Strategy

Non-stop and competitive: One woman’s experience in technology’s fast-lane

Angela Priestley /

Silicon Valley’s been getting a significant amount of attention recently due to the small number of women who have taken up chief executive roles, including Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and HP’s Meg Whitman.

But that doesn’t mean women at the senior executive and vice president level are not also making their mark amongst the Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages of the world, and even earning guest appearance spots on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.

Janice Chaffin, the Group President of Consumer Business at Symantec does not have the media profile of someone like Mayer, but sitting atop a division that includes the Norton security brand and earns more than $2.1 billion in sales, she’s one of Silicon Valley’s most successful divisional presidents, up there with the Californian town’s most powerful women.

In Australia last week to touch base with staff and customers, Women’s Agenda had the opportunity for a short chat with Chaffin on women in technology.

Cracking the glass ceiling in Silicon Valley’s significant when you consider the still very small portion of women graduating with computer science and engineering degrees. Women account for just 18% of those graduating with computer and information-science bachelor degrees in the US, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. 

So what does it take to get there? “High tech is a fast moving industry, so fast that you have to thrive,” says Chaffin, noting that the competitive nature of the industry requires constant, agile attention. “Then there’s the personal side of things. It takes a lot to do that at work … so you have to think about what that means for your personal choices at home, and how you balance the two.”

The list of women at Silicon Valley’s senior executive level is slowly growing, says Chaffin, but those women are not climbing their way up with engineering or development experience. Rather, they’re entering the top echelons with strong backgrounds in marketing, sales, business development, human resources and management.

Chaffin graduated from UCLA with an MBA and starting her technology career at Hewlett-Packard three decades ago as a programmer before moving into marketing and general management. Early on she says she knew she wanted in on the technology sector, and was particularly keen on HP which at the time was only just launching desk top computers and printers in the research and business space. She told Forbes recently that she started with programming because she “needed to prove some credibility”. 

Chaffin was in for the long-haul when she started with HP, and was firmly set on moving into management.

“I went to HP because I felt that as a company, I could experience many types of jobs within the one company, without ever having to worry about getting different health insurance!” she tells Women’s Agenda. She lost count of the number of different functions and roles she served in during her 21 years with the company. She left there as a vice president and general manager.

Chaffin was appointed the first chief marketing officer of Symantec before taking up the GP role in 2006. Since then, she’s overseen an expansion of the Norton security brand that has included the major acquisition of competitor PC Tools, and the creation of the world’s largest consumer cloud-based back up, Norton Data Services.

Her board at Symantec is all male and Chaffin is the only female product executive. She’s one of four women in the broader senior executive team.

Although women like Chaffin are using their marketing and sales backgrounds to take some of Silicon Valley’s most high profile decision-making roles, the continued dearth of women graduating with development qualifications is concerning.

And Chaffin can’t quite figure out what the problem is. “We think that it should be growing. I don’t think anybody’s put their finger on why it’s not growing,” she says.

Clair Cain Miller of The New York Times recently described technology’s lack of women as being due to the industry’s “girl-repelling image problem”, Silicon Valley’s “dealmaking boys’ clubs” and the small number of female role models.

Chaffin agrees there have been few women in leadership for younger women to look up to. That may be shifting. Of the 19 Fortune 500 companies led by women, three of them in the technology space appointed female CEOs in the last 18 months: Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer (2012), IBM’s Virgina Rometty (2011) and HP’s Meg Whitman.

It’s a significant adjustment at the top and some of these women are economy household names, but more work on the pipeline’s needed.

Chaffin’s adamant that women need to be encouraged to explore opportunities in maths and science in high school, and to also so be supported at the start-up and entrepreneurial level. She’s worked with the board of UCLA to explore options for promoting technology careers in schools, and is also a passionate supporter of female start-ups through her Illuminate Ventures advisery work, a venture capital group led by women.

Raising two teenage daughters, Chaffin has little time for much outside of family and work but doesn’t mind taking a couple of weeks out every year to go windsurfing. She was named one of the “Top 100 Women in Corporate America” by Women 3.0 Magazine and is also a director of gaming designer and manufacturer, International Game Technology, which has a female CEO, Patti Hart. She says she’s has had plenty of mentors throughout her career, but reiterates that it’s not somebody elses responsibility to take charge of how you progress.

As for Celebrity Apprentice appearances, it was only a minor role. But on prime time TV, it was a stint that showed even once in the executive leadership team, personal marketing skills will always come in handy.

This story first appeared on Firebrand Ideas Ignition. Women’s Agenda is Private Media’s new site for professional women. To check out the site and sign up for the FREE daily newsletter, click here.

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Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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