Gender Diversity in the Silicon Valley

David A. Bell and Dawn Belt are partners and Ron C. Llewellyn is counsel at Fenwick & West LLP. This post is based on their Fenwick memorandum. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes Politics and Gender in the Executive Suite by Alma Cohen, Moshe Hazan, and David Weiss (discussed on the Forum here).

Fenwick has released its updated study about gender diversity on boards and executive management teams of the technology and life science companies included in the Silicon Valley 150 Index and very large public companies included in the Standard & Poor’s 100 Index. [1] The Fenwick Gender Diversity Survey uses 25 years of data to provide a better picture of women’s participation at the most senior levels of public companies in Silicon Valley.

The report reviews public filings from 1996 through 2020 to analyze the gender makeup of boards, board leadership, board committees and executive management teams in the two groups, with special comparisons showing how the Top 15 largest companies in the SV 150 fare, as they are the peers of the large public companies included in the S&P 100. [2]

Executive Summary

Gender diversity in corporate leadership—and diversity in the business world more broadly—continues to drive vigorous discussion across the country, with Silicon Valley and the tech industry often at the center of heightened scrutiny. In recent years, some aspects of gender diversity saw significant gains. The S&P 500 reached a milestone of no longer having any all-male boards. In politics, the United States elected its first woman vice president, California’s own Kamala Harris, on the heels of a 2018 midterm election that ushered in a record number of women to serve in Congress. California became the first state in the U.S. to require public companies to include women and people from underrepresented communities on their corporate boards—moving the needle toward gender equity. Finally, in December 2020 Nasdaq proposed rules that would require companies listed on its exchanges to generally have at least two “diverse” directors, including at least one woman director—or explain to stockholders why they do not. Public pressure to move from the status quo continues to be spurred on by institutional investors, regulators, lawmakers, employees, customers and other stakeholders. All of these discussions are taking place amid a national focus on issues of racial and ethnic diversity.

Findings from the Fenwick Gender Diversity Survey, which looks at women’s positions in leadership based on a quarter century of public data, point to some promising trends and areas where Silicon Valley leads, mixed with some areas with room for continued improvement.

Fenwick’s gender diversity survey provides unique insight into women’s participation at the most senior levels of technology and life sciences public companies on the Fenwick – Bloomberg Law Silicon Valley 150 List (SV 150) and the large public companies of the Standard & Poor’s 100 Index (S&P 100). The report reviews public filings beginning in 1996 (the first year for which electronic filings with the SEC were broadly made in the EDGAR system) through the 2020 proxy season to analyze the gender makeup of boards, board leadership, board committees and executive management teams, in the two groups, with special comparisons showing how the 15 largest companies in the SV 150 by revenue (SV Top 15) fare. The SV Top 15 are the peers of the large public companies included in the S&P 100.

Our latest survey indicates that company size continues to matter; the bigger the company, the more diverse its leadership. Diversity numbers for the SV Top 15 are generally similar to—and in some cases exceed—those of the S&P 100.

Companies, board members and C-level executives can use this survey as a statistical benchmark for Silicon Valley leaders, as well as for comparison to the landscape of the largest public companies across the United States.

For a long time, much of the discussion about gender diversity in Silicon Valley was based on personal observation and limited data. We believe that our survey, covering more than 25 years of statistics, adds perspective and depth to these conversations about diversity that are more relevant now than ever.

Key observations from the survey include:

New California law requires women in corporate leadership.

Most companies in the SV 150 met the initial 2019 standard affecting California-based public companies set out by SB 826, which mandates inclusion of women on boards of directors.

  • Our data show that 57% of SV 150 companies will need to add women to meet the law’s increased 2021 standards.
  • Most companies in the S&P 100—all of which have boards with six or more directors—would meet the 2021 standard, with only 14% of this cohort having fewer than three women on their boards (the requirement for boards of six or more directors).
  • Combining March data from the California Secretary of State and our survey, it appears that at least 98% of SV 150 companies complied with the requirements of SB 826 in 2020.

Growth rates accelerated.

  • The representation of women on boards continued to increase between 2018 (the last year Fenwick published the gender diversity survey) and 2020 in the United States and at rates higher than in years past. The average percentage of women directors increased 8 percentage points in the SV 150 to 25.7% in 2020 and in the S&P 100 rose 4 percentage points to 28.7% (with the SV Top 15 increasing 4.5 percentage points to 30.3%).
  • In the last few years in both the S&P 100 and the SV Top 15, 100% of companies have had at least one woman director. In the SV 150 overall, the percentage of companies with at least one woman director increased 16.4 percentage points to 98%.

Fenwick Gender Diversity ScoreTM

Fenwick created the Gender Diversity Score in 2014 as a metric for assessing gender diversity overall. This composite score is based on data at the board and executive management level in the SV 150, SV Top 15, and S&P 100 each year over the last two-plus decades surveyed and in a set of categories selected as representative of the overall gender diversity picture.

A review of the annual score over the last 25 years shows that:

  • Gender diversity has improved over time, generally slowly, with some years showing no overall progress.
  • In the S&P 100, gender diversity has grown slowly but steadily at a cumulative rate of 61%, or a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.37%.
  • The SV 150 has lower scores overall, but a greater cumulative growth rate of 216%, and more than double the CAGR, 5.42%.
  • Among the SV Top 15, where the diversity score is now similar to the S&P 100, the cumulative growth rate has been 152%, or a CAGR of 3.89%, well above the S&P 100 but below the aggregate growth rate of the SV 150 over the period—although, after exceeding the S&P 100 in 2016, the diversity score for the SV Top 15 has not returned to that peak over the last four years.

Size continues to matter; Board Leadership.

