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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is taking a drubbing for prescribing from a privileged perch the keys to female success in her upcoming book "Lean In," but she's struck a chord among many in her backyard.
In her own technology sector, women remain woefully underrepresented in leadership roles, even more so than in fields generally considered heavily male-dominated like financial services. Sandberg's willingness to tackle the issue of women and leadership is drawing plaudits from many in Silicon Valley.
"She is bringing a topic forward that a lot of people want to talk about," says Blair Christie, chief marketing officer at networking company Cisco Systems. "It doesn't matter what side of the debate you're on."
Sandy Kurtzig - one of the first women founders to take a company through an initial public offering when her software company, Ask, listed on the New York Stoc Exchange in 1981 - brushes aside the criticism that Sandberg is speaking from heights unattainable for most women.
"To put herself out there is how she's chosen to contribute," says Kurtzig. "You need more role models."
Of all the top executives working for a Standard & Poor's 500, midcap or smallcap indices technology company for at least a year during the decade ended in 2009, just 5.5 percent were women, says George-Levi Gayle, an associate professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis specializing in gender and pay issues in the workplace. The data is the most recent available; other studies on women in the workplace tend to include technology in the "services" category, which includes other unrelated fields.
Technology's 5.5 percent compares to 5.9 percent for financial services, 6.8 percent for industrials, and 8.1 percent for consumer goods. Sectors that did worse than technology when it comes to women leaders included health care, materials companies, and energy companies, according to Gayle's data.
He blames the underrepresentation on the low number of women majoring in engineering and computer science. Just 13.3 percent of all bachelor's degrees in computer science, computer engineering, or information go to women, according to the Computing Research Association, a trade group. That represents a decline from 17.5 percent 10 years ago, according to the most comparable data from the CRA.
Sandberg's book is the follow-up to talks she gave starting in 2010 on why the world has too few women leaders. After working at the U.S. Treasury Department, Sandberg scaled the heights of Silicon Valley, moving from Google to chief operating officer at Facebook while raising two children. The 43-year-old is adamant about making it home every night for dinner.
While the book does not come out until Monday, advance press for "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" has sparked a fierce debate between supporters and detractors on the Internet. A bestselling book could ensure the debate has practical results in workplaces across the United States.
"Lean In" offers tips for women in the workforce in general, such as how to command more respect through simple acts such as sitting tall at a conference table and speaking assertively at meetings.
Points like that might sound lightweight, but can have a big effect, says Theresia Gouw Ranzetta of venture firm Accel Partners, the firm known for backing Facebook in its early days.
"It impacts the way people perceive you," she says. "But you have to have the substance to back it up." She recalls receiving similar coaching early in her career when she worked as a management consultant at Bain & Co.
Kurtzig, now founder and chief executive of software start-up Kenandy, says too often she has seen women walk into a conference room and automatically head for chairs around the edges of the room rather than the main table. The message: "You're a support person," she says. "Not a main character."
She is not as positive about Sandberg's pitch for women to join "Lean In Circles," or groups where they can support each other and learn how to achieve more success in their careers. "In business, you need to assimilate into the world, and the world is men and women," she says.
Many technology veterans believe employers need to do more to help women gain entry to executive suites.
"How women show up and really drive their success in the workplace is important," says Cisco's Christie. "But there's a huge role for employers to move the topic of gender diversity where it needs to be."
She lays part of the blame on the paucity of women executives in technology on the relative immaturity of the sector. More established companies have strong development programs that have tried to foster the advancement of women, she says, while technology companies have generally focused on keeping up with their rapid growth.
Ellen Pao, a former partner at venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who is suing the firm for gender discrimination and retaliation in a case closely watched in Silicon Valley, believes individuals and companies should pay more attention to attitudes. "A lot of the stuff that happens seems to be very subconscious or unintentional, but it happens," she says.
Some women in technology say they are encouraged by changes they see at the upper echelons. "What I'm seeing on the ground is really a sense of momentum, and increasing momentum," says Accel's Ranzetta.
She points to companies like Hewlett Packard IBM, Xerox, and Yahoo, where Meg Whitman, Ginni Rometty, Ursula Burns and Marissa Meyer, respectively, are chief executives, as well as the growing numbers of female founders and executives she sees at start-up companies.
"Merissa Meyer and Sheryl both rose very quickly by first joining small entrepreneurial companies," she says, referring to the boost both of them got by working at Google while it was still a private company.
But she sees an even speedier route to the top in technology. "If you want to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I would say go start a company," Ranzetta says. "It's the fastest way to the C-suite."
Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Gevirtz