News that two women will succeed Steven Sinofsky, the former head of Microsoft's Windows unit who unexpectedly left the company this week, is creating as much buzz as the departure itself.
Julie Larson-Green, who will head the Windows hardware and software division, and Tami Reller, who will remain chief financial officer of the Windows unit, will report directly to CEO Steve Ballmer.
Advocates for women in technology were thrilled about the announcement, not only because female executives were tapped to replace Sinofsky, but also because they will lead the Windows division -- the flagship product for Microsoft.
“I don’t even know how to explain how amazing and exciting that is to every woman who works in tech right now and probably in business across the board,” said Michele Weisblatt, executive vice president for Women in Technology International.
“It’s not just about (the company) putting them over a division, it’s about them leading the flagship product – the money-making, revenue piece for Microsoft. It’s just phenomenal.”
Women hold just a quarter of computing and mathematical jobs in the U.S., according to a 2008 report on women in technology from Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization.
Microsoft's move is important because of its visibility as a technology and corporate giant, so girls in school who see women like Larson-Green and Reller move into such high-profile roles will carry that with them for a lifetime, said Jenny Slade, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
That, in turn, could potentially fuel a pipeline of women to fill leadership roles at technology companies. Some of the most well-known firms already have female executives at their helms, including the high-profile hiring of Marissa Mayer as the president and CEO of Yahoo! this summer and the longtime presence of Sheryl Sandberg as Facebook's chief operating officer.
It’s a sign that companies are recognizing the positive impact of women at the senior executive levels and on corporate boards, said Phyllis Kolmus, president-elect of Women in Technology.
“They bring collaboration and kind of a broader view,” Kolmus said. “What if it had been Lehman Brothers and Sisters? There might have been a very different outcome… women just bring a somewhat different viewpoint, and companies are reaping the benefits.”
But sometimes when women are promoted to executive positions, there’s a concern about a phenomenon called the “glass cliff.” That's when companies that have a product or service that’s in trouble hire a woman to provide a different leadership style and switch course, Slade said. Such jobs are associated with a greater risk of failure and criticism, British researchers have found.
However, Slade said there are no signs of that in Microsoft's recent move.
“I wouldn’t consider this a case of the glass cliff,” Slade said.“This is a case where you have two incredibly accomplished women… who just happened to be positioned very close to the top of the ladder and were ready to step into these roles.”
“That says something about Microsoft, something quite complimentary, that these women are even in a position to take over a role like this,” she added.
Meanwhile, the career outlook for both men and women in technology is bright. Jobs in this field are some of the fastest growing, with 1.4 million computer-specialist openings expected in the U.S. work force by 2020, Slade said.
Technology companies also are increasingly offering flex time and job sharing, Kolmus said, which help women stay in the work force while having children.
Women, in turn, are more active in reaching out to make sure they get the mentoring and the kind of contacts that they need to rise through the ranks, she added.
It all adds up to a winning formula.
“It really is a testament to a lot of the Fortune 500 companies creating these programs and these internal tracks to help develop their women and help them grow,” Weisblatt said.