980s, women made up nearly 40 percent of computer science majors. In 2008, fewer than 18 percent were women. Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has one of the nation’s most prestigious computer science programs. Last year only 11 percent of its graduates were women, down from 16 percent in 2001. It’s a fact that women are lagging behind men in one of the few areas of the economy where there’s growth in well-paying jobs.

Can this trend be reversed? To read about how schools, nonprofits and tech companies are working to increase the ranks of women in technology, read the rest of this story in the Winter 2012 issue of Ms.

Excerpted from “Women of the Valley” by Laura Sydell, Ms., Winter 2012. All rights reserved.

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Photos of Sandberg, Mayer and Lovelace from Wikimedia Commons.


Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for the NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship.