Sex, harassment, secrecy — not elements one would normally associate with geeky Silicon Valley. Yet a recently concluded gender discrimination lawsuit involving denizens of Sand Hill Road, headquarters of the valley’s venture capital and private equity circles, roiled the community. Given that the central cast included the storied venture capital firm, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, whose midas-touch investments are a rollcall of marquee valley companies — Amazon, Google, Twitter, Sun Microsystems, to name a few — the case was closely monitored by valley watchers and the media. With its unseemly “she said, they said” allegations, far removed from the industry’s daily humdrum of excel, powerpoint and wonky software talk, the case caused reverberations far beyond the tech industry.
Ellen Pao, a 45-year-old former junior partner at Kleiner, and currently interim CEO of Reddit, a news and social networking site, claimed that she was denied promotion to senior partner and subsequently fired because she was a woman. Adding to the murkiness was an affair involving a married Indian partner, who was eventually asked to leave in 2012, after he made advances at another woman employee. Pao claimed that the partner began retaliating against her, and when she complained, she was discriminated against. Her lawsuit also contained allegations against another senior partner, Randy Komisar, who, she said, had gifted her a suggestive book and asked her out to dinner while his wife was away. It’s no wonder everyone was riveted by the case: it blew the lid off a much-venerated organisation, accusing it of a culture of machismo and bias.
Pao lost the lawsuit, but regardless, it is now accepted fact that Silicon Valley, the bastion of disruptive technology, comes up short when it comes to gender parity in employment. Just last month, Facebook and Twitter were also sued by former employees for gender discrimination, indicating that a litigious battle may be in store for many tech firms.
Consider the data. Google, Apple and Twitter have a global workforce that is 70 per cent male, Facebook, 69 per cent, and Yahoo, 62 per cent. Overall, women comprise just 11 per cent of executives in Silicon Valley. Within the investment community, it’s even worse. According to a 2014 study, just 6 per cent of venture capital partners were women and less than 3 per cent of women-led firms received venture funding between 2011 and 2013.
Whether it’s unconscious prejudice or something more insidious, the statistics need to change — not just in the US but around the world.
Enough studies have been conducted to demonstrate that having more women across all management levels is good for business.
What is heartening is that influential corporate executives are taking a stand and promoting initiatives not just to rectify but also enhance both the quantity and quality of female talent within their organisations. The goal of the 30 Per Cent Club, founded in the UK in 2010 — it has since been rolled out in other countries, including the US, Ireland, South Africa and Hong Kong — is to have 30 per cent women on publicly traded companies’ boards. It is also promoting efforts to encourage and retain female talent across industries as well as tying up with leading business schools to enhance progression to senior executive positions.
In India, it remains to be seen if the mandate for one woman board member in a listed company works. According to Businessworld, a fourth of the women already appointed as board members are closely related to the owners of the firms. Not surprising in a society like ours, but let’s hope that for every rubber stamp, we get a woman board member who exercises independence and many who become role models for future talent in the managerial pipeline.
It’s also necessary to have vital male managerial voices lend themselves to the cause of gender parity. CEOs of Indian-origin global technology companies like Tata Consultancy Services and Genpact, as well as of financial service firms like MasterCard, have publicly stated their commitment to gender diversity. N. Chandrasekaran, CEO of TCS, the country’s largest private-sector employer of women said in an interview to Business Today last year that he wanted to have at least 33 per cent of senior management positions filled by women within his firm.
Genpact’s Tiger Tyagarajan (a member of the 30 Per Cent Club) has cited research that found that companies with the highest representation of women in their senior management teams had a 35 per cent higher return to shareholders. He hopes for 40 per cent female representation in the company’s leadership development programmes.
Perhaps MasterCard’s Ajay Banga, speaking at an awards ceremony in December last year, said it best: “We want to empower women at work, at the corporate level, at the higher levels. For society to operate at its best, women must be in a position to operate at their best.”
The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist
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