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Missing questions show how far women in tech still must go

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Attendees at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last week were given a rare treat when the agenda included personal appearances by three of the most powerful female executives in the technology world – Meg Whitman, Sheryl Sandberg, and Marissa Mayer. But while Salesforce deserves credit for bringing in women leaders, their questioning at the hands of company CEO Marc Benioff unintentionally highlighted how much ground female executives still have to make up in the technology sector.

First, there was Whitman on Tuesday. Sitting in the front row during the Benioff keynote, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard was mainly there to promote a joint venture between the two companies. It was a quick appearance. George Zimmer (founder of the Men’s Warehouse) would get more time with Benioff the next day.

Then there was Yahoo’s Mayer on Tuesday afternoon. This was no three minute conversation in the audience, but rather a 45 minute “chat” with Benioff on the vast conference hall’s center stage.

Yahoo’s improving stock price and increased profile in the news have made Mayer’s work the subject of much interest over the past year. Some obvious questions might have focused on Yahoo’s recent decision to encrypt its user data and avoid NSA spying or how the company’s $1.1 billion dollar acquisition of Tumblr was working out. Perhaps even a mild question about the controversial employee performance rating system which Mayer has implemented could elicit some informative dialogue.

Not a chance. “My goal is to show what a phenomenal new leader we have in this industry,” Benioff declared, who then proceeded to prompt replies from Mayer about her “deep dedication to the employees” and whether she views herself as the “Chief Design Officer.” It all culminated in a question about how she balances her work life with family. Looking back at Benioff’s interview with Virgin’s Richard Branson last year, somehow this was a question that never came up.

Mayer did provide some helpful insight into the culture she is building at Yahoo, starting with a recent decision to share her board presentation with the entire company and to even let employees contribute to writing a portion of it each quarter.

On Wednesday, it was Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s turn on the stage with Benioff. Again, there was a potential to direct a few “meaty” questions at the woman who continues to be rumored as the person who is really running the social media giant. So, Sheryl, are you truly interested in acquiring Snapchat and why? Or, given your CEO’s high profile push for immigration reform, what are your feelings now that the Senate has declared any action on the issue dead for this year?

Alas, this was not a discussion the Salesforce CEO wanted to have. He opened with the question, “So, did you always know you were going to be one of the most successful women in the word?” and things pretty much meandered down that saccharine path after that.

Sandberg confessed to not having the self-confidence as other men and pressed for an open dialogue among CEOs over why women have not made more progress in corporate America in the past ten years. At one point, Sandberg talked about how a more equal division of household chores between husband and wife was leading to happier marriages and yes, more sex.

It took nearly three days of the conference, but we finally hit ground zero: two leading technology executives talking onstage in front of a huge crowd about “laundry sex.” Even Benioff seemed taken aback at the course of this conversation with Sandberg, shuffling his notes and musing about all the questions about Facebook he had planned to ask her. “But I’m not,” said the Salesforce leader and the groans from press row could be heard all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Benioff deserves a lot of credit for using his well-attended annual conference as a stage for philanthropy (there was a huge benefit concert at AT&T Park for a children’s hospital on Tuesday night), humanitarian aid (focused this year on rebuilding Haiti), and women. This takes guts in an industry that falls short far too often on all three of these important areas.

Yet one can’t help but wonder when the day will come when female corporate executives will take the stage at a high profile tech conference and just answer direct questions about their business, like any other corporate leader, rather than spending nearly an hour talking about the unique positions they hold. When Twitter’s IPO hit the news earlier this month, it was revealed that their board of directors did not include a single woman. Perhaps Benioff will invite Twitter’s CEO to next year’s conference and open the “chat” with a simple question: why?

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