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Google diversity debate: are we asking the right questions about corporate culture?

Kate Howe is executive director at MSQ Partners, working with the group’s portfolio of agency brands to enhance the Group’s reputation and drive overall growth for the agencies and their clients alike.

Previously, she was Executive Director and Chief Growth Officer for Dentsu Aegis Network UK and Chair of DAN’s business-to-business agency, gyro. Her career spans roles both client and agency roles including a four-year stint as CMO for Gala-Coral Group. Kate’s also Honorary Secretary of the IPA and a Trustee for Macmillan Cancer Care.

This pictureis Connecticut 10th grader Sarah Harrison's Doodle, "A Peaceful Future"

The answer to the challenge of moving the needle on the diversity-dial in any organisation lies in asking the right questions about corporate culture.

As the scandal over discrimination at Google escalates, with reports that over 60 current and former female staff are considering bringing a class-action lawsuit alleging pay disparities and sexism against women the ugly truth about gender diversity is laid bare, once again.

This follows the now infamous Google memo, whose author (James Damore, the engineer who wrote the email and was subsequently fired) argued that biology can help explain why women prefer working in 'social and artistic areas' rather than in the competitive world of coding.

Sexism and lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is unfortunately a familiar old tale. But look around other industries and the story is no different. Which leaves us with the question — how to educate the corporate world that inclusion is good for business?

That can only happen if the corporate world allows for free enquiry to confront the problems of unconscious bias, equal access and unfair workplace norms in a bid to ultimately reframe diversity for what it really is — a force to drive revenue, motivate employees, and foster innovation.

Titled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, Damore’s memo said: “I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can't have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.”

Some pertinent points here, but its fundamental premise is that women are less capable or inherently less equipped than men to succeed in technology — neither scientific nor debatable. All this does is reinforce stereotypes. A problem that women face not just in tech but across sectors, across regional/national boundaries.

The critical question we all need to be asking is — how best to address the gaps in the corporate culture and mindsets to accelerate diversity in leaders and leadership styles? In order to lay the groundwork for a more inclusive ecosystem, start talking about corporate culture management. I’m not talking about company values and mission statements hanging on office walls that seldom get a second glance, but how businesses are managing a change within.

Employees change, your industry changes, the world around you and their expectations change. Culture is so interwoven in all of those elements, that it too will inevitably change.

Uber is one textbook example — from a darling disruptor to becoming a kind of a Mephistophelian figure. The diversity debate has obviously gripped the tech nation, but the language of discrimination and our inherent biases that ultimately create cultural roadblocks and don’t allow for inclusion is one of the greatest challenges of our corporate lives. Company culture, therefore, just like any other business initiative, needs to be actively managed over time to adjust to these changes. But for that we need to start with the right questions.

For instance, interrogating the shifting cultural norms, accepting that gender bias exists, encouraging discussions around diversity and inclusion, speaking out against sexism and harassment, and recognising and mitigating conscious and implicit bias. For all the talk about purpose, culture and talent, most businesses and indeed their leaders fail to think creatively about their company’s culture as much as they do about their bottom line.

For leaders looking to lead their businesses into the future, there’s an urgency to ask: What is the role of culture? Is it to reinforce a sense of belonging, a shared commitment among colleagues about how to solve problems, and deliver experiences?

A great culture allows clever organisations to be more human. Does your corporate culture energise and motivate how your people behave? A truly enduring culture is about change and renewal. Are you ready for that change? A visionary leader understands when old ways are not working, figures out a change plan, starts acting differently, and inspires others to act differently.

Decoding a company culture might eventually be a messy business. Let’s apply our creative energy and innovative prowess to do just that, and we might just be able to get some successful outcomes to this diversity debate.

Kate Howe is the managing director at Gyro, you can read her last column here.

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