The smart business of diversity

Carly Fiorina on women in IT

Carly Fiorina served as CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company. After she was ousted, along with a $21 million exit package, Fiorina did what a lot of us would do if we had millions of dollars in the bank and some time on our hands: She wrote a book. In Tough Choices, published in October, Fiorina talks about rising to the top of a male-dominated culture. Fiorina spoke with InfoWorld correspondent Carmen Nobel for our upcoming feature on the issues women face in IT.

InfoWorld: According to a recent joint study by Catalyst, a woman is more likely to reach a level No. 1 or No. 2 position at a company if she has been mentored by a woman. Do you feel that women leaders have a responsibility to act as mentors to other women in a company? And did you feel pressure to do so in your career?

Fiorina: I think women need role models to show them what’s possible. I saw examples of successful women early on in my career and that gave me a sense of possibilities. But I also think men have a responsibility. A leader’s job is to see possibility in people.

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Carly

IW: If you had to give one piece of advice to women who are entering a male-dominated field, what would it be?

CF: Seek out people who will take a chance on you; they’re there. Don’t carry other people’s prejudices as your burden. Don’t sell your soul in the process. First of all, you have to be yourself. People are most effective when they bring all of themselves to a challenge. A woman has to bring who she is to a job. You can’t end up making choices that deny the uniqueness of who you are. You can’t make choices that rob you of happiness. Smart companies will find ways of making those choices less difficult because diversity is a leading indicator of a company’s success.

IW: Women leaders -- and you’re among them -- are often criticized if they don’t make a point of being a mentor to other women. On the other hand, if they acknowledge the issues that women face in the field, they’re criticized for “playing the gender card.” How do you strike that balance?

CF: A great company is a meritocracy. A great company focuses on diversity because it makes business sense. It’s not about playing the gender card, it’s about saying, “Look, the thing that makes a company go is talent. … therefore it’s in a company’s interest to get the best talent. We’re going to measure whether we are valuing diversity, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the smart business thing to do.”

It’s wonderful when women think diversity is their responsibility, but if it’s just women helping other women it’s often because they think it’s the right thing to do. But when men and women are focusing on hiring women, then it’s about talent, then it’s about broadening the talent pool. All of my experience tells me that if we focus on talent, women are going to rise to the top.

IW: Why do you think women are still in the vast minority in the field of IT?

CF: People are more comfortable with people who are like them, so it’s hard in a male-dominated field for people to accommodate difference. I think we need practice. I think people have to accept that diversity is a business imperative and treat it like a business imperative, and people need to be willing to be a little uncomfortable.

IW: Shortly after you took the helm at HP, I found myself in a conference room full of men who were snickering over a doctored picture of you. The picture pissed me off, but I didn’t say anything at the time because I was just trying to fit in. I wondered what you would have said in my situation.

CF: I think there is a time when sometimes a sense of humor is required. You can’t take everything too seriously and you can’t get a chip on your shoulder. On the other hand, I do think it’s true that in group situations women will be too quiet. [At HP,] if I was in a group of people and women were being too quiet, I would ask someone who was being quiet, “What do you think?” Third, I think there is no question that sometimes people need to stand up for something they believe in. Maybe you would have felt better if you said something was bullshit -- not to defend me, but for yourself. If someone chooses to take a stand, that’s always a risk.

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