Cisco's Chambers Promises Changes for Women at the Tech Giant

Cisco's CEO says that after speaking with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and reading her book, he realized his company could do better by women.

Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers always felt that he and his executives were doing a good job creating a positive working environment for women.

Then he read "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" and spoke with the author of the newly published book, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Now, Chambers said, he realizes there's more work to be done at Cisco, the networking giant that has more than 70,000 employees worldwide.

"While I have always considered myself sensitive to and effective on gender issues in the workplace, my eyes were opened in new ways and I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven't made in the last decade," Chambers wrote in an internal email after sitting down with Sandberg. "Without realizing it, we operate every day with gender stereotypes and biases, many of which we do not realize. After reading 'Lean In' and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk."

The issue of women in the workplace has gotten high levels of attention in recent weeks. Sandberg, who has made millions of dollars as a top executive at the massive social networking company, has been at the center of attention during the weeks leading up to the publication of her book, which has generated huge amounts of both praise and criticism.

At the same time, new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines in February when her company announced that it was ending work-at-home arrangements and requiring all employees to work in the office starting in June. Yahoo executives argued that what the troubled Internet company needs most right now is innovation and new ideas, and that comes from people interacting face-to-face and collaborating with each other.

Still, Mayer received plenty of criticism from people who saw the moves as detrimental, particularly to women with families who need flexible schedules, and who said it was particularly hypocritical, given that Mayer—a new mother—was having a nursery built next to her office for her new child.

Cisco's Chambers said in his email—obtained by the news site AllThingsD—that his company needs to do a better job creating a working environment where women can flourish and rise up the ladder. Cisco has several top-level female executives—Padmasree Warrior, the company's CTO and chief strategy officer, for example, and Rebecca Jacoby, CIO and senior vice president of the IT and Cloud and Systems Management Technology Group—but it can do better, he said.

Chambers noted that less than 25 percent of Cisco employees are women, and 20 percent of the 1 million students at the company's networking academy are women.

He said he wants all his top managers to read Sandberg's book—Cisco has bought a copy for each one of them—and then to come up with three or four specific ideas they want to implement in development plans to create more opportunities for women within Cisco.

"I believe we—together—need to drive a fundamental culture change and it is up to us as leaders to make this change happen," Chambers wrote. "What we have been doing hasn't worked, and it is time to adjust."