Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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Why Uber is still getting the whole female CEO thing so wrong

The working culture isn’t determined by gender but by values, says Harriet Minter. Uber needs to realise that

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By Harriet Minter on

When I think of women running male-dominated companies, there’s one story I always remember. It’s about Karren Brady, early in her days as managing director of Birmingham City football club. The story goes that when she stepped onto the team bus one of the players yelled, “I can see your tits from here.” Brady replied, “When I sell you to Crewe you won’t be able to see them from there, will you?” And with that the player was sold.

I was reminded of this story when I read the news that despite combing through binders of women, recruiters in Silicon Valley can’t find a single one interested in taking on the role of CEO at Uber. When Travis Kalanick finally resigned earlier this year, after several complaints of sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, unethical business practices and, let’s be honest, falling stock prices, there was a whisper around the tech community that maybe the easiest way to fix Uber’s image and culture problem was to appoint a woman. Not only would this put to rest any lingering worries that Uber was still the spiritual home of bro-grammers but it would also make it clear that Silicon Valley’s unofficial frat house was finally growing up and taking diversity seriously.

Imagine the Uber board’s surprise then, when none of the women it apparently wanted for the job were interested in taking it. Those considered for the job apparently included the likes of Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Susan Wojcicki of YouTube and Carolyn McCall of EasyJet –  woman in male-dominated industries, with strong reputations and no desire to take on the likes of Uber. Because despite its unicorn status, if you’re a woman in tech, Uber simply isn’t an attractive company for a female CEO (or any other woman for that matter).

Previously women might have seen the tech firm as an opportunity; now they’re making it clear that the company has to sort that problem out first if it wants to work with them

Let’s be clear, none of the women mentioned above are incapable of doing the job. Like Brady before them, I’m sure they’ve all had experience of taking down a sexist comment and wouldn’t hesitate to fire the person responsible, but if they didn’t have to put up with this nonsense why would they want to? Previously, in order for a woman to make it to CEO at a big organisation, she had to be prepared to take some risks, to go to an organisation that was in the middle of a crisis. It’s a phenomenon known as “the glass cliff” and it shows that women, as well as people of colour, are more likely to be promoted to the top job when an organisation is in trouble. When a company is doing well it’s more likely to stick with the male and pale status quo. Previously an ambitious woman might have seen Uber as her one shot to make it to the top but it seems the tides are finally turning.

At the end of last year The New York Times reported that senior women in the tech industry were being inundated with offers of board positions. So desperate were companies to show that they had some diversity at the top that these women could pick and choose between the very best of them. Previously women might have seen the tech firm as an opportunity to show that they could change a company’s culture and external perception, now they’re making it clear that the company has to sort that problem out first if it wants to work with them.

In his book, The Inclusion Imperative, Stephen Frost (the former head of diversity and inclusion for the Olympics) explains that until recently diversity in the workplace has been seen as a tick-box activity. Want to show you get diversity? Hire a woman. In reality, true diversity and inclusion is built by leaders through better communication, clear values and empathy – none of which require a vagina as a prerequisite. Hiring a huge number of women wouldn’t suddenly switch the culture from bromance to sisterhood, says Tara Hunt president of Truly Social Inc, but the fact that Uber even thinks this is possible shows how deeply embedded its beliefs about gender are.

As Vanessa Kingori, publisher of GQ, put it in an interview with Un-Ruly magazine, “I was always taught that I should be respected for what I do rather than who I am. My demographic makeup is not the sum of my ability.”

By signalling to the world that it wanted a female CEO, Uber made it completely clear that it saw diversity as a case of demographics rather than culture and leadership skills. From that place, no woman was ever going to be able to challenge the bro-behaviour because the board had already made it clear that it didn’t want to change attitudes, just numbers. If Uber’s new CEO, male or female, really wants to end the days of casual sexism and rows over leather jackets, then the first thing they’ll need to do is sit down with the board and explain that culture isn’t determined by gender but by values. Once they understand this they might have a chance of bringing some more women into the fold, if they’re lucky.

@HarrietMinter

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