The Elephant in Our Room

I never censor myself on my blog. Mostly because when I went independent, I was so relieved to run about the interwebz without a leash (Pro Tip: If your employer wants to own or control what you post on LinkedIn, it is time to swipe left and move on). Still, this article has been sitting on my desktop for over a month and the idea of pressing “Publish” is daunting. I do not want to be the face of this issue, but we all need to talk about it.

There is a disparity between men and women in leadership in our industry. Worse, this gap is widening, which is sobering news. I hear from women on a regular basis about this topic and as I listen to their frustrations, there are so many similarities. This leads me to believe there are collective things we can change together.

Side note: I am well-aware I am speaking from a place of privilege as a white hetero female, raised with access to good education. But it is the only experience I have. I hope other voices will come forward.

Firstly, this is not an “us vs them” exercise. I am thankful to the many men in my network who have helped augment my work and coach me, and other females, along the way. I truly believe this is a time when we need to collaborate to reach parity and why I get twitchy about female-only initiatives. Male-only institutions got us into this debacle so let’s not exclude. 

So, what are some of the barriers? Well, one of the first observations is most venture capitalists are male. This is where the money, and therefore power, is. I have been sat in front of VCs several times and mostly as the only female. I am not suggesting all VCs are sexist assholes, but in those rooms, I have seen great ideas simply fizzle out for a lack of appreciation. It is human nature to gravitate towards solutions confirming our own biases and experiences.

Some VCs expect diversity (great!) so companies know they have better chances for funding if they have a few token women hanging about (not so great). This hit my naive self like a punch to the gut when in my hotel room one evening. I scrolled through my Instagram feed and saw photos from a fancy dinner. Unbeknownst to me, the men I had pitched with that afternoon were celebrating. When I asked why I had not been invited, the answer was: it simply did not occur to them. And I believe them. I was flown in for one purpose. And whilst no one likes more than me to be tucked into bed before 9PM, I also missed access to the highly valuable deeper conversations, networking and decision-making.

Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance. Or even better, as Daniel Juday puts it: Inclusion is being a member of the party-planning committee. That VC experience and others are why I advise women to carefully consider roles where you are “the only”. Because we have been overlooked so often, when we are included, we are eager. Not so fast. Be mindful of how your brand is being used. The last week of February is traditionally when us gals get a gajillion requests to be profiled for International Women’s Day. It’s like the Head of Marketing yells, “quick! Rustle up some ladies so we look good!”. But your brand is not values clickbait for someone else’s profit. Seek companies and partners who are already diverse beyond gender. Personally, when I see bro culture, I walk away. Even if it means losing a contract or revenue. These are hard choices but now I am at a point in my career when I can. I want others to get to the same position.

There are other ways we can collectively hold our industry accountable. In an industry like L&D, there are lots of start-ups elbowing their way to the market. Unfortunately, investments are made in the technology and HR departments are seen as a luxury. This can breed toxic culture because there is no oversight or accountability for bad behaviour. It is an open secret which vendors have terrible D&I track records. A quick look at (once you get past the company planted rave reviews to counter bad PR), you can see who is dodgy. And yet, our prominent industry leaders still do business with them. Consider the following example: In April, it came to light the CEO of DataCamp had sexually assaulted a curriculum lead. The company handled it a thousand ways horribly. Just last month, Human Capital Media under CLO Media brand, ran an email campaign for a webinar sponsored by….DataCamp.  This is not an isolated example. Business may be business, but we need to think who we endorse, if not only out of self-interest because when a scandal hits, your brand could be tarnished too.

Another elephant in the room is the Non-Disparagement Clause. When something inappropriate happens in a workplace (again, lacking an HR department), a rent-a-lawyer chases you to sign an NDC before you are paid salary owing. This means you can never speak about the incident or criticize the company, lest you be sued. The culprit gets sent to the naughty step by way of sensitivity training, but keeps his job. You are left scrambling for employment.

I have signed an NDC on two occasions. Once early in my career when I was not in a financial position to decline. The second was later and whilst morally I did not want to sign, I just wanted out as fast as possible. I would love to see our industry come together to support people in an NDC situation either financially, or to quickly network them into another role. In the meantime, if you are in this situation, ensure the NDC goes BOTH ways. Oh, and call me for drinks.

There is a lot more I could write on the topic, but for now, I want to hear your opinions. Other industries have seen the downstream effects of homogeneous teams: Crash test dummies used to be the size of the average male, putting female passengers at risk; Google voice recognition is 70% more accurate with male voices; and even the average smartphone is designed for a larger male hand. Imagine our own blindspots for our diverse consumers if we are not inclusive ourselves?