  • Larger companies by revenue and market capitalization tend to have larger boards and executive management teams, which tend to be more diverse.
  • In recent years, the SV Top 15 have surpassed the S&P 100 in percentage of women in some board leadership positions, including board and committee chairs.
  • Women board chairs are rare across the U.S., but the SV Top 15 have in recent years more frequently had women board chairs than the similarly sized S&P 100 companies.
  • In the past, the SV Top 15 have generally surpassed their S&P 100 peers in appointing women as lead director; however, that didn’t hold true for 2020. The SV Top 15 didn’t have any women lead directors, while 11.8% of the S&P 100 had women lead directors.
  • In 2020, women were more likely than men to serve on primary board committees (audit, compensation, nominating) for S&P 100, SV 150 and SV Top 15 companies, showing that the women who serve on these boards, though fewer in number than men, are viewed as equal partners with their male peers. That has been the case now for more than half of the last 16 years.

Chief Executive Officers

Women CEOs continue to be a rarity in the United States, and companies in the SV 150 (4.7% of which have women CEOs) now fall behind the percentage of women CEOs in the S&P 500 (approximately 6.04%). The S&P 100, with 8% women CEOs, and SV Top 15, with 6.7% women CEOs, exceeded that rate.

Executive Officers

The growth rate of women executive officers, in terms of either the average number of women executive officers per company or the average percentage of executive officers that are women, has been faster in the S&P 100 over the survey period. However, the SV 150 has made significant gains in recent years. The average percentage of women executive officers in the SV Top 15 is now 21%, compared to 23.4% in the S&P 100.

Named Executive Officers (NEOs)

Named executive officers are the executives that are generally the most highly compensated and in some sense those that a company considers among the most important. As a group, the SV 150 has shown a faster rate of increase in the number of women NEOs.

Notably, the average percentage growth rate of women NEOs has been faster in the SV Top 15 (approximately 1,136% cumulative growth, or 10.96% CAGR) and the SV 150 generally (approximately 753% cumulative growth, or 9.35% CAGR) than in the S&P 100 (approximately 662% cumulative growth, or 8.85% CAGR).

What’s more, when measured in terms of likelihood of being an NEO among women that serve as executive officers, the SV 150 as a whole and the SV Top 15 have been significantly more likely to include women as NEOs than the S&P 100.

Gender of CEO did not correlate with presence of women NEOs.

2020 Gender Survey S&P 100 SV 150 SV Top 15
Women NEOs under Male CEO 18.0% 15.0% 20.0%
Women NEOs under Female CEO 19.0% 14.0% 20.0%

Care should be taken when comparing statistics for women and men serving as CEO, as the number of women CEOs is very low.

Full Coverage

For each of the S&P 100, top 15 of the SV 150 and the full SV 150, the survey includes review of overall gender diversity in these groups (through the Fenwick Gender Diversity ScoreTM) and the gender diversity specifically of:

  • board of directors, including analysis in comparison to the recently adopted California gender quota
  • board committees
  • board and committee leadership
  • executive officers
  • NEOs
  • chief executive officer (CEO)
  • president/top operations executive
  • chief financial officer (CFO)
  • top legal officer/general counsel (GC)
  • top technology/engineering/r&d executive
  • top sales executive
  • top marketing executive
  • top corporate/business development executive

The survey also includes data broken down by the top 50, middle 50 and bottom 50 of the SV 150 in a variety of categories.

View the complete Fenwick Gender Diversity Survey.


1The S&P 100 is a cross-section of companies across industries, but is not a cross-section of companies across all size ranges (it represents the largest companies in the United States). While the SV 150 is made up of the largest public companies in Silicon Valley by one measure—revenue, it is actually a fairly broad cross-section of companies by size, but is limited to the technology and life science companies based in Silicon Valley. Compared to the S&P 100, SV 150 companies are generally much smaller and younger, have lower revenue, and are concentrated in the technology and life sciences industries. The 2018 constituent companies of the SV 150 range from Apple and Alphabet with revenue of approximately $239B and $111B, respectively, to Intevac and Aquantia, with revenue of approximately $113M and $103M, in each case for the four quarters ended on or about December 31, 2017. Apple went public in 1980, Alphabet (as Google) in 2004, and Intevac in 1990 and Aquantia in 2004, with the Top 15 companies averaging 18 more years as a public company than the bottom 15 companies in the SV 150. Apple and Alphabet’s peers clearly include companies in the S&P 100, of which they are also constituent members (eight companies were constituents of both indices for the survey in the 2018 proxy season), where market capitalization averages approximately $308B. Intevac and Aquantia’s peers are smaller technology companies that went public more recently and have market capitalizations well under $1B, many of which went public relatively recently. In terms of number of employees, the SV 150 averages 8,900 employees (with a median of 1,837 employees), ranging from Oracle Corp. with 138,000 employees across dozens of countries to companies such as Aemetis with 140 employees in the United States and India, as of the end of their respective fiscal years 2017 (Innoviva, ranked 128 in the SV 150, has the fewest full-time employees—12). The S&P 100 averages approximately 136,000 employees and includes Walmart with 2.3 million employees in more than two dozen countries at its most recent fiscal year-end. The S&P 100 companies are not necessarily representative of companies in the United States generally, just as the SV 150 companies are not necessarily representative of Silicon Valley generally.(go back)

2The Top 15, top 50, middle 50 and bottom 50 companies of the SV 150, include companies with revenue in the following respective ranges: $11B or more, $1.6B or more, $400M but less than $1.6B, and $103M but less than $399M. The respective average market capitalizations of these groups are $220B, $81B, $3.4B and $1.3B.(go back)

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