Ariane David Women Gender and Leadership Eric Schmidt Google

@Eric Schmidt: Being Baffled is Not an Excuse

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt is puzzled, he’s repeatedly said so.

And the source of his puzzlement? He doesn’t understand why there are so few women in the tech sector, including his company, Google.

I believe he’s actually baffled, because sometimes things can be so ubiquitous as to be invisible.

Embedded in this culture is the systematic marginalization of women.

Who would be less likely to recognize water than the creatures who live their whole lives in it, and who take it absolutely for granted? Eric Schmidt is a corporate fish immersed in a corporate culture as invisible to him as water is to the fish.
Ariane David Gender Equality Eric Schmidt

Culture is amazingly resistant to change, because it’s so hard to see.

Culture, according to Edgar Schein, is the sum of all organizational norms, values, basic assumptions, and behaviors. It influences everything people do and think within the organization including what they believe, how they behave, their values, basic assumptions, and even how they feel.

It extends out to the farthest reaches of the organization surmounting geographic and social barriers. It is amazingly resistant to change, because it’s so hard to see.

Organizational climate of rewarding conformity

Culture determines how an organization thinks and operates to such a degree that anything that does not absolutely conform is seen as deviant, even dangerous. Culture dictates how leaders such as Schmidt lead their organizations.

In turn, leaders contribute to the perpetuation of the culture by creating the organizational “climate” in which conforming behaviors are rewarded and divergent behaviors are punished.

The shortage of women in technology is a symptom of an ingrained cultural condition.

This is a condition in which male (and only male) behaviors, needs, and capabilities are not only the norm but the only acceptable behaviors, needs and capabilities. Everything else lies outside the norm.

As an ever growing body of research shows, men are the benchmark for performance, not because they can do the job better than women, but because they do maleness better than women.

Thus, men are in, women are out regardless of what might be best for the organization.

In fact, recent articles in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Business Insider and others show that companies with the greatest number of women on their boards outperform companies that have few or no women.

Cultures are very good at perpetuating themselves.

One of the many ways cultures perpetuate is in the hiring process. Leaders hire people who fit their culture and who are like themselves. In a recent Forbes magazine article Ana Swanson quotes Schmidt at the March Select USA Investment Summit: “We knew this fella, he was the right guy, he had the right vision, he fit well in the culture, he was able to recruit people quickly to these teams, and it happened fast.”

Orchestras Figured it Out in the 80’s

Years ago there were very few women in professional orchestras, they made up only about 5% of orchestra musicians. This dearth of women was explained away: women musicians were simply not as good as men.

Then in the 1980s orchestras decide to tackle the problem and instituted the practice of holding “blind” auditions: all musicians auditioned behind a screen so that the music could be heard while the musician remained unseen. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but the process greatly leveled the field, and quickly the percent of women in orchestras quadrupled.

And so the male-normative culture goes on and on.

No overt or conscious exclusion need take place, just blind non-questioning acceptance of an exclusionary culture. J. Edward Deming, the father of quality manufacturing, once said:

“A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside.”

When Schmidt says he doesn’t know why there aren’t more women in technology, he’s telling the truth. He’s blind to what he’s doing that alienates women, to all the myriad alienating signals that the technology sector sends to women, and to the prejudices of people who do the hiring.

Eric Schmidt, in his baffled innocence, is perpetuating a system that privileges men and disadvantages women.

And he’s not going to see it until he starts asking women.

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