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

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman September 18, 2015
Summary:
Tech industry women in senior positions are still a rarity - a situation that many hoped would have fundamentally changed by 2015.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 09.37.30
Busque, Lake and Hynes

Companies win when they get the workplace gender balance right. That was the message from Eric Berridge, CEO of consultancy Bluewolf, at a reception held by the company on the eve of Day 3 of Dreamforce, which took women in technology as its focus.

Addressing attendees at the Women Innovators Network event at Neiman Marcus on Union Square, Berridge said:

Gender equality isn’t a plus. It’s a business imperative.

At the same time, he was open about the fact that his own company has a way to go in this regard: currently, Bluewolf’s workforce is 67 percent male and 33 percent female. That’s a situation he’s working to improve,  admits Berridge.

At Salesforce.com, meanwhile, the male-to-female ratio of its 160,000-strong workforce is pretty similar at 70:30. A more detailed breakdown of the figures, meanwhile, reveals that women occupy only 23 percent of technical roles at the company and just 19 percent of leadership roles.

Given that fewer than one in five leadership roles at Salesforce.com are occupied by women, it was interesting to see Salesforce.com positioning its Day 3 focus on women in technology as the ‘Women in Leadership’ track.

It’s true that there are now women at the top of some of the industry’s biggest companies - women like IBM’s Ginni Rometty, HP’s Meg Whitman and Oracle’s Safra Catz. But it’s equally true that these high-profile female leaders are exceptions to a rather more dismal rule, as a 2014 study by Fortune magazine demonstrates. It ranked tech companies by gender diversity in leadership roles from the most diverse to the least, as follows:

  • Indiegogo (43% of leadership roles occupied by women)
  • Apple (28%)
  • eBay (28%)
  • Hewlett-Packard (28%)
  • LinkedIn (25%)
  • Facebook (23%)
  • Yahoo (23%)
  • Google (21%)
  • Intel (21%)
  • Twitter (21%)
  • Pinterest (19%)
  • Cisco (19%).

The message here is pretty clear: tech doesn’t just need more women. It needs more women at the top, providing others with an example to which they can aspire.

Role models

It was good to see Salesforce kick off its Women in Leadership with a session focusing on two successful female CEOs - Task Rabbit’s Leah Busque and Stitch Fix’s Katrina Lake - and adeptly hosted by Salesforce’s senior vice president of communications, Jane Hynes.

These are young women leading start-ups, rather than large companies - but the insights they offered say a lot about the ambitions and frustrations of a generation that might have rightfully expected to see a great deal more progress in gender equality by 2015.

For example, when it comes to getting funding for a hot business idea, women are still working from a disadvantaged position, said Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix, a company that offers personal stylist and fashion shopping services online:

If you look at the figures, 94 percent of VCs  are men. So if you think about aggregate preferences among the people responsible for distributing dollars, it’s really problematic… Over 50 VCs said no to Stitch Fix.

It’s a really, truly difficult dynamic to have such a male-dominated VC base in control of the dollars that are given out to start-up companies. What that actually means for what type of companies we’re actually going to have is a big concern.

Now that both companies have cleared the funding hurdle, their CEOs still face the challenge of leading fast-growing businesses. So what, askedHynes, does it mean to a woman to be a leader?

Refreshingly, both were confident and relaxed in their responses to the question. Lake said:

The question [of what it’s like to be a female leader] is difficult to answer. I get asked if I’m different as a leader because I’m a woman but  I don’t know what it’s like to be a man. It’s a hard to give a good answer without over-generalising but my thoughts on being a leader is that I really got interested in Stitch Fix because I’m just really passionate about what can be improved in retail.

In other words, it’s not about being a woman. It’s about being a business person with a smart idea and seeing it through - and it’s a fine example to be setting other women.

A former IBM programmer, Leah Busque started Task Rabbit, a company that is rapidly becoming a force to reckon with in the emerging ‘gig economy’, by linking users to people in their local community who are ready, willing and able to run household errands or perform skilled tasks - electricians and plumbers, for example.

At IBM, she says, she had strong female role models - and that was important to her development. But she still finds she has to disprove people’s preconceptions about her:

So many times, people look at me and, yes, I’m a little on the petite side - so they don’t expect me to come in, all guns blazing. But I’m so passionate about Task Rabbit and my personality is so direct. I get really obsessed with an idea or a model or a thing. That’s sort of a contrast that people have to reconcile.

She puts effort into mentoring young women who work at Task Rabbit - and that’s something Katrina Lake sees the value in, too. She recalls:

In one of our warehouses a young woman came up to me. She said: ‘I just can’t believe it: you’re tiny like me, you’re young like me.’ She was just having this moment and I could see in her face the idea of possibilities. Of feeling like, ‘This is what a CEO looks like.’ That was incredibly rewarding for me - the realisation that you don’t need to look or act like what’s expected.

See also: Two men talking about women – Salesforce and the pursuit of equality

 

Disclosure - at time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.