Tuesday 6 December 2016

Adrian Weckler: We need more tech chiefs to smash glass ceiling

Published 20/11/2016 | 02:30

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: Reuters
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: Reuters

There is one exception to the barrier that still prevails when it comes to top jobs for women in tech companies: the chief financial officer.

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Look at many of the world's top tech firms and you'll find a woman in charge of the billions.

There's Microsoft's Amy Hood and Google's Ruth Porat, representing two of the three most valuable companies in the world (with a joint market value of almost €1 trillion).

Then there's HP's Catherine Lesjak, Cisco's Kelly Kramer, Xerox's Kathryn Mikells and Alibaba's Maggie Wu.

And don't forget Robyn Denholm (Juniper Networks), Ann Ziegler (CDW) and Karen McLoughlin (Cognizant Technology). It's a genuinely expansive list.

What is it about the all-important cfo role where glass ceilings seem to be merely single-glazed?

It's not like the cfo is an artificial plateau, either, as it often turns out to be for women who reach the top of a tech giant's marketing or operations divisions. Safra Catz was appointed Oracle's cfo in 2011. When Larry Ellison stepped down, she was picked to be joint ceo (alongside Mark Hurd).

Then there is the case of Sarah Friar, from Tyrone, the cfo of Square, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey's high-profile credit card processing company that has around €1.5bn in annual revenue and a market cap of just under €4bn.

As Dorsey is consumed with trying to fix Twitter's multitude of financial and operational challenges, Friar is basically running Square right now.

And she's doing one hell of a job. Last year, Friar led Square to the seemingly impossible: a successful public flotation in what were the most difficult market conditions any tech company has faced in 15 years.

This has not gone unnoticed in business circles, with forums from the Financial Times to tech trade magazines lauding her leadership skills. What makes it better is that Friar's role as a chief financial officer is an unconventional one. Having originally trained as an engineer, she has responsibility for some of the company's product builders and engineers - a key divisional bridge into the heart of a tech company's hierarchy of kudos.

In Ireland, female cfos in tech, telecoms or media firms are present, but not as high profile.

If you look, you'll find a few, like Ruth Fletcher in CurrencyFair (a promising company with over €20m in funding) or Sinead Bryan, cfo for Vodafone Ireland.

But indigenous Irish tech firms often aren't big enough to have a cfo and that leaves our tech firms potentially worse off for pathways for women into senior positions at small to medium-sized tech firms.

The figures on female leadership in indigenous Irish tech companies are pretty stark. Research I did earlier this year into 88 VC-funded Irish tech firms showed that under 3pc (3pc!) of tech venture capital in Ireland goes to companies led by women, with the average individual investment amounting to 10 times less than for male-run firms.

And while almost one in eight VC-funded tech firms here has a female co-founder, only one in 20 has a female chief executive. Furthermore, the average investment for a VC-funded tech firm with a female founder last year was €911,000, while the average for a company with a female chief executive was €591,000. This compares to €5.46m per investment for companies founded and run by men during the same period.

Of 88 companies to receive venture capital funding in Ireland last year, 12 list a woman as a co-founder while just four list a female chief executive.

What this means is worse levels of female participation in top executive roles. According to the figures last year, two-thirds of the tech companies founded or co-founded by women also choose a male chief executive to run the business.

So there's definitely a problem.

Curiously, the multinational sector has proven to be a much more successful route for Irish women to make it into senior leadership positions than indigenous firms.

Google has just appointed its first female head of site, Fionnuala Meehan, at the Dublin-based office facility, which employs over 5,000 people. Meanwhile, Dell's country manager for Ireland is Niamh Townsend while LinkedIn's overall Irish boss is Sharon McCooey.

IT giant Lenovo has had a female country manager, Fiona O'Brien, for a decade, while Paypal's high profile Irish director is Louise Phelan.

Microsoft has long had estimable female leadership credentials here with Cathriona Hallahan as country manager and others such as Clare Dillon leading developer relations.

Even Apple could be said to have its most senior Irish role in female hands, with Cork-based Cathy Kearney acting as its vice president of European operations and overall head of the company's 6,000-strong Cork base.

And that's before one takes into account telecom set-ups, such as Vodafone's Anne O'Leary.

But as senior as those roles are, they aren't quite the same as outright chief executive positions.

So here's to the cfos and here's to Sarah Friar, our great hope for the first Irish ceo of a major tech company. Let's hope we see a speedier path from the wallet-keeper to the top job.

Sunday Indo Business

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