Carly Fiorina, former HP CEO, says women leaders heavily scrutinized

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has a solution to ease a lot of the world’s problems, whether it’s poverty, food shortages, war or deficiencies in public education: Get more women involved.

Allow more women to address youth violence, teach them how to plant food and give them businesses to run, she said, and “things will get better.”

“Women are the most underutilized resource in the world. That’s an economic fact,” she said.

Why is that? Because a woman’s first and highest ambition is to improve life for her children and future generations, Fiorina said.

Her comments during a Commonwealth Club event in Palo Alto on Thursday evening were more rooted in her vision for national economic reform than any sort of feminist philosophy. But they come at a particularly interesting time for Silicon Valley.

It’s been a stormy few weeks for women in tech, from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s ban on telecommuting, which sparked a firestorm that spread far beyond Silicon Valley, to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial “Lean In” manifesto, and a vulgar Twitter attack on a female tech developer that played out Thursday. The controversies have reignited old conversations about women working in the male-heavy tech industry and a woman’s rights and responsibilities in the workplace.

Fiorina knows better than most what it’s like to be a woman leader in the valley facing intense scrutiny. She was the chairman and CEO of HP from 1999 to 2005, becoming the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. She was named Fortune’s Most Powerful Woman in Business for six consecutive years. She was also hugely controversial and widely criticized for her handling of the lackluster Compaq acquisition, which led to huge losses for HP, and awarding herself huge bonuses while ruining employee morale.

When asked by an audience member, Fiorina commended Facebook’s Sandberg for championing women’s advancement in her book “Lean In,” but also somewhat sidestepped a question about Mayer’s ban on working from home. Fiorina said that face-to-face interaction can be necessary for creativity and productivity, but women in particular — and especially mothers — benefit from flexible work environments. She added that while “all hell broke loose” over Mayer, the announcement one week later that Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly would also ban his staff from working from home triggered a muted reaction and far fewer headlines.

“It’s a shame that every time a woman does something it gets put in the context of her gender,” Fiorina said.

She also criticized Twitter as a platform for elected officials to attack their opponents and disseminate misleading messages to fool the public for their own political agenda. Limiting people and ideas to 140 characters can be dangerous, she said.

The timing of her comments was poignant for the Silicon Valley tech world, and in particular for one San Francisco developer named Adria Richards. Fiorina didn’t know it at the time, but Richards became the target of an online attack after she outed men on Twitter for making what she described as inappropriate sexual comments at a Santa Clara technology conference last weekend. One of the men was fired. The tweets directed at Richards on Thursday referenced rape, mutilation and murder.

She was also fired this week from her job with the Colorado-based email service SendGrid. CEO Jim Franklin wrote in a blog that while “SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behavior, whenever and wherever it occurs,” in Richards’ case, “we do not support was how she reported the conduct.”

Fiorina said in an interview after the Commonwealth Club event that she had been in meetings all day and hadn’t heard about the incident.

She added that people will say shocking things on Twitter: “They will be rude and cruel in a way they wouldn’t be face to face.”

 

 

Heather Somerville Heather Somerville (237 Posts)

Heather Somerville is a business reporter covering venture capital and startups for the Bay Area News Group.