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"You have to be brave enough!" - tough love on tech's gender inequalities from Salesforce's deliberately difficult Dame

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan February 7, 2020
If gender equality is to be achieved in the tech sector, it's going to need courage, conviction and cultural challenges, says Salesforce UK CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia.

Salesforce Jayne Anne Ghadia

Given the high profile nature of the industry-wide debate on how to achieve gender equality across the tech sector, it perhaps comes as a surprise to hear one notable female CEO confess:

For all of my life, I've tried to avoid getting involved with women's groups.

But that was the starting point of a keynote address to a meeting of the Tech Talent Charter (TTC) in London this morning by Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the first UK CEO of Salesforce, who went on to expand on her admission:

Often women sort of nod at that because it feels slightly peculiar to get together a group of women to talk about why we're so hard done by. A number of people, as I got older, started to say to me, it's time to give something back. I was always sort of not sure whether to do it or not.

She is now, but before explaining what’s shaped her change of view, let’s take a step back and explain what the TTC is. In its own words, it is:

a non-profit organisation leading a movement to address inequality in the UK tech sector and drive inclusion and diversity in a practical and uniquely measurable way. Our ultimate goal: that the UK tech sector becomes truly inclusive and a reflection of the society which it represents.

Very much an employer-led initiative, the TTC encourages companies and organizations to become signatories to a set of principles and commitments to achieve that laudable, if ambitious, goal. And while it’s a UK program, those principles are globally relevant, as are the observations that Gadhia went on to make.

Financial culture

It should be noted that Gadhia has form when it comes to charters. While she’s been at Salesforce since October last year, prior to that her background was in banking and the financial services sector, most notably heading up Virgin Money. It was that experience that led to her being asked by the UK Treasury  in 2015 to lead a review into the representation of women in senior managerial roles in financial services. On the back of that review, the Treasury launched the Women in Finance Charter.

That request to lead a review followed a meeting with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at his Mansion House address - one of the biggest banking sector nights out of the year where an attendee’s place on the table plan is a salutary reminder of their place in the heirarchy! Gadhia found herself sitting next to Osborne at his request:

What I hadn’t understood in all of those days of not wanting to be involved with women's groups was that the reason that the Chancellor himself wanted somebody to lead a piece of work into gender equality in financial services, wasn't particularly to do with the fact that it's socially the right thing, but that it was absolutely to do with the fact that the UK’s productivity numbers are so far behind so many other countries that they had worked out that getting women in particular into more jobs and more senior jobs, particularly in financial services, is going to increase productivity of the country. And when I realised the importance of that - that it isn't about the softer sort of human justice point only; it is about doing better business and creating a better economic future for our country, as well as better social equality - how could I not have been part of that to start with?

With that first step in a changed mindset underway, the review she led brought further re-evaluation of previous assumptions, such as the notion that one reason for the shortfall in senior women managers was down to candidates opting for roles as mothers or carers. But the results of a questionnaire - respondents 80% women, 20% men - challenged that view.  No-one mentioned caring or motherhood; everybody mentioned culture.

And banking’s culture wasn’t good, she observed, citing the bonus-driven nature of the business as a case in point:

What happens is that men tend to go to their managers at the end of the year when the bonus is due, bang on the table and say, ‘I've had a really brilliant year, give me a good bonus!’. And women tend to go to whoever their friends or husbands or partners are and say, ‘I have done really well this year, I hope I'm noticed’. Managers respond to the people that bang on the table. That's part of the reason the gender pay gap is as it is. And as a consequence, women get fed up with working hard, not being noticed and go somewhere else.

That needed - and still does need - to change, but to meet that need requires courage and taking charge of your own destiny, argued Gadhia:

Why it doesn't happen is that in order to make change, we really do have to be brave and courageous. And I think all those years that I decided not to join women's groups, I wasn't prepared to be brave and courageous. But actually the fact of a Women in Finance Charter or a Tech Charter will not in itself make a difference. It's a flag to gather around, but it doesn't make a difference. It's the people that take the lessons, the messages and the passion from it and make their own difference and who are prepared to stand up and be those people.

