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Innovation goes together with representation

9 Aug

In the wake of the now-infamous Google memo, some have argued that whether or not its author should have been fired, is a hard question to answer, because of the company’s commitment to open discussion.  I’m not sure that this is such a hard question to answer.  The memo proposed that women were intrinsically less attracted to, and less capable of, coding careers than men.  It argued that biology explained the lack of women in technology firms and their comparative absence at senior levels.   If you believe that companies embody a set values and create a working culture – and technology giants with their global missions and highly-designed office spaces, do this more self-consciously than many – then contravening central tenets of that culture has to be problematic at best.

Google aims to bring its products to all, and it has already had to confront its lack of internal diversity publicly.  Publication of its staffing ratios (69% of all workers are male and only 20% of technical jobs are held women; 2% of employees are African American) has led to open discussion of diversity issues, and to pledges to improve the picture.  Google, furthermore, has been embroiled in a potential legal challenge around sex discrimination and the gender pay gap, which the US Department of Labour has described as showing ‘extreme’ disparities.  In this atmosphere, what the firm is seen to do in response to reductionist arguments about who is good at tech, is crucial to its reputation.  Complacency is not an option.  As a former Google employee forcefully argued, publishing a memo that suggests that part of the workforce (the female part) is intrinsically unsuited to its work, and is present for politically correct reasons, has consequences for both the author of the memo, and for the company.  In publishing the memo, the author has made it very challenging to assign collaborative work to him; nor could a manager easily put women in his team, after he has said what he has said. And having put in place the conditions for a ‘textbook hostile working environment’ the only realistic choice was to remove the author from his job. Meanwhile the company has to deal with internal dismay in its workforce, and external reputational damage.

What would the alternative be?  To leave the man in his place and educate him about just how flawed his arguments are? This seems pretty hard in situation where the author overlooks that there are systemic and cultural reasons why women may not be thriving in tech.  As the FT put it today, ‘It is clear from history and social science that bias and inequity do have an effect on the composition of the workforce’ – in other words women and other minorities have been affected by factors in the wider system, not inherent deficiencies in themselves.

Looking beyond Google to the wider tech sector, there is ample evidence that more diverse workforces are possible. The role of women in the history of computing has recently been highlighted in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, and celebration of Ada Lovelace’s pivotal work at the dawn of computer science.  In Russia and Asia, women are employed in greater numbers in technology and engineering than in the USA (or the UK for that matter), again disproving the argument that women are somehow intrinsically less capable of such work. And a Guardian article on Monday showed how Silicon Valley has been less successful in integrating minority ethnic groups, than the technology companies around Washington DC, where 17% of technical workers are black.  In California, technology companies are failing to recruit to reflect either the local Latino population, or the smaller proportion of African Americans. So the West coast tech sector is particularly white and male.  Public commitment to increasing diversity is part of the coda of Google (and its Silicon Valley cohabitants) – it knows that it has a problem and that it needs to be addressed.  The memo has probably made doing so all the more difficult, at least in the short-term.

And the case for Google and others diversifying their workforce isn’t simply to do with equality and social justice. In marketing technological products to us, Google needs to know that they meet consumer requirements.  The papers are full of examples of where this capacity has been limited by a professional monoculture  – e.g. voice recognition software tested by men, which struggles with women’s voices; facial recognition systems which work less well with darker skin tones. And in terms of general innovation there’s a growing literature to show that diverse teams come up with better, more original solutions to problems, than groups of similar people from similar backgrounds.  So diversity is a scientific and commercial necessity, not just a ‘nice to have’ option.  It is somewhat ironic that the kind of collaborative and interactive skills which the memo defined as ‘female’ characteristics, are exactly the ones that tech companies must have in order to innovate and compete….







Is Mark Zuckerberg really changing the game?

27 Nov

Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he will take two months paternity leave when his daughter is born, a move that has been widely hailed as game changer for family-friendly working and gender equality. As someone who has long argued for the benefits of paternity leave for men, women and children, it seems churlish to do anything other than high-five along with everyone else who has rushed to praise him, and to remind us of the importance of CEOs leading on culture change in the workplace.

