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Two men talking about women - Salesforce and the pursuit of equality

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 17, 2015
The cause of female equality in the tech industry needs to be owned as a CEO agenda issue, argues Marc Benioff as Salesforce seeks to lead by example.

Two men and a woman

I wish we could rewind history sixteen- and-a-half years.

That was the blunt admission from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff at a keynote session of the inaugural Women’s Leadership Summit, the main focus of day 3 of the annual Dreamforce conference.

This is the 13th Dreamforce. It’s the first Women’s Leadership Summit. Is that indicative of the problem in a nutshell? Perhaps. Certainly Benioff was in full mea culpa mode for the duration of an on-stage Q&A alongside his co-founder Parker Harris. He said:

When we set out our corporate principals, one of the mistakes we made was not taking any goals or initiatives around this. That was a huge mistake.

But that was the way it was. When Salesforce was founded, Benioff had come out of Oracle where diversity - at the time - was not an issue that rang through the corridors of HQ at Oracle Parkway. Benioff recalls:

In 1999, we had grown Oracle to $9 billion revenue company. This was not part of the narrative. There was no discussion around woman diversity issues. I was wrestling at the time with the philanthropic issues. I wish I could go back and plant the seed then. If I  had then we’d be at a different place.

It could be argued - and indeed it was flagged up on stage - that there’s a certain irony in two middle-aged men taking center stage on this issue. But Benioff rationalizes that female diversity is absolutely an issue that belongs to him:

This becomes a CEO issue. Anything that requires transformation requires the CEO to be in there and to take it personally.

You have to set a clear intention that this is a board deal. It is a crisis transformation. This needs to be part of CEO agenda and the transformation agenda.

Women, equality, equal pay is in our transformational zone. This cannot be HR’s issue. It can’t be something we just write about. When you are CEO of a company you are deciding what you are incubating and what you are transforming.

Which battle to fight?

Benioff has led Salesforce into battle on diversity issues before, most notably earlier this year when he championed the over-turning of anti-gay legislation in Indiana, mustering support from across the tech industry to defend the civil liberties of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) Salesforce employees.

For this, he won many plaudits - and a fair few brickbats - but Benioff maintains a very simple party line on the issue:

For LGBT employees, that was a major issue that needed to be addressed. I don’t want the 'gay award'. I want the award from our employees that we care about them.

But mention of the Indiana incident does surface some tricky questions about priorities. There’s a women’s summit this year. Will there be an LGBT leadership summit? An African-American leadership summit? A ‘pick-a-diversity-issue’ summit?

This is something that Harris alluded to when he admitted that employees representing other types of diversity groups do come to him and ask about what can be done to assist them.

But with a philosophy that “everything’s important and nothing’s important”, there is a need to change the world one thing at a time and pick your battles.

Benioff concurred with the need to prioritize:

Overall diversity is extremely important to us. But our major focus right now is the women’s issue.

Of course the question of female equality in the tech industry isn’t just a Salesforce issue but rather one that has hung long over Silicon Valley as a whole. Many tech firms don't even want to release their diversity data.

Benioff pointed to the recent Apple product launch - during which a picture of a gloomy-looking woman was photo-shopped into smiling by men using the Apple Pencil - as a case in point:

When you look at the Apple keynote, they have great woman at Apple, but where are they? Why are they not on stage?

This is not something that can be asked of Salesforce, he added:

That is something we are very mindful of architecting our keynote. Who are the women that we are going to bring on stage?

Salesforce can’t make companies change their ways, he said, but it can set a leadership example, just as it has done with its 1/1/1 philanthropy model, which has been emulated by the likes of Box, Google and Sage:

When you have a big company, we have to set the example. Then you get a really good results in same way as philanthropic. Why would we not have that story? In the next 16 years, we are going to beating people over the head with this subject. We are going to try to be the change.

At a practical level, Benioff has already committed Salesforce to equal pay for all employees and to make sure that a third of participants at any meeting are female. For his part, Harris has championed leadership, mentoring and training programs to increase the pool of female talent within the firm.

He argues:

It starts with needing more women coming into companies. Let’s get more women in engineering and education. I want a bigger pool. We need to do more. We are trying to help. We can’t solve for Silicon Valley. We can solve at Salesforce.

We are trying to get more women into the company. Its a long term macro-problem. We have amazing women in Salesforce. I don’t need to go outside. They are right here. But they’re not all at the right levels.

Who do you want to be?

At the end of the day, this all boils down to the corporate culture you want to have, suggested Benioff, pointing to his ‘fireside chat’ with Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick the day before, during which he asked if Uber had a heart. It was a curveball question that noticeably threw Kalanick off-balance.

Uber hasn’t had the best of PR around its attitude to women in general. For example, in March the United Nations pulled out of a partnership with Uber to encourage 1 million women to sign up as Uber drivers because of concerns about the app’s failure to protect female drivers and passengers.

But Uber does have a heart, insisted Benioff, pointing to the firm’s participation in the One Million Books initiative at Dreamforce this week. The problem is that the ‘heart’ isn’t being amplified and promoted from the top:

There are lots of different models of CEO leadership. You have to work out your model. You can choose what you want your company to prioritise. What you prioritise is what you create. Whether Uber, Amazon or Salesforce, what is the CEO priority? Leaders set the values. Someone has to have clarity of vision.

Benioff’s vision is a long term one, rejecting questions of what he can do to change things over the short term:

People always over estimating what you can do in a year and underestimating what you can do in a decade. Our biggest mistake in the last decade was that we didn’t do anything about this issue. The most important thing in the next decade is to be catalyst for this, to fund it and to inspire.

And he pledged:

We’re never going to do a Dreamforce without a Women's Leadership Summit again.

My take

Of course, it could be argued that Salesforce will have succeeded in its equality mission when there doesn’t need to be any such thing as a Women’s Leadership Summit, just a Leadership Summit. (Saying that probably opens me up to accusations of being part of the problem?)

But that aside, it’s quite clear that this is a sincere attempt to deliver genuinely transformative change around an issue that has blighted the tech industry for decades. It is going to be a long game, both within and without of Salesforce, but the ambition and intent is to be applauded, with the expectation that the execution will deliver on them.

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