They say that behind every great man there's a great woman. It sounds like an outmoded sentiment of stodgy sexists, but even in the 21st-century tech world, it is still true.
At the biggest and most recognizable Internet companies—Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo!, and startup du jour Instagram—there are a few powerful women in the C-suites, but very few are at the head of the boardroom table.
Not only are many women at the top of Internet startups adjacent to the powerful men; they are also "tech-adjacent." That is how Leslie Bradshaw sees herself. "I facilitate the tech, I make sure the money is coming in and that everyone is paid. But I myself am not deep into the code." Bradshaw, 29, is president and COO of JESS3, a data visualization firm whose clients include C-SPAN and Google.
And as Anneke Jong pointed out on women's career site the Daily Muse, only a minority of the women on recent "women in technology" lists seem to have coding skills. Many of the most powerful women in tech, like former TechCrunch CEO Heather Harde and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, rose to their positions not from the world of Java and HTML but from business roles.
One key reason for the dearth of women is simple: education. According to the Department of Education, just 18 percent of 2008-2009 college graduates in computer and information sciences and support services were women. Especially at a time when women are the majority on college campuses, that is an abysmally low figure.
Teasing out exactly why women aren't going into computers is difficult, but societal factors doubtless play a significant role.
"I had no idea what a career in programming would mean, but I really, really wish I had kept it up," says Kathryn Minshew, 26, the CEO and founder of the Daily Muse, who as a teenager wrote notes to her best friend in programming language C++. She says that gendered ideas about what to do with that knowledge helped steer her away from a career in coding.
"I feel like people were constantly giving my brother messages around computers and that world of possibility. For me, that message was about how I could save the world."
Whatever the reason for the disparity, a quick survey of the top of the heap suggests that computer know-how has led the way to fame and fortune on the Internet. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page—all of these men started their wildly popular sites with some serious technical knowledge.
However, at the same time that women remain underrepresented in computers, they are making strides in business. According to the Department of Education, women received 45.4 percent of master's degrees in business in 2009, up from 39.8 percent in 1999 and 33.6 percent in 1989.
That growth, as well as the ubiquity of technology as a tool, could lead to a new breed of Internet CEOs. Marci Harris, the 37-year-old CEO of POPVOX, a site that helps people connect with their representatives in Congress, explains:
"I think the next wave is that you will see a lot of diverse people with great ideas, with ways that technology solves problems, who found companies and outsource [to] find engineering talents they need," she says.
Should that wave indeed boost more women to the top, though, the world that they will find may at times resemble a nerdy, 21st-century version of Mad Men in its sexist undertones. Bradshaw, for example, describes tech conferences like JSConf as places where the sexist atmosphere can be daunting.
"The dominant [element] next to the piece of technology is some woman who's scantily clad," says Bradshaw. "It creates a hostile environment, and it also doesn't reflect back onto the female audience that 'You can be a founder'—but 'You can be an object.'"
It happens in more subtle ways, however, especially in networking situations. Minshew illustrates with what she calls the "two smart women phenomenon": "It's when some very well-meaning guy introduces two women he knows merely because they're smart and female, with no other overlap."
Corrected on 4/16/2012: In an earlier version of this article, JESS3's Leslie Bradshaw mischaracterized DjangoCon as having a sexist atmosphere. She intended to refer to JSConf.