Male-dominated Silicon Valley has long faced criticism over gender diversity issues, but in Washington the tech industry’s most prominent groups are increasingly led by women.
For women in the industry, those changes are a promising trend and long overdue — and come at a critical time for tech businesses.
Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, recalled an incident where members of a corporate board were urged to wear golf shirts for an annual photograph.
“I was like, ‘guess what, I don’t wear golf shirts,’ ” she said. “Every time we do the board picture, I’m in the middle because we do the rose among the thorns. Come on guys, you all have daughters. You need to stop this.”
Bloomfield first started as a lobbyist at NTCA 30 years ago, when she said it was a “barren wasteland for women in the tech industry.”
“I will say that there were numerous meetings where I would catch myself unconsciously looking around the table, thinking how few women were actually seated at the table,” she added.
She left after 20 years for stints at Qwest and Verizon, before returning as CEO nine years ago. Bloomfield says there is more to be done to improve representation.
“I would have told you that 30 years forward, you would see probably more equal representation around the table. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of terrific women in the industry, but proportionally, it is still fewer than I would have thought,” she said.
Many of the industry’s other top groups also boast women in key positions. In 2013, Victoria Espinel became CEO of BSA | The Software Alliance, which represents enterprise software companies and startups. She was joined in 2014 by Linda Moore, who became CEO of TechNet, a network of tech industry executives, and Meredith Baker, who became CEO of CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry.
Moore was deputy political director for former President Clinton, as well as a presidential campaign aide before TechNet. Espinel was former President Obama’s adviser on intellectual property and the first chief trade negotiator for intellectual property and innovation at the United States Trade Representative office.
“There were several of us [women] who were appointed heads of tech associations at the same time. We all noticed it and were excited about it,” Moore said. “We get together from time to time and support each other, share best practices and really cheer each other on when we have successes.”
“Definitely there’s been some progress and definitely there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Espinel said about women in tech.
Baker first started at CTIA 20 years ago as a lobbyist. She left for stints on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, the Commerce Department, NBC Universal and on the Federal Communications Commission.
“I think that everything gets better for women every year and there’s always more to be done,” she said.
Baker said the changes at lobbying groups reflect the importance of tech in everyday life.
“It’s not necessarily a men, women thing but wireless is now essential to our life. It’s no longer just the technical issues that we’re dealing with, it’s no longer a luxury item, it’s a necessity, so it’s core to everything that we do,” she said.
For Bloomfield, there are unique challenges in the rural broadband industry.
“[There’s] a traditional mindset that telephone companies have to be run by somebody who actually understands how to drive a backhoe, which is not true,” she said. “Second is, rural companies and rural demographics can be a little bit more challenging for female leadership because there are few role models.”
She said female members still often feel out of place at meetings outside D.C.
“They never know whether they should hang out with their fellow general managers who are guys by the bar or they should hang out around the cocktail tables with the spouses who are sharing recipes,” she added.
Expanding the ranks of women in these groups is also a full-time effort.
NTCA’s corporate board has 12 men on it, with one woman joining in the fall.
“Every time I have a board or trustee position open, I have a women listserv and I send it out to basically say, ‘this is going out, I really hope you all look at this,’ ” Bloomfield said.
Moore touted the progress within her group’s member companies. She noted that when Cisco’s CEO Chuck Robbins took over in 2015, he established a leadership team that was more than half women and minorities.
“You find that to be pretty common across our membership companies,” Moore said. “I definitely make a mental note every time I see a woman that I’ve gotten to know who has founded her own company, who has gotten acquired or what have you.”
TechNet’s staff is over 50 percent female and the leadership team includes Latino, African American and LGBT people.
When Espinel took over at BSA, the board had only three women on it. Now, eight of the 20 board members are women.
“Which just means the tech companies are hiring the very best people that are out there,” she said.
BSA and CTIA’s staffs are both over 50 percent female.
Baker said member companies have also been instrumental in improving diversity.
“I really appreciate it that Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, they’re all committed not only to working to make this city more diverse but also to make their companies more diverse,” she said.
For the tech industry’s voices in Washington, it is a crucial time. Silicon Valley is facing a host of challenges from both Democrats and Republicans over the industry’s market power and impact on consumers, as well as how web companies moderate content. Companies are also scrambling to deal with the fallout from President Trump’s trade policies and to secure investments in broadband and tech education.
Even as they juggle those issues, industry heads are keeping up their push for efforts on diversity.
Espinel and her team are urging lawmakers to pass legislation to boost STEM education and expand opportunities in tech, citing the Equality Act, Building Blocks of STEM Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, to name a few.
Under her leadership, BSA started the D.C. branch of Girls Who Code. Espinel also noted a program to give military spouses software training and a program that targets women who have been out of the workforce.
“There’s just such an untapped market there of incredibly smart, talented women, that are out of the workforce for some time,” she said.
Bloomfield and her team are also pushing for more STEM development.
“I do think it comes from people kicking open doors and saying, ‘come on in, check out the tires, let’s run an internship program, let’s run an app challenge. Let’s figure out ways to make it less daunting,’ ” she said.
Moore is a champion of the Building Blocks of STEM Act, as well as legislation for more science education funding.
“We champion so many things, all these initiatives, all these bills, all these pieces of legislation that are trying to change the STEM pipeline. I feel like that’s a huge goal that not just I have but all members of the TechNet team have,” she said.