f you’re a senior woman in Silicon Valley then 2017 is shaping up to be a lucrative year. The New York Times reports that recruiters have been wooing women in the sector – with some senior women turning down up to 20 board invitations. More and more companies are now choosing to publish their diversity figures, and if the numbers stay the same each year it starts to get a little embarrassing. So in a bid to keep their clients happy, recruiters are finally actively searching for female candidates.
A good thing, right? On the one hand this is a step forward – tech companies in the US have just 15% women at board level compared with the Fortune 500’s average of 22%. And for the talented women of Silicon Valley who fought their way up in these firms (or more commonly left, started their own businesses and then were feted) it must be nice to finally receive the recognition they deserve. But if tech thinks it can solve its diversity problem by telling board-level recruiters to “make sure there’s a woman on the shortlist”, then they’re about to fall into the “golden skirt” trap.
When Norway introduced quotas for the number of women on boards in 2006 everyone thought that it would lead to less qualified board members. They assumed that there simply wouldn’t be enough senior women to meet the demand. In fact what happened was that a small group of well-known, very senior women started to pick up board position after board position. They became known as the golden skirts. So while Norwegian boards had technically made the quota of 40% female board members, they were all the same women. The gender diversity on boards had increased but the range of skills and personalities had only slightly increased.
It seems this could also be a problem for Silicon Valley. Recruiters tend to go for the more obvious options. And while not every tech company can have Sheryl Sandberg on its board, this doesn’t stop the same few names being touted again and again. Nor are recruiters or the companies they’re recruiting for particularly ingenious when drawing up shortlists. Julie Bornstein, COO at Stitch Fix, told New York Magazine that the first place tech directors look when trying to fill a role is within their own networks. They might be hiring a woman, but they’re still hiring someone who’s as much like them as possible.
In doing this tech companies are forgetting that simply bringing a woman on to the board is not a guarantee of change. Research shows (pdf) that you need a critical mass of women at board level to guarantee that their voices are heard and that they have an impact on the governance of the board. Also, most companies find that getting buy-in for diversity policies at the top level is easier than actually enacting them throughout the organisation. It’s not enough to just have figureheads and supporters sitting at the boardroom table, you need them throughout the organisation. This is particularly important at the middle-management stage where women often drop out or are overlooked.
The final thing for these tech companies to remember is that it’s very easy to hold gender as the marker for diversity within an organisation, but it’s not the only form of diversity. There’s race, age, sexuality, disability and, most overlooked, diversity of thought and experience. Trying to get more women at board level is a great start but it would also be interesting to see tech companies really looking at how they bring in employees with more diverse backgrounds. Those who haven’t taken the same path through education or perhaps need some help to step up into their next role.
In the meantime, the phones of the senior women of Silicon Valley will continue to ring and I encourage you, ladies, to pick them up. And then ask for double whatever they’re offering.