I had the chance to chat with Douglas M. Branson about his new book, The Future of Tech is Female: Ways to Achieve Gender Diversity, which I reviewed for this site. Branson is a corporate governance expert and professor who addresses the lack of women not just in tech, but in nearly every industry, from a different perspective. According to him, companies need to step up — they’re the ones that do the hiring, after all. Business leaders, take note.
What prompted you to write this book?
I have been speaking (all over the United States and around the Pacific Rim especially) and writing on this subject for twenty years now. I have written two previous books, No Seat at the Table: How Governance and Law Keep Women out of the Boardroom (2007), and The Last Male Bastion: Gender and the CEO Suite in America’s Public Companies (2010), numerous scholarly articles, and shorter pieces. This book is a further step in that continuum (directors, CEOs and now senior executives). Most of all, however, I have two daughters, and more than half my students are female. I want women to have the same opportunities that men have.
The book is about far more than just tech’s problem with gender diversity. Are all industries as guilty of not supporting, hiring, or promoting enough women?
Tech has the worst record of any major industry. But transportation, big box retailers, and financial services also have poor records. A surprising finding, made in the Last Male Bastion’s chapter “Go Where They Aren’t,” is that women have succeeded in industries as diverse as electric utilities, paint and chemicals, agri-business, and oil and gas.
I attribute that counterintuitive outcome to the prevalence of men in charge who have daughters. Their daughters and daughters’ friends have played sports, gone to medical and law schools, received MBAs, and so on for forty years now. These men at the top want daughters and surrogate daughters to have the same opportunities that young males have. They are not as hidebound or chauvinistic as many think. In many quarters, but not all, the world is quite different than it was a few decades ago.
What are your feelings about programs like STEM? Do you think that they promote or hinder gender diversity in the corporate sphere?
First, STEM is frequently a come-on. Colleges and universities that highlight STEM programs have no real programs at all. Instead, they have an advisor, or a STEM advising office. So the emperor has no clothes, not universally but in many cases.
Second, with STEM we also have gone overboard in exclusively focusing on instrumentalist education. We’re not turning out well-rounded, educated people. No longer do institutions make efforts at educating students as to what being a good citizen entails.
Third, now to STEM in particular. A STEM background may get a young woman her entry-level job and her first promotion. To progress higher, though, in addition to or in place of a STEM background, a women needs grounding in business (managerial accounting, stocks and markets, basic economics, etc.) and perhaps other subjects. My study showed that out of 29 senior female executives in tech (an extremely low proportion when compared to any other industry) only two had STEM backgrounds. The other twenty-seven had either law or MBA degrees.
You’ve talked about the meritocracy that pervades Silicon Valley. How does that obscure Silicon Valley’s gender bias?
First, I think Silicon Valley’s claims of meritocracy are bohunkie, as my kids would say. An old boys’ club controls Silicon Valley and many of the companies in it. Second, diversity serves other values that are as or more important than meritocracy. Equality of the sexes and of races and ethnicities are core values of our nation that are involved here.
What do you think industries can do to repair gender imbalance for the long term?
Read my book. Discuss and adopt some combination of the programs the book discusses and that have shown results elsewhere in the world (pledge programs, comply or explain requirements, certificate programs, adding sponsorship to mentoring, requirements for structured searches, forms of vestibule training for women, lessening reliance on the H-1B visa and similar programs and their effect on crowding out women).
What do you say to the common argument that there just “aren’t many qualified women?”
I think it is a cop-out — especially among the old fogies who think everyone coming after them should look just like them, down to wearing similar ties and belonging to the same clubs. It is just an excuse to continue down the path they have been taking previously. Also, see the answer above about values other than meritocracy. Social equality and diversity are important social issues and goals.
Do you think AI is going to have any kind of impact on gender imbalance, particularly in tech and related fields?
As it evolves, artificial intelligence will replace jobs lower in hierarchies; those aspiring women would be most likely to fill at the entry level or one stage above, crowding women out further. I have not given the issue much thought, but AI is a scary thing in some or even many ways.
For more about Douglas M. Branson, visit his website.