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Women at the Top: 3 Female CEOs on the Industry Gender Imbalance

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There’s a scene in the HBO series Silicon Valley—Michelle Munson can rattle off the exact episode: season two, episode four—that cuts to the heart of the problem women in technology face. The guys running Pied Piper, the startup at the center of the series, know that hiring a woman would be good for their company, but they don’t want to hire a woman simply because she’s a woman. One of them accidentally insults a female job candidate by pointing out that her gender is an asset, and that they’d like to have a woman working there. “I’m not a ‘woman engineer,’ ” she says, making air quotes. “I’m an engineer.”

Michelle MunsonFor Munson (right), who's an engineer, as well as the CEO and co-founder of high-speed file transfer specialist Aspera (an IBM company), the scene felt familiar. She’s used to having people compliment her, perhaps at conferences after she’s given a talk, praising her intelligence. It makes her wonder if they would have given the same compliment to a man.

Startups and Starting Out

In the past years, there’s been a lot of discussion in the press about how few women are majoring in STEM fields and entering the workforce in related professions. Attend any online video-related conference and it’s clear that men greatly outnumber women. The management teams of most streaming companies are hardly gender-balanced either. How have the few women who have managed to navigate this environment to the top of the ladder done so? And what can be done to create a fairer workplace in the future?

Streaming Media spoke to three female CEOs to learn their thoughts on the industry, and to ask what they’ve had to face that their male counterparts haven’t.

Rachel PayneRachel Payne (left) is the CEO of media technology company FEM Inc. A serial entrepreneur, she’s currently on her fifth startup in which she was either on the founding team or got in early. She loves the startup community and remembers that in the beginning, it was highly meritocratic.

“If you were a woman who was interested in tech, your only barrier was to be skilled and have the experience—not necessarily even work experience, because it was still relatively nascent when I began my career,” she says. She held early jobs with IDG, eBay, and Hotwire, offices that all had a strong female presence. But the barriers have changed, she finds, and companies have become more homogenized. That has a big impact on startups.

“Over time, what you find is that a lot of the companies that continue to get funded and are founded tend to be very homogeneous in nature,” Payne says. “The lack of diversity at the most senior levels means that there’s a self-perpetuating cycle that like invests in like. If you don’t fit that pattern, it’s a lot harder to get investment capital, even if you have a track record, even if you have the expertise, the education. It’s a significant set of barriers, actually.”

For Payne, the diversity problem that tech companies face can be traced back to that funding. Women in the United States start companies at 1.5 times the average rate (according to American Express Open), but fewer than 5 percent of equity capital-funded ventures have women on their executive teams (according to the Diana Project), notes an article in Fast Company.

“When men are the ones who get funded ... they tend to fund their friends. The majority of their friends happen to be male, [so] they’re investing in their image,” Payne says. “It just creates a very strong self-perpetuating cycle of capital flowing to a very elite group. It’s hard to break that cycle when they don’t institutionally diversify better.”

Muriel De LathouwerMuriel De Lathouwer (right), managing director and CEO of broadcast technology company EVS, isn’t sure what’s causing the gender imbalance in today’s tech companies, but it’s something she’s used to. Growing up with five brothers, she’s accustomed to being in the minority. That continued when she studied nuclear engineering in Brussels and started her career at Anderson Consulting. Whether at home or in the office, she says she was held to the same high standards as her male counterparts and never felt unwelcome attention or discouragement. Nonetheless, she’d like to see the gender imbalance disappear.

“It’s a pity that we don’t have female engineers because if I look at the experience of the female engineers I met during my studies, a lot of them were extremely bright and extremely successful,” De Lathouwer says. “You need to first have females going into more technical studies. If you have more starting the studies, you’re going to have more graduates and therefore more opportunity to hire females. I’ve always been attracted by technology, but it’s probably a mix of culture, education, and attractiveness of the subject for females.”

Michelle Munson credits a female electrical engineering professor in college with helping her find her future path. This was in 1996, and that professor was the only one in the department clued in to the emerging World Wide Web. She asked the class to write a report using the web, and the experience was eye-opening.

“I remember the day in the lab that I was sitting there with a Netscape browser thinking ‘This could change the whole world.’ That moment is what caused me to decide I really need to get more into software,” Munson says.

That event prompted Munson to study computer science in graduate school. While the culture wasn’t unfriendly, she found that she took a different approach to the subject than her male peers did.

“One of the trickiest things for me was getting over the realization my male colleagues liked to tinker,” she says. “I really wanted to make something, and they were fascinated figuring out, just tinkering on with the operating system.”

The culture was focused on self-discovery, on letting those tinkerers find things out for themselves. She says it’s frustrating to female students who want clear documentation on the purpose of a given item.

Munson’s first jobs were with application-level networking startups created by Berkeley alumni. Those companies didn’t last, but Munson credits them with giving her decades’ worth of experience in the 5 years before she started her own company. Her experience pointed to a clear gap in content-based delivery, which led to the formation of Aspera. She and a partner started the company in 2004.

“I knew the field well and I had confidence in the other founder and myself, and it turned out to be right,” Munson says. “As far as the woman CEO question, I really didn’t ever think about that in terms of becoming a CEO or starting a company. One thing I did very much think about and was very aware of was I never would have been given the opportunity I gave myself starting my company had I not gone out and done it on my own.”

Climbing the Ladder

One thing all three CEOs agree on is that once they’re in the working world, men and women climb the corporate ladder differently. It’s due partly to how they perceive their own skills, and partly to how others perceive them.

It’s something that De Lathouwer has thought about a lot. She never aspired to be a CEO and didn’t consider herself qualified even when the opportunity arose.

“I never ever considered myself as being a potential candidate for the CEO position,” De Lathouwer says. “And why? I had not been CEO before. I had been part of the executive committee, but not CEO.”

At that point her experience was with telecoms, but not broadcast companies, so she didn’t think she was qualified and wouldn’t have applied. It was only when other people approached her and told her to consider the opening that she began to consider it. When she looked at the CVs of her mostly male competitors, she thought they were being overzealous, and noted that many of them had less experience than she did.

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