Pay no attention to the noise, Carleton (Carly) Fiorina was saying last week, as she was crashing through the highest of glass ceilings to become the CEO of computer maker Hewlett-Packard. Although her appointment has not been so ballyhooed as Sandra Day O'Connor's becoming the first woman Supreme Court Justice or Geraldine Ferraro's running for Vice President--or, for that matter, America's women winning the soccer World Cup--it is arguably more important than any of those milestones. If women have made great strides in gaining parity in politics and sports, it is in the workplace that sexism is most keenly felt. Women still earn 75% of men's salaries and occupy only 11.2% of the executive jobs in FORTUNE 500 companies. The top spot at HP, a geek kingdom since the slide-rule era, is the highest position ever held by a woman in a Dow 30 company.
"My gender is interesting, but it is not the story here," Fiorina, 44, insisted. She prefers instead that the focus be on her considerable achievements as an executive with AT&T and its Lucent Technologies spin-off. But if she were merely another old, white male appointed CEO by an old, white male board of directors, then her assuming the mantle would be about as newsworthy as last week's announcement of Michael Capellas to run HP rival Compaq. "No woman has achieved leadership at this level of American business," says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a New York City organization that tracks women in the work force. "It's going to give young women, girls, a powerful message."
That said, from a purely business standpoint Fiorina was a logical choice to take over HP, coming off a remarkable run as president of the $20 billion Global Services division at Lucent. She was partly responsible for re-engineering Lucent into a technology highflyer from what was once Ma Bell's phonemaker. Lucent is now a leading global supplier of cell-phone networking gear and the digital-switching systems that are critical components of voice and data networks--you know, the Internet. She even helped design the red-swirl logo that marks Lucent as a leading-edge company.
At HP, Fiorina faces a slew of similar challenges as a company renowned for its engineering proficiency takes on fleet competitors like Dell and Sun Microsystems, which have decidedly jazzier images. "The old joke about HP is they'd market sushi as cold, dead fish," says Merrill Lynch analyst Steve Milonovich. "Right now they just don't have much of an Internet aura." Company officials admit they've been a little bit late to the I-party, losing critical market share to Sun in the server business and playing catch-up with its highly touted e-services offerings. "Clearly, we need to reinvigorate things here," said Fiorina upon taking the reins from outgoing CEO Lewis Platt, who nevertheless drove HP's sales to $47 billion and its stock price to a record high of $118 a share.