But there is a but. Or rather two buts. The first is the length of the leave. Facebook has just announced that staff will be able to take four months leave following birth. So yet again we have the image of a figurehead taking less parental leave than the full entitlement available to staff – two months may be great progress on the amount of leave routinely taken by senior American fathers, but it still leaves the impression that taking full entitlement is optional, and there for the little people, rather than those at the top.

And the second ‘but’ relates to gender. Zuckerberg is a man, and like many before him he seems to be benefitting from the halo effect of doing anything related to family at all. I’m an equal opportunities type, so I think it’s only fair to raise the question of his shorter-than-full-entitlement leave, just as I did for Marissa Mayer. And I’ll bet you’ve heard a lot more about her announcement to take only two weeks leave than you have about Mr Zuckerberg’s decision. He has not been submitted to the same level of scrutiny as she was – albeit that at two weeks, her own length of proposed leave was much shorter, and will of course include personally giving birth. It’s interesting too that Zuckerberg announced his decision as a ‘very personal’ one. This is typical of tech culture’s privileging of individual choice. The two months paternity leave for Facebook’s CEO will only be a game changer for working men, if a few more of them examine their navels (or the protruding ones of their pregnant partners), and reach the same ’very personal’ decision. It seems a little ironic that culture change in a social media environment is apparently down to the accumulation of a series of personal decisions….

So while agreeing that Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to take leave is broadly a good thing, let’s not get carried away. He is doing it because he can – unlike the majority of US workers who have few leave entitlements, and may not be able to afford those that there are. His actions may make a difference to some other people influential enough to impact on the rest of us. And perhaps we shouldn’t overlook the point made to me when I noted my dismay at Marissa Mayer’s fortnight – ‘don’t forget Yahoo is in a bit of trouble she may not have much choice’, corporate watchers said. Facebook is not apparently in trouble and the CEO is taking half of his full leave entitlement. Do I hear the sound of one hand clapping?




I’m 99% sure that we can’t all do maternity leave like the 1%

3 Sep

Marissa Mayer has sparked a debate over maternity leave through her announcement that she will be taking only 2 weeks maternity leave when she gives birth in December. She’s the CEO of Yahoo, one of the highest paid executives in the world, in the notoriously male-dominated world of technology companies. When she had her first child, she followed this same path, and raised a few eyebrows soon afterwards by banning remote working for her employees, while installing a nursery next her own office to accommodate her child alongside her professional responsibilities.

Predictably there has been a spate of articles saying that maternity leave is a personal choice for her, which she is exercising for herself, just as a man in her position would; isn’t it sexist to see her differently from a male CEO making the same choices within weeks of becoming a father? I’m not sure it is. It is not sexist to say that it is different to go through the transition to parenthood as the person who actually gives birth and who may breastfeed afterwards, from being the parent who supports this process. Both parents may be equally important to their children, but the physical impact of childbirth is experienced uniquely by women. For many women this is a relatively straightforward and highly rewarding process, but some births are a lot easier to recover from than others, and two weeks recovery before resuming even lightened work duties would not work for every mother. Or for every type of work come to that. Mayer is to be praised for extending Yahoo’s maternity benefits to encompass 16 weeks of paid leave. In a country still without any mandatory parental leave system, this is an important benefit for employees. However, by not taking it herself, Mayer leaves the suggestion that parental leave is for the little people hanging in the air.

And of course, no-one is asking what role her husband will be playing in their presumably joint decision to arrange things this way. Is he taking time off? Is he going to be primary parent while his wife guides her company through a crucial period? Whether he is doing these things or not, the public assumption is that Mayer’s stellar salary will cover the kind of high-quality round-the-clock childcare that most people can only dream of. And it is certainly true that she can afford it.

Parental leave policies facilitate equality and diversity in the workplace. Female workers in tech report feeling compromised and marginalised by the choices for balancing work and family life available in this particular culture, and they often leave. Silicon Valley companies have recently launched a number of high profile parental leave packages, presumably with a view to retain valuable employees. Parental leave should facilitate both sexes in both their careers and their family life. By not being a visible proponent of her company’s maternity leave policies, Mayer underlines the exceptionalism of her position, rather than providing an attainable path for many others.

And this brings us back to the individual choice issue: Marissa Mayer is doing what she is doing because she can. She has a powerful position from which to negotiate terms, she has the support of her board and has put in place an infrastructure to enable her to continue working with her children close at hand, and to cover childcare needs whenever they crop up. Most people are simply not in that position.

Here in the UK, 54,000 women are losing jobs through maternity-related discrimination each year, even in a system where maternity leave is available for most workers. Many professions still suffer from ‘leaky pipelines’ in terms of promoting women to senior levels, and childcare costs are so high both here and in the USA that many families find it simply uneconomic for both parents to carry on working as they might otherwise choose to do. I read a comment in an American article that ‘millenials’ are ‘seeking a solution that works for them, not a one-size-fits-all maternity policy’, a stance which sees Mayer as a great example of what is possible. The problem with this approach is that it does not foster a climate which caters for the needs of many, who take both their working lives and family lives seriously, and who wish to stay off the breadline. It’s not enough to make maternity leave an individualistic lifehack; we need policies in place so that more parents can hack it in the system. In Europe it is often argued that senior managers must visibly buy into flexible working and parental leave plans in order for men to even consider taking them up; if senior women in the USA don’t take up corporate leave packages, we’re left with the same old ‘default male’ models of success for the majority of employees. Is that good enough for us?



Silicon Valley chickens and women’s eggs

15 Oct

When I read on Twitter that egg-freezing was being offered by Apple and Facebook as a perk to women employees, I thought it was a joke. But then I went and looked for coverage and found that it is in fact true. Gender pay gap? We’ve a quick fix for that darling, we’ll give you $20,000 to freeze your eggs so that you can concentrate on your work and compete on equal terms with our male employees in those crucial childbearing career-building years. Yes, we can level the playing field with invasive surgery and new technology – don’t worry about the fact that success rates are hazy, that according to nbc reporting,doctors recommend freezing at least 20 eggs, which means two cycles of treatment – thus basically blowing the entire $20,000 ‘perk’.

Or, for those really ahead of the curve, a woman could freeze one round of eggs at age 25, this would account for the first $10,000 of the ‘employee benefit’, and then there would be a $500 per year storage charge for as long as the eggs remain frozen. Oh happy days! In a reputable news source in the early 21st century it is reported that this may mean that at ‘35, [when she] is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby’ . These words are apparently seriously quoted. Perhaps this is because it is a US news source – the wealthiest country on the planet today has no maternity leave, paternity or parental leave – a position it shares only with Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

Should a woman choose to freeze her own eggs for whatever reason that is one thing. But when an employer says ‘I’ll freeze your eggs so you don’t have to worry about losing out while you climb the greasy pole on our terms’, I think we should all step back and analyse what is happening very carefully.  The first thing I thought when I read about this is that hoary old song from My Fair Lady -‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ Rather than thinking how the workplace might better accommodate parenthood and any kind of ‘balance’ in life for executives of both sexes, they’ve hit on a technological fix to make the status quo ‘work’ for women. There’s a line in that (even less PC than I remembered) song that rings incredibly true to this whole mindset – Rex Harrison asks of women ‘Why don’t they straighten out the mess that’s inside?’ – a view which fits perfectly with the tech companies’ vision of extracting those problematic, perishable eggs to re-insert when ‘convenient’. We have to ask when convenient for whom. There are few words in the Forbes article covering this item which give a clue: the ‘perk’ is offered to women and their male partners; and a few others are cited in the nbc article: ’offering this benefit “can help women be more productive human beings.”’ Is it time to be very afraid? If a man or a company asked me to freeze my eggs I know what I’d say to them …

Meanwhile, back in the land of the ‘level playing field’ I thought that the idea was that we looked at the possibilities that technology offers for more flexible work arrangements, that empowerment comes from combining employment with family life. I thought that the skills we all gain and the knowledge we acquire from the demands of our closest relationships has real value – the kind of value that transfers to the workplace, as we endeavour to solve problems with other people. I thought technology was giving us new opportunities to flex and adapt the current corporate system to incorporate employee well-being and the returns that this brings. That’s what I’d call innovation. But clearly Silicon Valley is way too chicken for that.


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