Want more women on your workforce? Ignore ‘fit,’ panel says

Companies that find themselves with a dearth of female applicants, high turnover among women employees, or low estrogen in their boardrooms should consider embracing quotas, ignoring what their instincts say “good” employees look like, and track their progress while doing so, a recent panel argued.

During his appearance at “Closing the Gender Gap: A Blueprint for Women’s Leadership in the Digital Economy,” a panel organized by Women in Communications and Technology to commemorate the recent release of its eponymous report, Pythian Group Inc. president and CEO Paul Vallée said that if nothing else, the business case for the benefits of workplace diversity is as strong as the moral one.

“If there’s one defining thing that I’ve been working on in my entrepreneurship… it’s to try to unlock talent,” he said. “It’s not unique to the issue of women. It’s also relevant to engaging minorities, immigrants… Wasting human talent is a crying shame.”

“And whether you’re wasting money by using Uber instead of public transportation… or whether you’re wasting money by having any of your resources not delivering their full potential to your business… as a business person, you need to be tackling those kinds of sources of waste,” he said.

Joining Vallée on the panel was Corus Entertainment COO Barbara Williams, who said that one of the most insidious factors she had noticed affecting the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in the workplace was the concept of “fit” – that new hires should be chosen based on how well their personalities match with existing employees.

“I think the biggest thing we struggle with is we are all most inclined to hire people that we’re comfortable with,” Williams said. “And we’re comfortable with those that are most like us – who look like us, sound like us, went to the same school as us, belong to the same club as us, grew up in a similar environment – we gravitate to that, and it feels so much easier… than getting past that and consciously going, ‘you know what? I want to be a little uncomfortable. I want to build a team that has differences, that challenges me.”

Asked to explain the tech industry’s enduring “bro culture” – which he admitted is a problem faced by Pythian as well – Vallée echoed Williams’ assessment, noting that rather than being intentional, much of the industry’s sexism is rooted in a culture the majority of its practitioners have always known.

“Any team has a culture,” he said. “If you assemble a group of 10 people from Japan, they will speak Japanese. So when you assemble 10 men [and many of today’s top tech workers, he noted, were attracted to the industry by the boom in video games in the 1990s, which were mainly developed by and marketed to men], they develop a very male-oriented culture. And much like you might find it difficult to join that group of 10 Japanese men because they’re speaking Japanese… they may also be uncomfortable with you.”

Forcing discomfort

Solving this problem of segregation-by-intertia requires embracing discomfort, Corus’s Williams said, noting that she herself had been an opponent of mandated quotas for many years before reluctantly accepting the fact that in the business world, outsiders – the ones who don’t speak Japanese – rarely succeed without inside support.

“I have slowly but surely become a greater and greater believer in absolute hard metrics and hard quotas for change,” she said. “And I know people don’t really like that, but I’ve just seen too much time and effort and intellectual awareness and conversation… and all those other wonderful – truly wonderful – things happen, and the numbers just don’t move.”

The widely cited research that boards with gender diversity improve their companies’ performance provides a perfect example, she said – in order for a business to reap the benefits three members or more must be women. Otherwise, their voices are silenced.

Vallée emphasized that, intentional or not, the tech industry’s “bro culture” is a problem – and not just for women.

“They make me very uncomfortable… because they’re very much like the same frat boys that I was avoiding in university,” he said, to laughter. “And I don’t think it’s out of malice… It’s not like Japanese people are malicious when they’re speaking Japanese to each other… But it doesn’t change the dynamic, which is extremely toxic, and makes it so that you’re no longer able to interact with that group in a normal way. Your contributions aren’t welcomed in a normal way, and they may not select you because of the way you then make them uncomfortable. And I just want to kill that with fire.”

How Pythian is solving the problem

To improve gender diversity at Pythian, where in 2015 35 per cent of the company’s leadership team, 27 per cent of managers, and only nine per cent of technical roles were women, Vallée said the company’s leaders began by calculating the problem in their midst, researching the reasons behind it, and articulating why they wanted to overcome it – for reasons that were commercial as much as moral.

“A really nicely blended team can accept any new talent,” he said. “It can accept a man or a woman; it can accept an immigrant or a local-born person; it can accept someone whose language is different; it can accept someone whose religion is something different… From a human resources perspective… having a well-blended team gives you an incredible advantage.”

Vallée said that having a “scoreboard” for Pythian’s gender diversity proved especially valuable, with the company creating what it called a “Pythia Index” – a way to measure the number of people in a team that were women or reported to a woman. In 2015, Pythian’s Pythia Index was 56 per cent – that is, 56 per cent of employees were either female leaders or reported to a woman, while 44 per cent of employees did not report to women at any stage – hence much of its workforce’s “bro culture.”

Another key reason Pythian found for its lack of gender diversity was the number of employees who worked from home, Vallée said.

“We employ people all over the world working… which has resulted in unbelievable diversity of languages and religions and skin tones,” he told ITBusiness.ca. “But it has not resulted in a wonderful diversity of sexes.”

Today, he noted, half of Pythian’s independent board members are women, as are three of his six senior executives.

“We know where we stand, and we know where to focus our resources,” he said.

From left: Corus Entertainment COO Barbara Williams, RBC senior vice president of enterprise, operations, and payments Jules Andrew, and Pythian president and CEO Paul Vallée after the panel.

Employees must play a role as well

Jules Andrew knows what it’s like to feel left out of a group: Originally from Florida, she lived for two years each in Paris, London, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, while working for IBM before joining RBC in 2014. Even then, she started at the company’s New York City office, and only moved to Canada last July.

She said that developing some common ground with colleagues – not so much that it consumes all of your time, but enough that you can listen to them talk about, say, hockey for 10 minutes – can go a long way.

“I’ve tended to work in very male-dominated cultures,” Andrew said. For example, she said, “you realize you need to follow [hockey in Canada] because otherwise you’re not going to be part of the beginning of the meeting where everyone talks about what happened at the game. So I’m very careful to watch CP24 in the morning.”

“It’s a little harder when you’re in Brazil and don’t speak Portuguese and every meeting’s going to start talking about soccer,” she added, to laughter.

When the panelists were asked about the gender pay gap, which currently sees men earning an average of $140 worldwide for every $100 earned by a woman, all three emphasized the importance of not being afraid to ask for a raise, with Corus’s Williams calling the employer/employee relationship “much more equal than people realize” and Pythian’s Vallée saying that not only should women should not fear reprisal, often their employers think better of them for asking.

“Obviously RBC as a company pays equitably, but… across both IBM and RBC I’ve seen far more men come inside my office and demand things by saying ‘I’m worth it,’ while many more women – especially in Canada – start the conversation with, ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’” RBC’s Andrew said. “And in my slightly harsh, non-Canadian way, I’ll turn around and say ‘based on the way you’ve presented it to me… if I were a man sitting in this chair… I’d say no. So I want you to go away, figure out how you should be asking this question, and come back and we’ll have a conversation about your value.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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