Does Facebook hold the answer?
I've spent most of my working life in Washington, D.C., Brussels, and London - cities dominated by the public sector and financial services industries. As a recent transplant to the San Francisco Peninsula I've experienced a huge shift in working culture. The number of technology and social networking companies here is remarkable to someone like me - almost as remarkable as the manner in which West Coast lifers casually, calmly, and professionally deal with a 3.8 earthquake. Apple, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter are just a few of the highly innovative companies headquartered near my new digs.
I've always extrapolated that such relatively young companies, founded on the backbone of continuous innovation, should be more naturally diverse. First of all, many of these newer entities should theoretically lack the institutional barriers that government and financial services institutions have been working to overcome for decades as a result of their long life spans - for example the rigid career paths and much-discussed "old boy's network."
Second, a company whose product is born of research and development arguably stands to gain the most from the innovative ideas and products which diverse teams yield. Third, the younger average age of executives and employees in these companies could potentially mean they hold fewer biases about gender roles and more open approaches to work life balance than previous generations. And that's all in addition to the time Google allows its employees to set aside solely for innovation and the non-traditional, brain-twisting, glee-inspiring titles Facebook employees have - a friend of mine employed there has the following title/job description: "Product Marketing, Monetization and Secret Sauce."
And yet despite the raw potential to jettison monolithic corporate models and the opportunity to inculcate new ones, the numbers demonstrate that these companies don't yet fare much better when it comes to the representation of women in leadership positions. This morning two paradoxical news stories came across my desk that sparked this whole line of thinking. The first lauded Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) for being an outspoken advocate of women's empowerment as well as the executive instrumental in the company's recent IPO. The second, a Bloomberg Businessweek story, reported that while most (fifty-eight percent) Facebook users are women, there are none on its board of directors.
This ambivalence suggests that leadership diversification doesn't just happen organically. An argument I hear from sceptics of business gender programs is that with the influx of new generations in the workplace, the imbalance (of women being hired in greater numbers than men yet underrepresented at leadership levels) will auto-correct.
However this has not yet been the case. First of all, because incumbents (still vastly male) are inclined to appoint "mini me" successors who may look (but more importantly think) much like themselves; and second of all because if tech companies - which are flooded with the best and brightest young executives and talent - don't already model this "natural" balance then even newer businesses haven't created that level playing field that could fuel a more vibrant economy.
The good news is that concerted action is under way to progress talent of all kinds to leadership levels. I've been picking the brains of my new neighbours and classmates (most are employed by these companies) to find out what might differ in their corporate DNA (other than delightfully whimsical job titles) that I could bring to bear in my own work in the professional and financial services industries.
One very positive step I see here is the robust connection between these young businesses and local academics to foster diversity of thought in corporations through the business school and more interestingly, through the humanities. Recently Dr. Martha Nussbaum gave a lecture here at Stanford in which she said that a declining emphasis on study of the humanities could lead to a world of "useful profit makers with no imaginations."
This creative stagnation is precisely what diversity professionals are working against. My personal mission is to harness the brain power of different types of thinkers - both men and women - with myriad experiences who will create and implement remarkable, distinctive ideas and products.
I also believe Sheryl Sandberg's exemplary role at Facebook (her media coverage almost eclipses that of the company's founder, Mark Zuckerberg) will have a positive impact on business, since visible role models play such a vital part in the rise of diverse talent.
It's probably too soon to tell how these young companies will evolve from a gender perspective, but it will be exciting to watch for something yet undiscovered that we can learn from them in the diversity space.
If you're fascinated by Facebook's Sandberg (and it's difficult not to be), check out her uber fly TED talk on why we have too few women leaders as well as this previous Gender Agenda article on a CNBC and World Economic Forum panel discussion featuring Sandberg and our own PwC International Chairman, Dennis Nally.