Women are kept out of American industry — and it’s not their fault, asserts Douglas M. Branson, author of the new book, The Future of Tech is Female: How to Achieve Gender Diversity (NYU Press, July 2018).Despite the title this is not just a book about the sins of Silicon Valley, known for its bro-culture and increasing harassment and discrimination cases. As it turns out, those may be the most public examples of gender bias, but the problem is universal in nearly every field.
Branson is a corporate governance expert with international experience as well as a professor and a prolific insightful author, who’s penned some 23 books (yes, you read that right — 23). Turning his sights on the issue of gender bias, he approaches it with the perspective of a seasoned expert who knows how businesses are led all too well.
This book is a call to action on the part of companies themselves — and it’s filled with strategies for taking down the hurdles facing women from entry level to CEO. And as he points out, it’s a rare C-Suite that’s filled with women, which is to everyone’s detriment.
Branson uses tech as the model of how not to make women feel welcome, a situation made even worse by tech’s enormous place in the market. As the author points out:
Information technology (IT) companies’ shares now represent 16 percent of the total capitalization of shares on U.S. securities markets and in that, as well as in other respects such as employment, are growing. In rough terms, IT’s market capitalization is equivalent to 16 percent of 127.2 percent of $18.86 trillion (estimated 2016 U.S. gross domestic product), or $3.84 trillion.
That’s a whole lot of jobs and a whole lot of money to be keeping women outside the corporate walls — or neglecting to let them on the corporate ladder. He also makes a clear distinction between tech and other industries. The latter, he points out, have made some strides to improve the presence of women — now afflicted with “second generation” problems like unconscious bias and favoritism. But tech is still in the first generation stage — with rampantly sexist and hostile environments as blatant as “pinups on the firehouse wall.”
Subject to stereotypes, objectified and sexualized, passed over for promotions and key projects, and paid less for comparable work, it’s no wonder women are steering clear of tech. The behavior of tech’s leaders doesn’t help either: despite this being an era in which clearly, the cutlrue of a workplace begins with leadership, Zuckerberg and others are notoriously tone-deaf on the issue of gender bias, and Branson deftly unpacks their statements and finds them tragically lacking. And he points the finger directly at his readership: the very corporate leaders and managers responsible for hiring and promotion. And he does so without apology.
The discussion of cases like the Department of Labor’s massive lawsuit in 2017 against tech titans Google and Oracle — for “systematic compensation disparities against women, pretty much across the board,” as the suit stated, and Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield is fascinating. By herding so much into one corral, Branson makes the sexism in Silicon Valley sharply clear.
However the book is also meant to help solve the problems of women not getting hired and promoted, and so are useful, practical, and enlightening chapters on how to best approach the challenge. He talks about solutions that don’t work, and solutions that “may” work. He focuses on the long-term, in which there are simply not enough qualified women candidates in the talent and succession pool.
Indeed, some of his suggestions may seem to run counter to the spirit of the “#metoo movement, and that’s just fine with him: Branson steers clear of grandstanding of any kind. He suggests companies provide better on and off-ramp transitions for women with families — which is a practical suggestion based on research and business realities, not any specific brand of feminism.
He cautions that STEM can’t solve the problem of what happens inside the doors of science and tech firms, which makes investing in STEM problematic. He seems somewhat amused, and also exasperated with the plethora of professional women’s advice books that encourage women to collect mentors by the dozen — pointing out that the practice has done little to actually gain women more traction in the workplace. He urges a rethinking of the H-1B visa, which brings in much-needed programmers and engineers from other nations — but those tend to be overwhelmingly male.
Branson is speaking to the companies themselves in this book, and his voice should be welcome for any company looking to fix its gender imbalance. Academically thorough, he also provides a whole list of compelling reasons to fix that imbalance, none of which fall into the “because you should!” category.
Among them: avoidance of risk. Regarding this, he quotes Christine LaGarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who said “if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters,” the firm would still exist. This is just one of many enjoyable moments in this very smart and well-researched, convincing book. Aimed at the very organizations that can actually fix the problem, it may not be a coffee table book, but it should be front and center on every conference table.
For more about Douglas M. Branson, visit his website