Difficult deliberately 

It’s a lesson Gadhia has had to teach herself and one that’s led to her being labelled “bloody difficult” by some around her. That can be tough to deal with, she admitted:

Even though I’ve heard it a lot, it makes me feel negative. And then I go and look at myself in the mirror and I say, ‘Am I really being difficult?’. And the answer is, often I am! But am I only being difficult just because I’m a pain in the arse or am I difficult to make a difference? These days - not always, but more times than not - I'm deliberately doing it in order to get traction to make a difference. But I have to say, it's hard, because you put yourself in the firing line.

But others have had to do just that in the past, she noted, citing the women of the British Women's Social and Political Union, better known as the Suffragettes. It’s a risky comparison to draw on since, as Gadhia pointed out, time has taken its toll and the Suffragettes have become almost caricatured. But back at the turn of the 20th Century, they were phenomenally bold and courageous women:

I didn't know that [Winston] Churchill was so anti the Suffragettes…one of the things that I thought was brilliant is that they used to go to his speeches with hand bells and ring the hand bells in these meetings. Now, that sounds like a small thing, but can you imagine doing that even today? Can you imagine turning up and doing that in a big political meeting? These were people that were starved, locked in prison, killed because they were getting focused on equality.

Not that she’s advocating similar direct action in the tech corporate world today, she hastily added:

But I am suggesting that we don't allow ourselves to be pushed away. I am suggesting we use our ability to tell stories, to be role models, to use strong language, not to accept organizations that talk about equality and don't achieve it. There are too many of them.

Another important point to remember is that people aren’t always going to respond to what you perceive to be positive words and actions in the way you might expect. Ghadia is proud of her working-class roots and mentions this in speeches and presentations, something that recently provided useful insight into the complexities of engaging with people.

Following an address to staff at Salesforce’s Dublin HQ late last year, one piece of written feedback from the audience took her by surprise:

One of the pieces of feedback was, 'I wish she’d stop saying she's from a working class background'. Isn't that fascinating? What is that about? Why would people bother to write that? I don't know why that’s uncomfortable. But the reason that we have to keep saying it, I think, is to do with your modelling. If people don't see people like them doing the jobs that they aspire to but think they could never get, we're not going to make a difference.

She also cited an event at the Bank of England attended, alongside the usual white, old men of the City of London, by a group of school girls of primarily West Indian origin. When trying to talk to these 14 year olds, Gadhia found herself essentially being blanked. Priding herself on her ability to engage people in such environments, she asked one girl why this wasn’t the case here. The response was blunt:

She said, ‘You’re a white woman that comes from privilege. Why could I ever be like you?’. And I said, ‘Would it make any difference if I were to tell you that my husband is black?’. She said, ‘It really would. So tell me, how did you do that’.  It was such a lesson to me from a 14 year old girl, that actually we have to be able to connect with people. And that means that we have to tell our stories - who we are, where we're from - in order to create a diverse background, regardless of the people that would put us down and say, ‘That's not an interesting story’. You have to be brave enough to do that.

You also need to understand your own organization and what its make-up is, advised Gadhia. That means measuring diversity in the first instance:

If you don't know who's in your organisation, what their background ethnicity is, other sorts of personal traits that they are prepared to tell to you., then we don't know that we're treating everybody equally. I think measuring things is really important, whether that's the gender pay gap, whether that's the number of people that are being promoted, you need to use data, with people's permission, to understand what's going on.

But that’s not the whole story. Again it all comes back to culture and that’s as true in tech as it was in banking as Gadhia found when she joined Salesforce:

There was one guy who came to see me and he said, ‘I want you to know that I'm the best person here at managing diversity and inclusion. I’ve got 42 people in my team and 21 are men, 21 women. So I'm the best. But the thing I need you to help me with is, how do I get the women down the pub?’. It was such a brilliant example to me that measurement is one thing, but it only goes so far. The absolute difference is our behaviours.

And that’s the responsibility of each and every one of us, she concluded:

Like the Suffragettes ringing the bell, it’s down to us now to hold our organizations to account and create a much better world.

My take

While Salesforce’s corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion is well-cataloged, this was clearly a personal pitch from Dame Jayne-Anne. Her ‘journey’ - if we’re going to resort to reality TV vernacular - has self-evidently evolved over the years to the point today where her current role enables her to be a powerful advocate for change in the tech sector. This was just one of hundreds and hundreds of presentations around equality theory that will be heard at corporate gatherings in 2020 and beyond, but it was one of the most grounded I’ve heard, based on real-world learnings and experience. 

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