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Salesforce extends focus on women in tech with Women's Leadership Summit at Dreamforce

For the first time in the history of its Dreamforce conference, Salesforce had a Women's Leadership Summit. Here's why women in tech is an important issue for the company's founders.

Image: Conner Forrest/TechRepublic

In order to address the issues facing women in the industry, many top tech companies are changing aspects of their hiring practices and renewing their focus on supporting women in the field.

To ramp up its initiatives for women in tech, Salesforce launched its first-ever Women's Leadership Summit on Thursday, September 17 at its 2015 Dreamforce conference. The one-day program included many sessions and presentations from key women leaders in technology.

Sitting down with Re/Code executive editor Kara Swisher, Salesforce co-founders Marc Benioff and Parker Harris spoke in a fireside chat about the summit and why the company wants to empower more women in leadership roles.

Swisher opened the talk noting the blatant irony of two men discussing women's issues, but noted that it tends to represent the current status of the industry. Harris said that he still doesn't fully understand all the aspects of the issues, but both men said it was something they felt was important to innovation in the company.

Salesforce was founded 16 and a half years ago, and Benioff said that he wished he could rewind and make women's initiatives a priority at the start of the company. Before founding the company, Benioff was at Oracle and he admitted that issue of women in tech just wasn't a part of the narrative when he was there. His big focus at the time, he said, was philanthropy.

The problem now, with the company at the scale that it is, is that a focus on women in tech requires a greater transformation to be done properly. Benioff said that it requires the CEO to "take it personally" and it needs to be "part of the CEO's agenda." He then encouraged smaller companies and startups to write it into the DNA of their companies from day one.

Swisher said that the issue is often considered a "third rail" issue and many company leaders seem scared to address it. She asked Harris why that seems to be the case. Harris said that a lot of what Salesforce does is a response to, and an amplification of what their employees want.

As a developer and engineer, Harris said that it is in his nature to build something when he encounters a problem. To address the issue at Salesforce he developed a program to build up women in leadership within the company.

"We need more women executives at Salesforce," Harris said.

One of the issues that comes to light during conferences like Dreamforce are the lack of women leaders in keynote presentations. Swisher said that there didn't seem to be many "technical" women in the Dreamforce presentations to which Benioff quickly responded saying that the opposite was true.

When building out their keynote presentations, Benioff said, having technical women employees on stage during the presentations was a key consideration to the conference. However, that isn't always the case for tech conferences.

When asked why it's not a priority, Benioff said he thinks it's because the industry is still relatively new and it was a industry that was started by men. He called out the recent Apple keynote, saying there are many great women at Apple and more of them should have been on stage. Tech companies should "set the example," he said.

To change the industry as a whole, Harris said that we need more women in software engineering so the culture doesn't become a boys club. And, while Salesforce is trying to lead by example, he said, they cannot solve the whole problem for the rest of the world.

The conversation then briefly shifted to the issues of other forms of diversity and what can be done to help with those. Harris said that there is still a lot to be done on that front.

"I can't sit up here and say I have it all figured out," Harris said.

Benioff agreed, saying the the issue of diversity is systemic. However, while overall diversity is extremely important, Benioff said, women in tech is the major issue they are focusing on right now.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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