When your office environment feels toxic or hostile, it’s downright distressing. How can you think deeply about your product roadmap when your manager just shamed your work on Slack in front of all your peers? Continued success for a company certainly takes a solid strategy to create products that fit your market and delight your customers. But it’s just as essential to create a corporate culture that fosters an environment of psychological safety so that employees and teams can focus on execution and seamlessly collaborate with each other.
As I learned firsthand in my career, developing a leadership team that has equal representation of women can go a long way in building such a culture. Workplace culture devolves when that equal representation of the sexes is missing.
Need an example of how it can all go wrong? Check out former Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher’s account of mistreatment at the highest level.
In my first job after college, I worked in an office that had impressive female representation in the leadership. The office leadership included a few team leads, a manager, and a project manager, and about half were women, including my own manager. In my next role, the personnel was almost exclusively male. All the founders were male, as were all VPs, directors, and managers.
That first office had a quiet ambiance where people were mindful not to disturb each other. Each meeting was an exercise in consensus building, where we focused on overcoming the technical issue at hand. All of my team leads — both male and female — gave me constructive feedback, and it was easy to receive because their advice so clearly came from a place of genuine care for me and my career growth. My managers looked for opportunities for me to take on new responsibilities and welcomed my ideas. For example, I remember I was only 23, but when I asked to join a product design review, my manager was happy to include me.
In this environment, we developed a strong sense of community. Our larger company was struggling to find fit in the evolving mobile tech landscape, but we still collectively kept the office atmosphere light. This was the sort of office where people were always baking goods to share with each other. Some of my coworkers volunteered together at a local high school. Other employees played games and sports together outside of work.
After spending about two years in such a positive and encouraging environment, I had come to expect respectful interaction and collaboration in any office. After all, the tech industry likes to advertise itself as a meritocracy that focuses less on office bureaucracy and hierarchy than, say, the finance industry.
So when I joined a new company, I didn’t worry too much about the homogeneously white male leadership. I was in for quite the culture shock. First came the crude jokes, and I didn’t think too much of it because startups are just less buttoned-up, right? Then came the meetings where the loudest person would win and get his way on key technical decisions. That’s if the meeting could reach some kind of decision at all, because consensus was hard to come by. Add to this mix some public Slack shamings and in-person name calling. New ideas were often seen as threatening, and the men in power interpreted any dissent as a challenge to authority. Promotions and raises were a lot easier to come by if you were “liked.” The jokes evolved from crude to downright inappropriate, but of course, the other men in charge never saw a problem with that, or at least did not see a problem worth addressing in any meaningful way. Trust me that the general level of stress and frustration was perpetually high.
What did we learn?
Real life offers few true experiments. We can’t create the same office twice, both exactly the same, except we switch out a few male managers with women to see what happens. In this case however, we get pretty close. These were two suburban offices during the mid 2010s in the Northeast that primarily focused on C++ software development. Employee age range was similar as well. The most visible difference was the distribution of female leadership.
I have worked with plenty of men who are kind, respectful people and great champions of their female coworkers, so I know it’s not a hard rule that men in charge will inevitably create a toxic culture. But I don’t think we should be so naive as to pretend that homogeneous leadership wasn’t a major factor in the crass and hostile culture of that second office, especially when that culture exhibited so many stereotypical male traits.
Culture always comes from the top. We don’t have to despair if any one team is predominantly male. The problem is when the leadership team demonstrates bad behavior, and empowers individuals to emulate that bad behavior. Building a diverse leadership team is a great step in setting a higher standard.
Furthermore, a diverse leadership team is more likely to establish the fairest hiring and promotion criteria given that women and people of color have often been the victims of practices that keep the Old Boys Club in power. In contrast, ignoring diversity as a goal for the composition of company leadership leads to a vicious cycle in which more women or people of color won’t see a company where they would expect to receive positive and equal treatment. This will make it harder and harder to recruit a diverse workforce, and accordingly grow the company culture and build products that address the most diverse audience.
It must feel rich for me, a white man, to write a thought piece on diverse leadership. And there already exists a wealth of better and more rigorous writings on the subject. Nevertheless, I learned a powerful lesson that diversity is not some academic or theoretical pursuit. From my tale of two offices onward, I will always seek out those companies that elevate all people.