High-tech women are doing it for themselves

For the second time in its 87-year history, IBM Corp. has added a woman to its executive committee -- highlighting the progress women are making in the technology field while at the same time illustrating how far they have to go.

For the second time in its 87-year history, IBM Corp. has added a woman to its executive committee -- highlighting the progress women are making in the technology field while at the same time illustrating how far they have to go.

Abby Kohnstamm was tapped as the senior vice president of corporate marketing this week, making her the second woman, after Ellen Hancock, to be among the top corporate ranks of the Armonk, N.Y.-based company. Kohnstamm, who's been with the company for four years, is credited with revamping the company's brand image through promotions, including the Olympic campaign. Hancock left the company in 1995, and after brief stints at Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL) and National Semiconductor Corp. (NYSE:NSM), now heads Exodus Communications Inc. (Nasdaq:EXDS)



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By joining the IBM (NYSE:IBM) executive team, Kohnstamm becomes a member of an elite group of women who have climbed to the top ranks of the technology industry. Only 3 percent of the highest corporate officers in all Fortune 500 companies are women, according to the 1997 Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers. But that's an increase from 2.4 percent in 1996.

'[Women] have the wherewithal and expertise to start their own business."
-- Amy Millman, National Women's Business Council

And while women hold 10 percent of all corporate offices in Fortune 500 companies, they hold only 8 percent of all corporate positions in the computers and office equipment sector, which includes IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq:SUNW) and Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq:DELL).

What's more, they hold only 4 percent in the traditionally male-dominated computer and data services sector -- which includes companies such as Unisys Corp. (NYSE:UIS) and First Data Corp. (NYSE:FDC) -- and only 5 percent in the electronics and semiconductor segments.

More women starting tech ventures
But some industry watchers said those statistics aren't as grim as they seem because they tell only a small part of the story of women in technology. Amy Millman, executive director of the National Women's Business Council, said more women than ever before are encouraged to start their own technology firms instead of just rising through the corporate ranks.

"It's not the old story that they were discriminated against, so they left," Millman said. "The new story is they have the wherewithal and expertise to start their own business." Such moves catapulted high-profile technology pioneers like Kim Polese and Carol Bartz into their leadership positions.

Polese jumped from the Java team at Sun in 1996 to start software maker Marimba. She now holds the position of CEO. Six years ago, Bartz also left Sun to become CEO of Autodesk Inc. (Nasdaq:ADSK), the fourth-largest PC software maker in the world.

Not enough women promoted
Another entrepreneur, Janese Swanson, left Broderbund Software Inc. (Nasdaq:BROD) -- the giant maker of educational and gaming software maker -- and now heads Girl Tech, which focuses on technology products for girls. The fact that she didn't see a lot of women in senior positions at technology firms was part of the motivation for her move from Broderbund six years ago.

"There wasn't much room at the top," Swanson said. "I didn't see a whole lot of women being promoted."

Being at a startup also has allowed her to create the products that are close to her heart: software for girls that's not pink or poofy. Swanson said big firms focusing solely on the bottom line didn't see a market for such products. "The view was that if you make software for boys, girls will buy it, but if you make software for girls, boys won't buy it. So you make software for boys."

The next hurdle: Venture funding
Still, getting funding for startup ventures isn't easy. Women who jump from larger firms can seek support from their former employer -- as Polese did. But venture funding for women-owned firms is scarce. Studies show that only about 2 percent of all venture funding for technology firms goes to companies run by women.

NWBC's Millman said that's the next big hurdle for women executives in technology. "In the past they were discouraged," Millman said. "Now the main barrier is finding the money to make it work."