Annie Rogaski, one of the few female partners at the elite law firm Kilpatrick Townsend in Silicon Valley, often represents tech companies headed exclusively by men. Despite working closely with the men over long periods of time, she also found that she's rarely invited to socialize with the team after work.
"It was getting a little ridiculous," she says. "And at a certain point I just realized we, as women, had to get together and change something. And we had to make it big, expansive, more than just another 'women in patent law' conference."
So Rogaski decided to shake up the Silicon Valley fraternity mind-set by starting her own women-only clubhouse.
And she has executives from top companies like Salesforce.com, Hewlett-Packard and Adobe supporting her efforts. Her clubhouse, she says, will be very different from the white-gloved ladies' clubs of the past, like San Francisco's floral-print-heavy rooms at the venerable Francisca and Metropolitan clubs. There will be shared work space instead of tearooms, high-powered cocktail parties instead of leisurely luncheons. It will not feature the arcane secrecy of the Pacific-Union men's club or the cross-dressing antics of the bacchanalian Bohemian Grove. Admissions will be decided by ambition, not genetic lineage.
"You don't have to have made it yet," says Rogaski, "but you need to be on that path."
The first of its kind in Silicon Valley, her space will simply be called the Club - an acronym for Connect, Lead, Unite, Build.
With its corporate slogan "An Incubator for Women Leaders," and an executive board made up of local leaders, Rogaski's endeavor is more strategic than simply creating another networking outlet.
Her goal is to change one of the most daunting numbers in the tech world, she said, the fact that women make up only 6 percent of executive leadership in tech. The statistic, from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (a nonprofit organization supported by companies like Microsoft, Google, Bank of America and the National Science Foundation), is part of a broader picture that does not look as if it will improve soon.
From 2000 to 2008, there has been a nearly 80 percent decline in the number of incoming undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer sciences. In 1991, women held 36 percent of all IT-related jobs; in 2008, that amount fell to 25 percent.
'Worse than Congress'
"I never thought there would be a profession that is worse than Congress, but I think we found one," says Rep. Jackie Speier, 62, who started the Professional Business Women of California, which has held annual conferences with more than 3,000 attendees for the past 25 years.
Speier often lunches at women's clubs, "but that was the way women gathered through the '50s, '60s and '70s. This new club will be similar but different. We don't have time for luncheons anymore, but we can get drinks after work. This is a new generation."
Silicon Valley has had some mega-successful female stars like newly appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, each of whom has spoken about being one of the few women to break through to the top of the tech world.
"People ask me all the time, 'What's it like to be a woman at Google?' " Mayer said on CNN, before leaving her post there. "I'm not a woman at Google; I'm a geek at Google. And being a geek is just great."
Sandberg began her career hoping to de-emphasize gender - until she realized how few women reached "the C level." Today, she has become one of the most visible and outspoken advocates for women in tech. Through representatives, both women declined to comment for this article.
"We need to start talking about how women underestimate their abilities compared to men, and how for women, but not men, success and likability are negatively correlated," Sandberg said in a graduation speech at Harvard Business School in May. "We need to acknowledge openly that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership. The promise of equality is not equality."
On a recent evening in Menlo Park's Quadrus Conference Center, set in an expansive office park off the highway, nearly 150 women gathered for the Club's official launch party. A table of name tags at the door showed a bevy of executive titles from Silicon Valley heavyweights - Samsung, Google, Visa, Facebook. Most of the attendees already knew each other from the myriad women-in-tech summits held in hotels.
After about an hour of mingling and enjoying dim sum and cocktails, Rogaski got onstage and cued up a PowerPoint.
"As women, we often get into the pattern that keeping your head down and doing good work is enough - it's not," she told the rapt crowd. "Success requires much more."
When she finished, the women stood and gave a thunderous ovation. Other female executives stepped up to share their stories.
Catherine Valentine, general counsel of Logitech and an industry veteran, talked about work-life balance: "I had to mold myself to male behaviors. And I consciously decided not to have children. You may think it has gotten better since then, but it hasn't."
The room was quiet as Valentine paused, clearly teary-eyed.
"We don't belong to a club or play golf. We don't have those systems, and we should," she said. "We need to support women in being women."
Another major issue that needs to be addressed is the pay disparity among men and women in the industry, said Doris Pickering, who worked in product management for HP for 12 years. "I've been paid less than the men in my same job all the time," she said. "We've been talking about this for 30 years, and I'm sick of it."
The golf cliche
Silicon Valley, with a reputation for cutting-edge startups and a rebellious boyish culture, seems an unlikely place for business meetings on a golf course, but it is just as alive there as anywhere.
"The golf club is so cliche. But it's exactly what you would imagine, a bunch of powerful men getting together on their own," says Mona Sabet, a corporate vice president at Cadence Design Systems in San Jose. "I suppose I could get an invitation if I asked, but I don't even want to. You'd think Silicon Valley would be different, like too edgy for the golf course. But it's not."
The appeal of having a space of their own appealed to many attendees, including Kathi Lutton, part of the Forbes Most Powerful Women Network, who brought her grandmother to the event. "If the women in this room were part of a country club," she said, "I would have already joined it."
Over the past few years, dozens of women's professional organizations have sprung up in Silicon Valley. There is WITI, WilPower, Levo League and Women 2.0. And while membership booms, gaining momentum and finding headquarters are a constant struggle.
"Right now all of us meet either online or we rent conference centers - but our group keeps growing," says Radhika Emens, regional director of Silicon Valley's Women in Technology International, which has 140,000 members.
"What Annie's doing is unique. They're going after real estate, they're going to buy and develop it. We want to be part of that."
Emens, representing WITI's immense network, submitted her application - 15 short personal essays on her background, skills, ability and desire to mentor - for the Club that night. If accepted, she will pay $350 in annual dues, as have the other 50 members approved so far.
The Club has also received "a significant and surprising" amount of funding, Rogaski said, but declined to give specific figures. In the weeks since the launch, five large companies have stepped forward as sponsors, including Rogaski's law firm, which also underwrote the launch party.
"I'm proud of the firm's commitment to the Club and its goal of creating real leadership opportunities for women," said Paul Aguggia, chair of Kilpatrick Townsend.
Deanna Graham, the market research group manager at Adobe, had reservations about joining a women-only club. Years ago, as a manager at Intuit, Graham was asked to lead a women's group, and she refused.
"I didn't want to be pigeonholed," Graham, 46, says. "Now at this point in my career, I see the need to connect and mentor. And to have a club of our own. Having a physical space will indicate the seriousness and the stability." She pauses and smiles. "It should have a good entertaining flow, should be big enough for a great cocktail party. I mean, it really could be fun."
It's this kind of attitude that makes Speier believe in the Club.
"There are going to be women standing outside waiting in line to become members. I think there's a great hunger for this, and it needs to be sated."
For more information: theclubsv.org.
Nellie Bowles is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org