Wednesday 12 December 2018

Comment: Sandberg scrutiny proves why startups must set gender agenda

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: AP
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: AP

Daire Hickey

Facebook is in crisis and Sheryl Sandberg is to blame. That is the trope being pushed by The New York Times and others. She's being blamed for the rise of fake news, Donald Trump, influencing elections and Facebook's 25pc drop in share price over the past year. CNBC commentator Jim Cramer called for her head. The same level of scrutiny hasn't been put on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and CEO.

The question is - would this happen to a man? Let's put Sandberg's career at Facebook into perspective. She arrived at the company when it was pre-revenue and its 23-year-old co-founder had no desire or interest in the business side of Facebook.

Beyond the product, she built out every function into a $50bn a year business while creating a LeanIn movement that empowered women and positioned Facebook as a female-friendly workplace.

Yet Sandberg's leadership is being called into question by some.

This, of course, isn't uncommon.

A study published by The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US showed that women in financial brokerages are 20pc more likely than men to lose their jobs for misconduct, even though men are more than twice as likely to engage in bad practices.

Similarly, female physicians see referrals plunge by 54pc after the death of a patient, but male physicians often see no such drop, according to a 2017 Harvard study.

Women are often low-balled by HR and suffer a pay differential in many companies, while men are more likely to beat their chests and pronounce themselves a success.

We celebrate male business figures and entrepreneurs such as the Dragons - three of whom deemed themselves worthy of the Presidency - but we fail to give the same level of recognition to the many successful female role models in business.

Anne Heraty built CPL resources to over half a billion in revenue. Google's global CMO is Carlow-born Lorraine Twohill. Linda Kiely sold Voxpro for over €150m.

The heads of Microsoft, Google, Dell EMC, Vodafone, Paypal, LinkedIn and Twitter in Ireland - Cathriona Hallahan, Fionnuala Meehan, Aisling Keegan, Anne O'Leary, Louise Phelan, Sharon McCooey, Sinead McSweeney - all women.

Similarly the CEOs of Eir, Bank of Ireland, Glanbia and Ulster Bank - again incredible women. And there's a burgeoning group of startups - Nuritas, founded by Dr Nora Khaldi, Talivest founded by Jayne Ronayne, and Food Cloud founded by Iseult Ward.

They're far more successful than many men in the corporate arena who aren't shy about putting themselves forward.

While girls outperform boys in most subjects in the Leaving Certificate, and even in professional exams, placing Ireland at the top of a World Economic Forum table for educational attainment, the results differ when women enter the workplace.

Ireland drops right down in terms of gender equality in the workplace offering lower wages to women and lower participation rates. Women are more likely to work part-time and less likely to be in the C-suite or at board level.

According to the National Women's Council of Ireland, women make up just 13.2pc of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland.

And while they comprise the majority of workers in the public sector, women are more likely to occupy the middle and lower public grades with only 33pc among those in senior grades.

Even Google, a company often referenced when it comes to good company culture and workplace practices, has its own problems.

Employees recently staged a global walkout asking for a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequality. They asked for a chief diversity officer, transparency over cases of sexual harassment, an end to forced arbitration - what are, to me, reasonable asks.

This all makes for stark reading, and while our government is led by our half-Indian and gay Taoiseach who wants to see more female professors - a noble effort - it too remains a boys' club with only three female senior ministers at cabinet.

What we need is a more radical approach. Entrepreneurs need to address the problem of diversity and gender inequality the same way they do any other business problem with a degree of determination and commitment.

Tech companies need to realise that while free food prevents hour-long lunches and keeps people working in the office for longer, free or subsidised childcare is more likely to ensure higher participation rates across the board.

We need to highlight female role models like those above and ensure that people know there's a credible path to follow.

Flexible working hours need to be offered and a greater understanding of the diversity of sexuality and gender. It's a broad spectrum not always clearly defined, requiring flexibility and real thought as opposed to tokenism.

Some startups have tried to emulate the 'Rooney rule' used in the NFL where they interview at least one person from an underrepresented background and one female for every open leadership position.

This has helped Pinterest succeed, where females now make up 45pc of the company's workforce. Etsy is 53pc female with a leadership that is 50pc female.

Startups have a real role to play here.

These companies in their infancy are too often forgiven for their bro culture.

They have the ability to nurture a more open environment and pave the way for balance and diversity.

The World Economic Forum recently reported that more than two-thirds of US startups have no women at all on their boards.

The same report also cited Kauffman Foundation research showing that tech companies led by women achieve a 35pc higher return on investment than organisations led by men.

Forbes found that female tech entrepreneurs, despite having received 50pc less in venture capital funding, produce 20pc higher revenues than their male equivalents.

If that is not a compelling argument for diversity, I'm not sure what is.

So how about we address this problem with something more radical than a tokenistic gesture or two and some real commitment. And perhaps we should celebrate more female corporate leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and others rather than hanging them out to dry at the first opportunity.

Daire Hickey is managing partner with 150Bond, a strategic advisory firm based in New York.

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