Driving to a presentation on female CEOs in tech, I had one thought: Are we still discussing this? Still? In 2008? But of course we are...

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Driving to a presentation on female CEOs in tech, I had one thought: Are we still discussing this? Still? In 2008?

But of course we are. Because after years of talking about female CEOs in tech, there still aren’t many. Quick. Name 10. Meg Whitman doesn’t count anymore. Neither does Carly Fiorina.

It’s a depressing topic made more depressing by the turnout for the panel discussion at the Red Herring North America conference in San Jose. About 10 people showed up — seven women and three guys — to hear the three panelists.

Maybe many thought: What are you going to say? Once you get past the surveys that indicate women hold a single-digit percentage of tech company CEO jobs and the fact that women are enrolling in electrical engineering and computer science courses at rates much lower then men, then what?

After you talk about how the tech culture lives by a macho code that can be hostile to families or any life outside the cubicle, where do you go?

Penny Herscher goes to the future. She’s chief executive of FirstRain, a Foster City, Calif., company that designs digital research tools for big-time investors.

War stories

Herscher has been working in or running technology companies for more than 25 years, so she knows what it’s like to be the odd woman out. Yes, she has war stories.

So do Miriam Tuerk, CEO of Infobright, a Canadian analytic software company; and Leila Boujnane, CEO of Idee, a Canadian company selling image search tools. And they shared their stories at the conference.

There was the time years ago when Herscher and her male chief operating officer sat down with a team of journalists. The editor there asked a question. Herscher answered. He asked another. Herscher answered.

“No. No. Stop,” the reporter finally said. “I don’t think you understand. We’re here to talk to the executives.”

Boujnane recalls visiting a company to meet with executives. A man entered the conference room and said: “We will wait for your boss before we get started.”

“I simply said, ‘We might be waiting a long time.’ “

Tuerk said she hired a man to round out her all-female executive team for fear an all-female team would never get funding.

Dreary stuff. But Herscher sees reasons for optimism.

While women’s low enrollment in tech fields is worrisome, Herscher says, female CEOs do not have to come from a company’s tech ranks.

And more important, she says, the atmosphere and attitudes in Silicon Valley companies are far different from when she started out. Women now are more readily accepted as equals, more quickly seen as executive material.

“It’s getting better,” Herscher says, “but we’re not done.”

Pushing change

You don’t change the world overnight. And you don’t change it by standing still.

Herscher is on the board of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. The organization, named for the visionary Digital Equipment Corp. computer scientist who founded it, encourages women to thrive in technology careers.

Herscher says organizations and individuals need to connect with middle-school and high-school girls to fight the notion that math is nerdy and that tech careers belong to the boys.

“I think we change things by getting involved,” Herscher says, “by leading by example.”

And by being visible — sponsoring robotics clubs, speaking at schools.

“Some of it,” she says, “is you get isolated as a woman when you’re a geek.”

In 2005, Herscher hosted a table of middle school girls at the Anita Borg Institute’s Women of Vision dinner. The room was filled with hundreds of women in love with technology.

“The women who spoke,” she says, “were all geeks, and they were funny.”

They were smart and human and successful and provided a night the young students aren’t likely to forget.

And so it begins.

Mike Cassidy is

a technology columnist for

the San Jose Mercury News.